One More Meta

Before this year’s Mystery Hunt, I came up with a “practice metapuzzle” for my team to solve. Want to give it a try? E-mail me ( if you’d like to confirm your answer.


When the aliens landed in your backyard and demanded what such aliens always demand, you thought, well, this isn’t likely to end well. Sure enough, a month later the little green men were still around. If only there was something you could show these outer-space freaks to let them know they better not mess with us…

Solved by: A bunch of people on Palindrome, and now Nathan Curtis and Todd McClary.

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Gotta Catch Them All

Somewhere toward the end of the 2014 Mystery Hunt, my team, Palindrome, reached the runaround — a final series of puzzles even more dastardly than the puzzles we had experienced all weekend. We knew that another team had already won the event, finding a coin hidden on campus and earning the right and responsibility to organize the 2015 hunt. But this year’s organizing team was generous enough to keep the hunt going even after crowning a winner, and Palindrome, having struggled through the solving of 100+ diabolical puzzles all weekend, wanted to experience the endgame.

The problem was, we also had to clean up our headquarters and convert it back into plain old ordinary MIT classrooms, and part of that meant packing up our phone. So I did what any good team captain would do — I made my cell phone the new Official Team Phone. And while we waited for the runaround to begin, we kept plugging away on the puzzles we hadn’t managed to solve. Eventually there were only three such puzzles… and then two… and then one.

The final hole in our list of completed puzzles was called “One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor,” and it involved watching clips of a popular Web series called “My Drunk Kitchen.” The audio for the clips didn’t match what was happening on screen, and the puzzle was to figure out the correlation between the video and the audio track — somehow there was a way to use this information to arrive at an answer. We couldn’t figure it out. We called in what felt like a hundred guesses, some of them educated, some of them borderline random. My cell phone rang more in those few hours than in the entire previous year. Again and again I would answer and hear, “Hello, is this Palindrome?” “Hello, is this Palindrome?” “Hello, is this Palindrome?” Followed by the bad news that we had the wrong answer yet again.

One solitary hole out of over a hundred puzzles, and we couldn’t fill it no matter what we tried to do.

Well, fine. Instead we packed up our stuff and went on the runaround. Mystery Hunt puzzles cover a wide range of subjects, from pop culture to science, from linguistics to who-knows-what. Most of them are essentially paper puzzles — you download them from a Web site and print them out if you want to. The puzzles in the endgame, however, have recently become supersized, leaping off the computer screen. This year we had to get a record player working without electricity and without a phonograph needle; we had to dismantle a gigantic, impressively constructed puzzle box; we had to assemble three chessboards and then solve the chess problems thereupon, using the peculiar rules of “Alice Chess.” (The entire weekend was themed to Alice in Wonderland.)

And then, the grand finale -– a lifesize logic maze. Alice and the White Rabbit were traveling around this maze according to certain rules. We had to figure out how to get Alice out while keeping the Rabbit in. (There was really a young lady dressed in a blue pinafore, and an actor in long white rabbit ears.) It took over an hour and several failed attempts. There was real jubilation when Alice finally stepped out of the maze sans rabbit -– we had done it! We were one of only eight teams to see the Hunt all the way to the end.

We tried not to think about that one puzzle that had gotten away from us, the slight stain on our victory. “One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor!” What on earth had we missed in that puzzle? Why had it eluded us? Lord, was it irksome, thinking of that one small hole on a blackboard covered with solved puzzles. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

After the Hunt, there is always a wrapup -– hundreds of satisfied puzzlers gather in a large auditorium to hear from the constructors and swap anecdotes. I am rarely able to attend the wrapup, and this year was no exception. It was held the following day, shortly before I had to make a train. But my friend Mike managed to get a livestream of the event going on his laptop, so we watched for a while from our hotel room. On the screen, the audience murmured, waiting for things to start.

My cell phone rang. I answered it. A voice said, “Hello, is this Palindrome?”

“Uh,” I said. The Hunt had ended the previous day. How was I still getting these calls? “Are you kidding?” I asked.

“Not at all!” said the voice. “Is this Palindrome?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess so.” In the background on the phone, I could hear the same murmuring sounds of an audience waiting for the wrapup to start. My caller was calling me from that very auditorium.

“This is Alice Shrugged.” That was the name of the organizing team. “And I’m calling to verify your answer to ‘One Tequila.’”

