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Consumer Reports

Creator of mind-benders for magazines sees puzzles everywhere | (KRT) Most people think in words. Terry Stickels thinks in spatial images and numbers.

Stickels sits alone in his east Fort Worth apartment up to 16 hours a day and creates mind-bending puzzles designed to intrigue, amuse and perhaps enlighten.

The 55-year-old is among the leading puzzlemeisters in the country and has produced 12 top-selling puzzle books, calendars and games.

He used to create those puzzles found in the back of airline in-flight magazines. As of this month, his puzzles are syndicated by King Features, an organization behind many of the comics and other features that appear in newspapers and magazines.

His puzzle column, "Stickelers," has been picked up by the New York Daily News, The Denver Post, The Oregonian, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Arizona Daily Star, said King spokeswoman Claudia Smith.

Stickels also gives talks on critical thinking and problem solving to schools, business groups or anyone else who asks.

Stickels lives and breathes puzzles. As he drives around, a signpost juxtaposed against a building can spark an idea.

He will look at someone's shirt and see a geometric design and shadows that awaken a notion for a puzzle that involves shaded stacks of three-dimensional boxes.

"What I do is demented and silly," Stickels said.

His knack of seeing puzzles everywhere isn't something he can turn off, and for the most part, he doesn't want to.

"I don't have a choice in the matter," he said. "This chose me. I also get paid to be silly, and where is there a better job than that?"

The native Nebraskan moved to Fort Worth a couple of years ago to stay close to his 14 year-old son, Alex, a sophomore at Lamar High School in Arlington, Texas, who moved here with Stickels' ex-wife. He says they still are friends.

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By his own account, Stickels was a strange kid.

He didn't speak until he was 3. He said he became consumed by puzzles when he was 10 or 11.

"It was probably because it was an activity where I didn't have to be verbal," he said.

Brain-teasers were a fascination and an obsession throughout his youth.

Stickles grew up in Omaha, Neb. He quarterbacked the football team at the University of Nebraska at Omaha while majoring in geography and natural sciences.

For almost 20 years, he worked for Union Pacific Railroad. He worked as a switchman, conductor and brakeman, and then moved into labor relations. All the while, he created puzzles.

He started selling some to newspapers in the early 1990s. By 1997, he was a full-time puzzle master.

His puzzles appear weekly in more than 600 newspapers through USA Weekend magazine, a competitor to Parade Magazine.

When the film "A Beautiful Mind" came out a few years ago, Universal Studios asked him to come up with some puzzles for the film's Web site, The film was about John Nash, a mathematical genius. Stickels said the puzzles registered more interest than any other links on the Web site.

Stickels is reluctant to suggest a connection between puzzles and high IQs.

"It would be dishonest to say there is," he said. "There isn't enough information, but some of the greatest thinkers of all time have been puzzle fanatics.

"I'm not that smart. I just allow my brain to have fun with things."

Stickels said he neither drinks nor smokes. He gets a high creating puzzles.

He also enjoys solving puzzles sent to him by mathematicians, physicists and scientists, but these are likely to be dense, mind-numbing, multilayered conundrums. One recently took him three months to solve.

"It drove me nuts," he said.

For newspapers, magazines and books, he tries to keep his puzzles fun yet challenging. Despite his avowed lack of verbal skills, words are part of a series of his puzzles called Frame Games.

He said children are among his biggest fans. His hope is that his puzzles might encourage some to seek careers in math or science.

Stickels says he believes that most children are born with a spatial sense that most schools fail to encourage.

Most adults, he said, are also intrigued by puzzles. He believes puzzles appeal to an inherent need to challenge and to improve oneself.

He said he can't imagine doing anything else.

"It's my life's work, and I'll do it until I drop," he said.

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© 2004, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services