Date: March 14, 2002
Byline: Maurice Timothy Reidy; Courant Staff Writer
This Weekend In Stamford, Will Shortz Presents His Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tourney"Neat, capturing a Trojan king."
It was one of those clues that made 71-year-old Wally Krupenevich want to jam the pencil into his forehead. He stared at the puzzle.
Neat, neat what's a synonym for neat? Trojan king ... Hm-m-m.
Finally, without doing too much damage to his pencil, he got it.
Synonym for neat: prim. Capture the "a," and you've got Priam, a Trojan king.
"I think most puzzlers have a flat forehead from slamming it with their hand and saying, `Of course, of course,'" Krupenevich joked.
Solving crossword puzzles has always demanded some serious mental gymnastics. Until recently, the fruits of this exercise were apparently few: broken pencils, sore foreheads, that hard-to- quantify sense of self-satisfaction.
But recent medical evidence suggests doing puzzles may be good for you, especially for senior citizens like Krupenevich. Studies have proven that regular mental exercise, such as doing crosswords, can keep the brain supple, helping to stave away diseases like Alzheimer' s.
"Crossword puzzles are an easy way to keep the brain limber," said puzzle guru Will Shortz, editor of the beloved New York Times crosswords. "They're fun, and they're not a chore. ... They're a great all-around workout."
This weekend, Shortz will host the 25th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford. He expects a record-breaking crowd this year. As usual, seniors are expected to turn out in force: About one-quarter of the participants are over 60.
Jane Blanshard, 71, a retired teacher and editor from Storrs, will be there. She has been going since the late 1970s.
"It's really like going to the moon for the weekend," she said, excitedly. "It's a funny group. There are these people heavily into Mensa [a high-IQ society]. My friends and I say we're in Densa."
Blanshard readily admits she is addicted to puzzles. She plucks down $20 every year to get the Times puzzles online. She also does puzzles in Newsday (too easy) and the Nation and the Atlantic Monthly (much harder).
She agrees that her hobby keeps her mind sharp, but she doubts seniors will start doing puzzles just because doctors say so.
"Either you do puzzles or you don't," she said. "I think it's a born- in addiction."
In fact, the medical evidence indicates that those who remain intellectually active from a young age have the best chance of avoiding Alzheimer' s. That's what a team of neurologists reported last year after analyzing the leisure activities of Alzheimer's patients and patients with no symptoms of the disease.
Many puzzle enthusiasts seem to pick up the hobby at a young age.
Ralph Crawford, 81, of Jacksonville, Fla., has been solving puzzles for nearly 65 years. He will be the oldest contestant in this year' s puzzle tournament in Stamford. It will be his first trip to the contest. His daughter, Claudia, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, persuaded him to go.
"I never seriously considered it, but my daughter said I was a big sissy if I didn't," he said.
To tell the truth, the event scares him a bit. What if he gets beat by some teenager? The youngest contestant will be a 17-year- old from Russia.
"That would be hell," he said. "To be 81 and to be beat by some runny- nosed kid."
Crawford retired from the foreign service in 1980 after working all over the world, including China, Turkey and Africa. It was a peripatetic existence, but there was one constant: He carried books of crossword puzzles from post to post. "It was one of the best ways to keep in touch with something especially American," he said.
Crawford suspects there is something to the theory that crosswords help keep away Alzheimer's. Puzzles have helped keep his brain limber, he said, though he admits he's still a little weak in certain areas.
"I'm a little dim on rock groups and current athletes," he said. "But you goback to Babe Ruth and I'm with you."
Barbara Nerreau, 70, a retired social services director from Trumbull, doesn't expect to win anything at this year's Stamford tournament. But that's not why she goes.
"I enjoy the camaraderie," she said. "I like the participants, but we're never going to win. ... When I compete, I'm usually in the bottom half, let's put it that way."
Do puzzles keep her mind limber? Sure, she says. But so does painting, another of her passions.
Krupenevich, who lives in Newington, has been doing puzzles since his days in the Navy, when he had a lot of time and very little to do. He now does The New York Times puzzles every week. They're tough, but the cryptic puzzles in Harper's and the Atlantic provide more formidable challenges. They can be maddening, frustrating and just plain painful.
"You feel like you're killing yourself when you're doing them," he said, laughing. "But what a sense of satisfaction when you finish it."
Registration for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford is Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. and Saturday from 9:30 to 11 a.m. at the Stamford Marriott Hotel. The first round begins at 11 a.m. Saturday.