“Someone called in an answer?” I repeat that the Hunt had ended the previous day.

“Yes, indeed!” said the caller. “And your answer… is correct!”

I couldn’t believe it. “Our answer is correct? We solved the last puzzle?”

“You did! Congratulations!”

A moment later, on my friend’s laptop screen, I heard that same guy say into the microphone, “Palindrome has officially solved 100% of this year’s Hunt puzzles!” And the audience erupted into cheers.

Okay, there should probably be an asterisk by that statistic, seeing as the last answer was called in after the official end of the Hunt, but if the Hunt organizers themselves are cool with it, then who am I to argue?

Every. Puzzle. Solved!

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Accepted in all the most prestigious journals

I may or may not have a gigantic wrap-up post about the MIT Mystery Hunt, which ended a few hours ago. My team, Palindrome, placed either sixth or seventh — reports vary — but we had a very fun time as always. After the puzzles are posted, I’ll point to a few faves.

In the meantime, though, I feel I must share with a wider audience this bit of genius created by my friend Kevin Wald. Each year’s Mystery Hunt has a theme, and for a while, every indication was given that this year’s theme was going to be a Salute to Academia, or something. (It wound up being a trip through Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, but that came later.) In support of the phony academia theme, teams were invited to submit proposals for a symposium, complete with a wordy, obtuse title and an impenetrable abstract. Kevin’s proposal is as follows, and I invite you to remember that our team name is “Palindrome.”

Creation of Centrally-Reflective Wordplay Through Computationally-Assisted Models.

Abstract: Constructs that process any subordinate symbols assembled symmetrically into segmented strings, when analyzed properly, are those that demonstrate parameters characterizing these “palindromes.” These characterizing parameters demonstrate that those are properly analyzed when strings, segmented into symmetrically assembled symbols, subordinate any process that constructs abstract models, assisted computationally through wordplay reflective, centrally, of creation.

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Why the heck not? The return of Spaghetti

It’s been a while since we’ve played Spaghetti. Let’s correct that, shall we?

What is Spaghetti, you ask? It’s simple. I present to you a set of words, chosen at random out of a dictionary. You pretend those words are a puzzle. You solve the puzzle, tying all the words together in some magical way to give you an answer. That may sound ridiculous and impossible — how do you solve a list of random words?? — but in the past people have made some amazing connections between the words, arriving at answers that seem utterly logical. Pop “spaghetti” into the search bar on the right to go find some examples in the archives.

Put your answer, and your method for getting to that answer, in the comments. Check back and read other players’ answers and explanations, and vote for your favorites. (You can vote for as many as you like.) The person who gets the most votes is the winner.

Ready for your words? Good, because here they are:


Good luck!

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Feast of Puzzles

I’ve spoken to a lot of kids over the past few years, about puzzles and about my Winston Breen books, and one question that always comes up is this: Are the books real? Are they based on things that actually happened?

I tell the kids that, like Winston, I participate in puzzle hunts all the time — events where I get to solve puzzles with my friends, and we try to solve everything as fast as we can, racing other teams to the finish line. 99% of the time, the puzzles we solve are simply given to us on pieces of paper: Here’s a crossword, here’s a clever spin on a word seek, here are some logic puzzles. That’s fine; I love pencil puzzles. And what more can we expect? The people who put together puzzle hunts do so on their own time, and any money they spend comes out of their own wallets. Sure, it would be nice to have extra-special puzzles, puzzles that leap off the printed page, puzzles that require special props, or a cast of actors, or amazing locations — but that kind of thing gets expensive, fast.

So while Winston Breen and his friends get the opportunity to solve a puzzle that has been painted onto the cars of a Ferris wheel, that is not the kind of thing your average die-hard puzzle lover will ever get to experience in real life.

Unless that die-hard puzzle lover participates in a Game.

I first read about The Game many years ago, I forget in which magazine. It depicted a puzzle event like no other. Teams drove around all night in rented vans, solving puzzles at different locations — and these puzzles were anything but usual. When you play The Game, you might be sent to an art museum in the middle of the night — and the puzzle might be found in the very paintings on the wall. A puzzle might come in the form of a box of candy, or an intricately constructed device. That first article I read described a puzzle in the form of an out-of-control house party full of thuggish youths, and half the goal was simply recognizing that this was, indeed, the puzzle, and daring yourself to walk in.

