Puzzled over Sudoku? He can help

Eraser-free Sudoku guru Merl Reagle uses all logic and his quirky sense of humor to help create one of the world's most popular games.

Published January 18, 2007

Merl Reagle has a head full of letters and words, and a mind that loves to play with them.

He made his first crossword puzzle at age 6, using the names of first-grade classmates, and never stopped.

He has created at least one crossword each week for the past 21 years and published them in The New York Times and many other newspapers.

Reagle, 56, lives in Carrollwood and was featured in last year’s crossword puzzle feature-length documentary Wordplay.

Which raises a question: How did a word wizard turn into a numbers guy?

“It doesn’t make sense does it?’’

Reagle has become a lover of sudoku, a game that uses only numbers, because, “I find them incredibly interesting... it’s a test of your ability to do something with no mistakes.’’

In fact, he creates sudokus with a colleague, and sells them to several newspapers including the St. Petersburg Times.

So now Reagle has another job: sudoku sage. He will appear at 9 a.m. Saturday at the St. Pete Beach Library, 365 73rd Ave., to discuss how to solve sudoku puzzles.

He also offers more advice on his web site, www.sundaycrosswords.com/sudokushop. By letting people in on some simple sudoku strategies, he hopes to create even more interest in the game.

Sudoku is a numbers game which was invented in the United States, became popular in Japan and Europe, and in the past couple years has won thousands of fans in the United States. You can find sudokus in newspapers, on web sites and even on hand-held computer games.

Sudoku offers none of the opportunity for wordplay that crosswords do. And Reagle is the kind of person who loves esoteric properties of words, like the fact that  “level’’ and “radar’’ are spelled the same way forwards and backwards.

And because his sense of humor is almost as quirky as the English language, Reagle even makes wordplay about wordplay: “Race car’’ is spelled the same way in forward and reverse.

All kinds of knowledge go into good crossword puzzles -- geography, history, trivia, vocabulary, and humor.
But sudoku is pure logic.

Sudoku is played on a grid of 81 squares, divided into nine boxes of nine squares each. The player makes sure that each row, each column and each box of nine squares contain the numbers 1 through 9 once and only once.

Each sudoku has only one solution, and one single mistake will throw the whole page out of whack.

“It’s a unique answer, no guessing, no math involved, no guessing, just logic,’’ Reagle said. And each puzzle inherently asks the same question: “Can I do this and do it without any mistakes? Because... it’s suicide if you do make mistakes. It’s unforgiving.’’

Ask Reagle about making crossword puzzles, and he sounds like a stained-glass artist proud of the creativity he fits into a rigidly defined frame. But this is another difference with sudokus.

Reagle’s sudokus are generated by computer, thanks to a program developed by his friend and neighbor, Dennis Aramanda.

Instead of lovingly constructing them, Reagle’s main work with sudokus has been to design his “eraser-free’’ format and also to test them to make sure they are really easy, medium or hard, as advertised.