Someday I hope to post something happier here, but for now, a very cruel year for the puzzling community has dealt us another painful blow. Merl Reagle shockingly passed away on Saturday after a brief illness. The world of crosswords has lost one of its most brilliant and friendly members, and I can't describe how much we'll miss him.
I knew the name of Merl Reagle growing up in Connecticut, where my father attempted his puzzle every week in the Hartford Courant. I didn't have my solving chops yet, but I was still into puzzles. I remember one Christmas when Dad got me a GAMES puzzle book. On the tag, he wrote "To: Tyler / From: Merl Reagle." My reaction: "Who's Merl Reagle?" Little did I know the hours of enjoyment he would bring me, both through his crosswords and his friendship.
I first met Merl at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where he was a constructor and finals commentator for many years. It was clear his cleverness and charm were beloved by all. I can think back to many times I was lucky enough to spend time with him in a smaller group... He joined us for the premiere of Wordplay at Sundance; when we drove by a Movie Gallery store, he immediately challenged us to give the three anagrams of GALLERY. When I lived in Chicago, I whiled away a good couple hours one day in an easy phone conversation with Merl, talking puzzles and whatever else came up; I talked to him a handful of times on the phone and wish it had been more. On Friday night one ACPT weekend in Brooklyn, I arrived later than anticipated, and needed to eat something well after everyone else had had dinner. I ran into Merl and he kept me company at a nearby Subway, even though he didn't get anything to eat. After the most recent heartbreaker of an ACPT, I blew off some steam by making creepy faces over Merl's shoulder at Pepe's in New Haven, and I can't believe that's the last time I'll get to hang out with him. He bestowed on me an excellent anagram of my name: MANLY HINTER. As I write this, I'm looking through the emails we exchanged over the years, and not a single one of his read as if it was done dismissively or in a hurry. He was quick with an anecdote, an answer to a question, you name it.
And I haven't even mentioned his jaw-dropping ability to turn out a quality Sunday-size crossword every week. His creativity in finding new themes was endless, and I can't think of another constructor whose puzzles have made me laugh as often as Merl's. I can't imagine anyone filling his shoes, and the tournament next year simply won't be the same without him.
There's no good way to end this entry, but I'll try with this anagram discovered by Byron Walden: THE PEARLY GATES = YEP, THAT'S REAGLE.
Some time ago, on Wired's Decode blog, I wrote about an immersive and, frankly, very weird alternate reality game in San Francisco called Games of Nonchalance. The game drew to a close more than two years ago, but remains etched on the memories of those who experienced it. Adding to the mystique of this unique creation is The Institute, a new film by Spencer McCall. I was lucky enough to take in this documentary recently at a small screening in the city.
The movie weaves interviews with player-shot footage to paint a picture of each phase of the Games of Nonchalance. The places and situations and characters, as depicted, largely retain the mystery that surrounded them when the game was active; thus, the film blurs the line between fact and fiction just as a good ARG does. Particularly intriguing are those interviews, which feature designers, devoted participants, and others. Certainly, we get insightful statements from game masters Jeff Hull, Sara Thacher, and Uriah Findley, as well as from several people who seem genuine in their immersion in the experience. However, reality isn't quite so clear in a few other cases. A man named Kelvin Williams talks about going so far down the rabbit hole that he broke into a house and became stuck in the labyrinthine basement, where he remained until he was found and rescued by other players. Some cursory research indicates that Williams is a character, but his story is presented as matter-of-factly as the others. Even weirder are the interviews with "Organeil," who took the experience extremely seriously, and, he claims, was so betrayed by it that he became a shut-in.
It's moments like that in the film that really poke at the viewer's mind. The Games of Nonchalance may have been rooted in fantasy, but the effects they could have, and did have, on many players are very real. For some it was a mere diversion, but for others it was much more. Knowing about the latter might make the former group wonder: Was it really just a game?
Ultimately, The Institute may be best appreciated by those who played and are looking to revisit that small, strange chapter in their lives. It is, though, a well-crafted and engaging movie, and I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in a good story that spills into the real world. Screenings are very limited right now, but wider distribution, including through Netflix, should be coming soon, so look out for it. If you pay attention, you might even catch a bread crumb hinting at the designers' next project...
Very sad news from the puzzle community this week, as we've lost a great friend. Doug Heller was a mainstay at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament through its entire history. Doug's contributions to the event cannot be underestimated; hundreds of attendees are in his debt. Even at his last tournament this past March, he could be found enjoying the company of his puzzler family with a smile on his face. He will be sorely missed.
If you wish to make a donation in Doug's name, he requested that it be to ushistory.org. Rest in peace, friend.