A key element of The Game is this: It costs serious money to play it. Which means that the puzzlemakers have a sizable budget. Which means they can do pretty much anything they want, as long as they have the imagination and the expertise to make it happen.

This past weekend I finally participated in my first Game — “The Famine Games,” an event produced and largely constructed by Todd Etter. It is fair to say that it is the most ambitious, dazzling puzzle hunt I have ever experienced.

“The Famine Games” was part parody / part faithful retelling of Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy, reproduced in the form of puzzles. Twenty-four teams of 4 to 7 people became sets of tributes, sent off into the arena to kill off the other teams or die trying. From there, teams had to rise up against the corrupt government of Pangram, and finally storm the Capitol — a role portrayed by the actual United States Capitol building, as the setting of “The Famine Games” was Washington, D.C. and its environs.

Yes, among the weekend’s 70 puzzles, there were many pencil puzzles, such that you might see in any decent puzzle hunt — although in this case all the puzzles were meticulously constructed and polished to a high gleam. (I don’t recall seeing a single correction or errata. This is borderline miraculous.) But peppered among the more typical fare were puzzles to make even the most experienced puzzle-solver sit back and say “Wow!”

– One puzzle arrived in the form of Lincoln Logs, which needed to be stacked in exactly the right way in order to reveal a message. Another puzzle was presented as a small house of black-and-white Legos, the construction of which contained coded instructions. After cracking the code, we had to dismantle the house and then build it back up again in a new way. The reconstructed house spelled out a series of letters on the walls; that was the answer to the puzzle.

– Modified store-bought toys are all well and good, but we were also given astonishing, specially manufactured gizmos. The best of these by far was a gorgeous wooden cube studded with electronic readouts and sensors and etched all around with a cryptographic code. Deciphering the cryptogram, we learned that each side of the cube was keyed to a different superhero (or villain) from the X-Men series — Iceman, Magneto, Surge, Jean Grey, etc. It turned out that we had to do something to each side of the cube that was in keeping with the various X-Men. So when we placed a magnet against Magneto’s side of the cube, the electronic readout gave us a letter. When we placed an ice cube against the sensor on the Iceman side, we got a different letter. And so on. Pretty damn amazing, right? And I have barely scratched the surface on what it took to actually solve this puzzle, which had to do with binary code and using the various X-Men superpowers in combination with each other. The “Xbox,” as it was called, was one of perhaps a half-dozen puzzles that left me shaking my head with awe.

– Even the puzzles that were largely paper-and-pencil affairs were presented with joyous theatricality. A nifty hexagonal word seek involving bees actually required you to first wander into a park and cut down a plastic beehive from a tree. Another puzzle was presented at a veterinarian’s office / dog kennel, where we were greeted by a woman in a dog suit. The puzzle itself was given to us inside a stuffed canine —
we had to snip it open to reach it. A whole series of puzzles took the form of a box of cereal, complete with toy surprise. We were sent to a comic-book store; to a Denny’s; to suburban backyards and the Kennedy Center; to museums and memorials and finally to the Capitol Building itself.

– The highlight of the event was perhaps a twelve-puzzle mini-hunt embedded within the larger hunt. Hosted in the wee hours at a community center in Springfield, VA, each puzzle could be found in a separate room — and each puzzle was an imaginative combination of props and physical challenges. In one room, we had to complete three different electric circuits, using nothing but a cylinder of Play-Doh, some sections of plastic piping, a pitcher of water, and a metal bowl. In another room, we had to open three different locks in order to get at the puzzle. One small problem: We had to wear oven mitts. In yet another room, the puzzle in its entirety consisted of a flashing lightning bolt made out of white Christmas lights. Did I mention that each of the twelve puzzles had to be solved in fifteen minutes or less, and if you couldn’t manage it, you had to leave the room and come back later?

I was lucky to be on a team with Dan Katz, who can read puzzles the way normal people read their native language. At a glance, he can tell if a given puzzle will require the use of Braille, or Morse, or semaphore, or some other, totally made-up code. Everyone on the team helped shoulder the puzzle load — I had a few good moments myself, I’m happy to say. But Dan is on a whole other plane of puzzle-solving ability. It’s hard to imagine we would have solved even half as many puzzles without him.

