Sunny sentiments for crosswords

A local amateur tournament provides mental exercise, funds for Alzheimer's research

May 05, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

In the brilliant sunshine at the Inner Harbor yesterday, joggers and bicyclists shared the promenade with walkers and skateboarders. But it was inside the Maryland Science Center, in a windowless lunchroom, where perhaps the best exercise was on display.

About 35 people picked up their pencils (or pens if they were really brave) and matched wits in an amateur crossword puzzle tournament sponsored by LifeBridge Health Brain & Spine Institute. For two hours, in strictly timed rounds, they worried over four puzzles donated by crossword guru Will Shortz.

The players ranged in age from their teens to their 80s. Some were participating in their first contest; others were veterans of Shortz's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Many said they knew crosswords were good for stimulating their brains and staving off the onset of dementia in old age. But mostly, they just thought it was fun.

"It's challenging on so many different levels - verbally, logically," said Alexandra Doumani, 50, of Towson, who won yesterday's tournament. "I've always been a word nerd. I like that pitched battle of me against the [puzzle] constructor."

Doumani and several others finished some puzzles in as little as four minutes yesterday. The puzzles will be published in future editions of The New York Times, of which Shortz is the crossword editor, so organizers could not provide copies to the press. But the puzzlers discussed some of the clues between breaks.

"What was `bitter drug'?" John Kopajtic of Cockeysville asked Doumani between rounds.

"Aloes," she said.

"I was afraid of that," Kopajtic said, admitting he had gotten it wrong, partly blaming the fact that the clue wasn't plural.

"I sat over that one for a while," Doumani added graciously.

She attended with her friend Mindy Siegel. Together they have been to two American Crossword Puzzle Tournaments, in Stamford, Conn., and in New York. Siegel has been doing crosswords for more than 20 years and prefers the Sunday puzzles because, she said, "I need something I can sink my teeth into."

At home, she does the daily Los Angeles Times and New York Times puzzles - in pen. But tournaments are different: She uses pencils. "When I'm in a tournament setting, I'm trying not to be aware of who's finishing before me," said Siegel, 49, of Hampden. "There's a lot more pressure here."

Indeed, when players complete a puzzle, they raise their hands to have it collected and their time marked. When the fastest thrust their hands into the air yesterday, some others turned and glared - a mix of envy and awe on their faces - before returning to their own puzzles.

Play was monitored by Dr. Majid Fotuhi, director of the Center for Memory and Brain Health and the LifeBridge brain and spine institute. Fotuhi likened crosswords to cross-training for the brain because they work almost all sectors.

"Simple lifestyle choices can make huge differences in whether you stay sharp or become demented," said Fotuhi, pointing to mental exercise, physical exercise, stress reduction and good diet as all key to staying healthy.

Fotuhi, author of Crosswords to Keep Your Brain Young, published in January, uses time at traffic lights to memorize the numbers in his cell phone. And he's a competitive dancer; he says dancing uses many of the same brain sectors as crosswords.

For others, crosswords even strengthen families. Lisa Mroz, 37, of Churchville attended yesterday's tournament with her son Jason, 14. While Lisa Mroz finished the puzzles well ahead of her son, both said they enjoyed themselves.

Money raised from the tournament will go toward Alzheimer's research, and that's one reason the Mrozes signed up. But Jason had another reason. "I wanted to hang out with my mom and do crosswords," he said, before ducking back into the lunchroom for the final round.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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