To Merl Reagle, one of the nation’s most prolific puzzle masters whose Sunday crosswords appear every week in more than 50 newspapers, language is a playground. Take the word “ambidextrous” which means having the ability to use left and right appendages equally well. In a recent conversation with Merl, he was quick to point out how the word itself is almost ambidextrous. The first six letters a-e are from the left side of the alphabet and the right hand letters x-s are from the right side of the alphabet. This is just one instance of the funny little patterns that make Merl’s life fascinating.
Merl started creating crosswords when he was six years old. True, they were stick figures with the names of the kids in his class which his mother called “neandrathal examples of those things in the paper.” But at 16 he sold his first crossword puzzle to the New York Times so clearly he got better at it.
Chatting with Merl is very enjoyable. He talks “funny” because he is always on the lookout for “material.” He was in a doctor’s office once and the muzak was playing “Killing Me Softly.” He thought of a theme for a Sunday Crossword Puzzle called “Uneasy Listening.” “The title is not supposed to tip you off; it’s supposed to be a hint.”
Another time he and his wife were buying a house. His wife was in the front seat with the real estate agent who said, “I lost your phone number and had to look up your address.” Merl was immediately struck with how funny it would be to take out “ad” from address because you’d end up with “Look up your dress.” This gave rise to the “Commercial Free Crossword Puzzle” of expressions without the “ad.”
Life is not always fun and games, however. It can get very serious. Like a few years ago when his mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. His wife Marie and he moved from California to Tampa to take care of her and he witnessed firsthand the difficulties of being a caregiver to someone suffering from this disease. “Taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient is very difficult. It takes about three people to comfortably do it. It’s not like cancer patients who know where it hurts. Many times they [AD patients] do things without knowing what they’re doing. After her mom died, it was clear as a bell that Alzheimer’s caregivers are the unsung heroes.”
Merl wanted to draw attention to this and it occurred to him that crossword puzzles would be a great way to go. “I remember Phil Donohue would always talk about brain health and doing puzzles so I wanted to create a thinking person’s contest to help persons who are thinking impaired. To create a crossword to make you think. Not the Rin Tin blank kind…but one that required figuring things out. That kind of brain exercise grows dendrites and pushes Alzheimer’s farther back. The latest science is that you can give your mind a workout very much like giving your body a workout. Anything that makes you think, figure out stuff…Once you think outside the box, in a non-literal way, your brain gets more athletic. That’s what solving puzzles is all about.”
He’s partnered with the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) to create the National Brain Game Challenge where the whole country gets involved. “It costs $25 to enter, you get access to a player’s site, and on this Sunday, September 30th, at 3:00 PM sharp, you can download the puzzle and start solving. It doesn’t have to be finished all the way. The puzzle is asking you to look for four things; the first person to find them and send them in an email wins $2500 which is 100 times the entry fee. And there are two categories–one is professionals, the other is the general public so you don’t have to compete against champions or constructors. And you can enter after it’s started because there are special prizes for 10th place, 25th place, up to 100th place. 100% goes to AFA.”
So, this Sunday, why not put your brains to work for a good cause…and have some fun while you’re at it! Join the National Brain Game Challenge! (For details and to register, visit www.alzfdn.org/challenge.)
About the National Brain Game Challenge:
Date: Sept. 30, 2012 – Oct. 1, 2012
Time: 3:00 p.m. ET – 3:00 p.m. ET
What: When players download this year’s puzzle and start solving, they’ll not only be solving a challenging, entertaining Sunday crossword, they’ll also be looking for clues to a secret message that is the key to solving the contest. Using the Internet to look things up is perfectly legal, even encouraged.
What’s in it for ‘me’: There are two separate player categories, one for casual solvers and one for puzzle professionals, with the first prize in each category being $2,500. The entry fee is $25 and all proceeds go to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.