And supersolvers were mandatory — mere enthusiasm for puzzles was not enough. Teams needed to keep a brisk solving pace, lest they risk getting “skipped” past future puzzles, missing them entirely. Some puzzles needed to shut down at a particular time; more generally, Game Control wisely wanted to keep the twenty-four teams reasonably close together as they made their way through the event. From an organizational standpoint, it would be deeply problematic to have a few teams lingering hours and hours behind everybody else.

I wonder, then, if this weekend-long feast of puzzles didn’t perhaps have too many puzzles in it. How many teams actually saw every single one of them? My guess is, not many. I thought my team acquitted itself fairly well — there was a long stretch where, puzzle after puzzle, we never even slowed down. We saw what we needed to do; we compiled all the right information; we decoded the resulting message and got our answer; and boom, we were back in our van and heading to the next location. I’d say we only got seriously stuck twice, maybe three times — out of 70 puzzles, that’s not too shabby. And yet looking at the puzzle list, I see that we were skipped past at least one puzzle and possibly more. Did every team have the equivalent of a Dan Katz on their team? If not, how many puzzles did they miss?

If Dan was our MVP, the team’s Least Valuable Player is equally easy to assign: That would be the Chevrolet Express, the van that was our home for the duration of the event. This was a much larger vehicle than we had intended to rent. We had a team of six, and would have been fine in something that could seat eight. The Express could have sat twelve people comfortably and a few more than that without much trouble; it was roughly the size of the Space Shuttle. It was certainly the largest thing I had ever attempted to drive. I split the driving duties with my friend and teammate Scott Purdy, and between the two of us, we amassed an exhausting catalog of misadventures: Quasi-legal U-turns; missed exits and wrong turns, which on DC’s unforgiving roads usually meant a twenty-minute delay before getting back on track; at least one missed-by-inches serious car accident (me); one collision with a parking garage ticket machine (Scott). At one point, I had to parallel park this monstrosity — the less said about that one, the better. At another point, I managed to get us stuck on a 75-degree downward slope. If I am sent to hell after I die, I imagine I will spend eternity looking for a parking spot near the National Mall.

The business with the van reached its ugly culmination when we got back to it after completing the final puzzles of the event: Someone had broken into it and helped himself to my iPad and my teammate’s laptop. I understand this was not strictly the van’s fault — another team got hit in the same manner — but it felt like somehow the van hated us and decided not to put up much of a fight when somebody wanted to take our stuff.

Did the robbery put a damper on things? Yes, but not as much as you’d expect. The event was just too damn good. I would do it all again even knowing up front I wouldn’t have my iPad at the end of it. The magnificent variety of puzzles, the production values, the enthusiastic volunteers — this was all worth far more than I paid. Yes, staying up all night wasn’t easy, and that damn van was a constant thorn in our sides. But “Apetitius Giganticus” was a great team — besides Dan Katz and Scott Purdy, I got to hang out for the weekend with Tyler Hinman, Rachael Groynom, and Pavel Curtis. I got to have a couple of nice brainstorms that helped propel our team forward, and that’s always a joyous moment. Ultimately, I left “The Famine Games” achy, exhausted, and hungry for more.

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Let the word-of-mouth campaign begin!

If you like puzzles, I think you can consider this a Big Announcement.

I work for a company that produces puzzle magazines. Easy crosswords, word seeks, sudokus — a great many of the magazines you see on the supermarket newsstand. We have something like eighty different titles.

For a long time, we’ve batted around the idea of doing a product to attract people who love puzzles but who have not bought a newsstand puzzle magazine in a long time. Something a little higher-end, a little more artisanal… if it was an ice cream, it would be super premium ice cream.

In early 2014, this magazine will finally exist. It is called Will Shortz’s WordPlay. Yes, that’s Will Shortz’s name on the cover. We’ve got the first issue completely planned out, and all I have to say is, you will not believe how many great puzzles we have packed into this magazine. Dazzling variety puzzles, a couple of great cryptics, handmade logic puzzles, plus a few things you’ve never seen before. And we’re going to do it six times a year!

Why am I bringing this up in June when the magazine doesn’t go on sale until January? Because we need to start spreading the word. The only way this wonderful magazine succeeds is if people buy it — and before people buy it, they have to know about it. (I don’t have a marketing degree or anything, but that is my understanding of how things work.) So now you know about it, and I’m asking you to spread the news. Tell every puzzle lover you know! Tell everyone who might be a puzzle lover! Send them this way so they can read this exciting announcement! Forgive me in advance for repeating this news periodically until the magazine finally goes on sale!

