Returning Champion Wins Alzheimer’s Foundation of America’s National Brain Game Challenge with Lightning Speed

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Syndicated crossword puzzle master Merl Reagle puts skill and passion behind contest.

With much surprise and pride in cracking a crossword crafted by one of the nation's most recognized crossword puzzle constructors, Jeffrey Harris of Norwalk, CT recently raced to the finish in the “Pros” division to win the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America’s (AFA) National Brain Game Challenge for the second year in a row, and Scott Weiss of Walkersville, MD took the “Public” division with a time that rivaled ace tournament winners who competed in the online contest.

Harris and Weiss both beat the next closest competitors in their divisions by a mere three minutes to each capture a $2,500 grand prize.

Merl Reagle, whose popular Sunday crossword puzzle is syndicated in 45 major newspapers across the country, teamed up with AFA for the second straight year to craft the multi-layered, word-twisting crossword as a means of supporting AFA’s ongoing efforts to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and lifestyles that promote brain health. The brain disorder has struck both Reagle’s mother-in-law and, just recently, his mother.

After AFA disclosed the puzzle on its Web site on September 30, contestants had 24 hours to compete for a total of $7,000 in prizes. In publicizing the winners, AFA also announced today that more than 800 people from coast to coast registered for the contest this year—raising more than $20,000 to support the organization’s care-related programs and services nationwide.

“For many contestants, the National Brain Game Challenge marks a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon. But for the growing number of Americans affected by Alzheimer’s disease, it means so much more. It highlights the daily challenges they face and the critical need for support,” said Eric J. Hall, AFA’s president and CEO.

Harris, a 27-year-old crossword fanatic and freelance editor, scrambled to finish the puzzle in just 33 minutes, thereby shaving 10 minutes off his previous year’s time.

“It was more challenging [than I expected], especially in the clues,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d win again, though, that was a pleasant surprise!”

Netting second and third place in the Pros division were Tyler Hinman of San Francisco and Daniel Katz of Providence, RI.

In the Public division, Weiss, a computer science professor at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD, clocked in at 55 minutes for the grand prize. His grandmother had dementia, but Weiss said he would have entered the contest anyway. “It’s nice to be able to contribute,” he said.

On his heels, also around the one-hour mark, were Jeffrey Schwartz of New York, NY and Eric LeVasseur of Seal Beach, CA, who came in second and third, respectively.

The top solvers conceded that they were so focused on beating the clock that they did not even grasp until afterwards the puzzle’s intricate Alzheimer’s-related theme, including answers that involved dropping the letters “AD” from words in order to underscore a powerful message about eradicating the brain disorder, which is often abbreviated “AD.”

“I think that’s the danger of trying to speed-solve. You can’t savor all of the cleverness in the puzzle,” said Weiss, a former “Jeopardy!” champion who “never had a big win from crosswords until this one.”

Always wanting to create an online contest, Reagle got involved with AFA after he and his wife, Marie Haley, of Tampa, FL, were caregivers for “1,000 days” for Haley’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. This year it got even more personal for Reagle after his 82-year-old mother was similarly diagnosed.

In constructing the challenging puzzle, Reagle explained, “I thought that basing an entire puzzle on a seminal part of the disease's history would raise awareness of how the disease was ‘discovered’ and that it's not ‘recent’—it’s been a disease with a name for 111 years and without one for a lot longer, yet we’re still waiting for a cure and family caregivers still need an enormous amount of help.”

Hall said that it is critical for adults of all ages to regularly engage in mental activities, such as puzzles, that stimulate brain cells in order to promote successful aging.

“Adopting healthy lifestyles takes on even more urgency as the perfect storm keeps brewing—an aging population at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease and no cure on the horizon,” he said.

The benefit of brain boosters is not missed on Hinman, who tackles at least three crosswords a day. He won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament five years in a row, beginning in 2005 when he was only 20 years old.

“I consider the mental exercise to be a great bonus to the fun I have solving puzzles,” said Hinman, a memory training game developer.

Unlike the first year of the contest, the National Brain Game Challenge is now divided into two player categories, Pros and Public. The Pros are contestants with $200 or more in lifetime “crossword puzzle earnings,” whether through winning tournaments or creating crosswords for professional markets. The Public are those who have received less than $200 in lifetime puzzle earnings.

Reagle said he is “just speechless at the great turnout.”

“I especially want to say thanks to the Public players; I know the puzzle was on the hard side, and I just hope they understand how much I truly appreciate their taking a chance and participating, and helping to support such a great cause,” he said. “Next year, I promise—not so hard!”

Currently, as many as 5.1 million Americas have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive brain disorder that results in loss of memory, thinking and language skills, and behavioral changes. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, based in New York, is a national nonprofit organization that unites more than 1,600 member organizations nationwide with the goal of providing optimal care and services to individuals confronting dementia, and to their caregivers and families. Its services include counseling and referrals by licensed social workers via a toll-free hot line, e-mail, Skype, and live chat; educational materials; a free quarterly magazine for caregivers; and professional training. For more information about AFA, call toll-free 866-232-8484 or visit                        


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Carol Steinberg
Alzheimer's Foundation of America
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