Yep, I’m pretty excited about this. Believe me, if you like great puzzles, you should be, too.

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The probability that I know what I am talking about is zero

All right, math people, help me out.

I just completed a section on probability with my daughter, and by and large she’s got it down. We both understand that if you flip a coin and roll a die, the probability of getting tails and a five is 1/12. (You multiply the odds of getting tails (1/2) by the odds of getting a five (1/6).) We made a little pie chart to show why this works and… well, I’m not going to drone on about this, but in short: Lea not only understands how to do the calculation, but she understands why. And so do I.

Similarly, we understand that the probability of rolling a two or a three on a 6-sided die is 1/3. This is even easier to grasp: The odds of rolling a two are 1/6; the odds of rolling a three are 1/6. Add ‘em up, and you get 2/6, or 1/3. No problemo — the reasons for this are pretty easy to visualize.

You add up the probabilities when the “or” events are, as the math textbook tells us in boldfaced words, mutually exclusive. You can’t roll a five and a six on a single roll of the die. (Although God knows when I ask Lea if this is possible — just so I can see that she’s with me — she’ll say something about the die rolling into a crack on the table, or bring up the idea of a time machine, or…)

It’s when two events aren’t mutually exclusive that my mind goes kabloo. The example in the book is:

The Yankees have a .4 chance of winning today’s baseball game. The Red Sox have a .6 chance of winning their baseball game. (This was obviously written by a Red Sox fan.) What is the probability that one team or the other will win, assuming they are not playing each other?

The formula for this is straightforward enough: First you add up the probabilities (.4 + .6 = 1) and from this you subtract the product of the probabilities (.4 * .6 = .24). So the odds of one team or the other winning is .76, or 76%. Easy enough — I can memorize a formula, and so can my daughter. I just don’t get why this works. We were able to visualize and fully grasp the other principles in this section, but this one is eluding us.

Is there a way of looking at this that will make me say, “Oh! Sure!”

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I’m gonna sit right down and write myself 3,295 letters

(Contains spoilers for the final puzzle of the tournament.)

Hundreds of people compete each year at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the vast majority of these people have no expectation of winning anything. A couple dozen people will win trophies, and precisely nine people will get to compete onstage in the finals — three each from the A, B, and C divisions. Everyone else will watch from the audience.

But everyone’s gotta have a goal, heading into the tournament, even if it’s as general as “improve a little” or “not fall back too much” or “try not to make any errors.” My goal tends to take the form of certain solvers around me, people I have nominated as my personal pace cars: They can be found near me in the standings (by which I mean, ahead of me). These are the people I compete with, a mini-tournament within the larger tournament, except that my rivals don’t know that I am gunning for them.

It’s a random group of friends and strangers. My friend Kevin Wald is one of them; so is the former New York Times ombudsman Dan Okrent, with whom I have exchanged maybe ten words over the years. There’s a particular woman from Connecticut on my list — I always look for her name when I’m checking the scores, like some kind of crossword stalker. Punch line: I don’t even know what this woman looks like.

But if there’s one person I’m really trying to catch, it’s my friend Amy Goldstein. To me, she represents a skill level I might realistically attain someday, but only if I perform at my very best.

Each year, it seems possible: For the first few puzzles of the tournament, I am able to keep pace with her, or at least not drag too far behind.

But then comes puzzle 5.

Puzzle 5 is traditionally the killer of the ACPT. There have been years where the timer runs down to zero and most of the solvers are still sitting there, baffled and shaken. There have been years where I cannot so much as figure out the puzzle’s theme — I’ll poke around at the grid, filling in words here and there, knowing with certainty that my place in the standings will once again plummet.

Generally you can find my name somewhere around 100th place, give or take. Last year, Amy said it plain: “If you can just beat puzzle 5,” she told me, “you’ll be thirty or forty places higher!” In other words, where she is.

Well, this year I beat puzzle 5. I KO’ed it like I never have before.

Solvers were given half an hour to solve it. Many years, I need every second and still have blank squares when I hand in my paper. (To say nothing of the squares that are filled in with wild guesses.) This year, I completed the puzzle in about fifteen minutes — perfectly. I found myself leaving the tournament room side-by-side with some really great solvers. I couldn’t believe it. This was the puzzle 5 I’d been waiting for. And I beat Amy by a solid ten minutes. Ten minutes! That is an eternity in a crossword tournament. I couldn’t wait to see the scores! I couldn’t wait to see the rankings!

When the scores for the first day were posted, it turned out I was right: I had thoroughly torn apart puzzle 5…

…and I had mistakes on not one but TWO earlier puzzles, puzzles I had thought I’d solved clean.

End result: A ranking of 97, pretty much where I am every year.

There’s one last tournament puzzle on Sunday morning, and I solved it without errors, boosting myself up to a still-unofficial 92, a dozen spots lower than last year’s 80. It’s hard to believe that I solved puzzle 5 perfectly — and, for me, blazing fast — and still managed to do worse overall than last year. One of these years I have got to get my act 100% together. I think that’s going to be next year’s goal.


For a while, it seemed as if this year’s Division A finals would be a replay of last year, and the year before that. The same three people stood at the top of the rankings. Dan Feyer was first, to no one’s surprise. Before the start of the tournament, Dan had demurred a little about his chances — David Plotkin had been outsolving him of late, he said, and Joon Pahk, too, was reporting impressive speed-solving times. That might well have been true, but something about the tournament brings out the very best in Dan. When the scores were tallied up, no one was even close to him.

In second place was five-time champ Tyler Hinman. Shortly after puzzle 7 ended on Sunday morning, I found him slouched in a chair in the lobby, looking very much like someone resigned to his fate. This would be Tyler’s third time facing Dan in the finals. Dan had trounced him every time. It was certainly possible to imagine Tyler coming out on top — anything can happen up there, as we have learned over the years, and Tyler is an extraordinary solver — but if so, the finals would surely be a heart-stopping squeaker. Dan is not one to be left in the dust. More likely, he’s the one doing the leaving.

And in third place — for the third fourth year in a row — was Anne Erdmann, a sweet, good-natured woman who, in past years, had seemed somewhat at a loss during the finals, which is played on large whiteboards at the front of a crowded, boisterous room. Solving up there is a radically different experience from solving in your seat, surrounded by people but essentially alone. Anne is astonishing at regular speed-solving, but she struggled during her previous appearances in the finals. Still, she now had plenty of experience at this, and nobody was dismissing her.

Dan, Tyler, Anne. Deja vu.

Except that it wasn’t deja vu, because when the final puzzle started, it was Tyler, and not Dan, who exploded out of the gate. Tyler had the upper right corner of the puzzle done with lightning speed, while Dan sputtered and jumped around, trying to find a place that would give him some traction. As for Anne, she had one word written in the grid, and it was wrong.

The puzzle itself was a grade-A killer. Constructor Kevin Der had laced his crossword with dangerous, easy-to-misread clues. “Challenge for one who’s lost” doesn’t refer to somebody lost in the woods, but rather somebody who has lost money — the answer is RECOUPING. “Activity involving three steps” might not lead you immediately to CHACHA.

The final crossword of the ACPT is always themeless, and themeless puzzles sometimes have a nasty little trait — you can walk your way through one corner of it practically with your eyes closed, and just as you think, “Man, I am acing this!”, that’s when you discover the rest of the puzzle isn’t nearly as easy.

With a quarter of the puzzle locked away, Tyler jumped into the rest of the grid and discovered it was made out of bricks. He had a few letters in place thanks to his earlier work, but they didn’t seem to be helping. Jittering in place, radiating comic-book lines of energy, he jumped around the grid, trying to find a new place to break in. There wasn’t any.

Meanwhile, Dan had performed a magic trick. Dan is very calm and still when he’s at the big board (certainly in comparison to Tyler), and it’s easy to let yourself be fooled: Because he is not moving fast, he must not be solving fast. But then you suddenly become aware of just how much progress he’s made. I glanced away for a moment — I swear it was just a moment — and when my eyes went back to the board, it was a whole lot closer to solved. Great swaths of white had been filled in with letters, all correct. “When did THAT happen?” asked the person next to me, also caught off guard.

That was it — Tyler’s advantage was lost, and he would not get it back. But Anne was not out of the picture: She had corrected her every mistake, and had picked up speed as she went along. And what’s this? Dan has an error in his grid?! Indeed, yes. Needing a president’s initials, Dan had gone with DDE instead of FDR. Was it possible that this might trip him up, allowing Anne to pass him? Dan stood back, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Anne kept writing away. She had a whole corner left to fill, and then some, but she was clearly rolling. The audience began to murmur, and everyone sat forward in their seats.

But Dan spotted his minor mistake, corrected it, and broke into the final section of his grid. That was the end: Within seconds, he had claimed the championship for a stellar fourth year running.

And Anne came in second, which was a delight to see. She seemed so nervous her first year in the finals — she wasn’t able to complete the puzzle at all. The next year she was back on stage, and while this time she completed the crossword (I think), it was well after her competitors were done. This third time, she inked in her last letters while a frustrated Tyler still faced a half-blank grid. Her look of surprised delight when she took off her headphones and saw Tyler still at work is the great moment of this year’s tournament. (And on her birthday, too — the audience would serenade her as she picked up her second-place trophy.)

Of course, I felt bad for my friend Tyler — I can’t imagine it’s much fun standing in front of 500 people without the slightest idea what you’re doing. “Well, this is awkward,” he shouted as he danced his adrenaline-pumped dance and tried to figure out the rest of his puzzle. He wrote random words in the blanks: BLAST, DAMN, UGH. Finally he had a breakthrough, but too late — the clock got away from him, and at the end he had several squares blank: His first tournament errors in years.

Hearty and amazed congratulations to Dan Feyer for his fourth tournament win, to Anne for her exciting second place finish, and, yes, to Tyler as well — third place in this group is nothing to shrug at, and he handled his finals predicament with good humor. Congrats as well to my friend Jeff Schwartz, 2nd place finisher in the B division. He used to be one of my pace-car solvers, but he’s gotten too damn good. Luckily, there are lots of other solvers I can shoot for — and will, next year.

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Puzzlers Behind Bars

The Maze of Games is a Kickstarter project from puzzlemaker Mike Selinker — he is promising a puzzle-filled update on a “Choose Your Adventure” story, and so appealing is this notion that he’s raised well over $100,000. (His target had been $16K.)

People who buy the book will also get a complementary “Conundrucopia,” a whole bunch of puzzles from a wide variety of constructors. The more money raised by the project, the more puzzles in the Conundrucopia. I’m the next puzzle constructor on the list: I’ll be added to the project when it hits $140K. I am not yet “unlocked,” and so for now I remain in the Puzzle Cage (which I am sharing with game designer Richard Garfield, which is pretty impressive). So if you want a really cool-looking puzzle adventure book, AND you want a puzzle from me in the Conundrucopia, AND you somehow haven’t already heard about this, go take a look and maybe back the project.

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State of the Homeschool

When you’re having doubts and apprehensions about the path that you’re on, there’s nothing like an inspirational TEDx talk from an eloquent, homeschooled, 13-year-old kid to turn those doubts into outright panic.

It doesn’t feel to me like homeschool is going particularly well these days. It’s just… school, moved into our living room. Lea reads historical fiction with her mom; she does vocabulary and science lessons via software; I go home at lunchtime and we work on math. We used to work on the computer programming language Scratch as well, but that has faded away — I don’t really know what projects to suggest to her and she is not terribly interested in continuing it on her own. I give her writing assignments — book reports, short stories, etc.

There’s little about this that Lea actually enjoys. She does what she needs to do largely because if she does it without complaint, she’ll get to play videogames for a while as a reward. Then it’s back to work.

Too often, our math lessons end in tears. That’s not really how it’s supposed to be.

Logan LaPlante, the kid in the above video, seems to have an idealized homeschool life. He and his parents clearly have a ton of resources to draw upon, both financial and social. My guess is that he didn’t just build a giant Newton’s Cradle in his garage — that this project took place within a homeschool co-op or a similar group environment. We belong to a homeschool co-op, too. It’s a disorganized mess. It’s small, tends toward younger kids, and has a low level of participation by the adults, in terms of organizing classes or even hanging around for a few extra minutes to clean up at the end of the day. We stick with it mainly for social reasons… but with so few kids in the group close to Lea’s age, it’s not even performing this function very well. There are other, better homeschool co-ops in Connecticut, but they are much further away.

My big takeaway from Logan’s talk is that he is not only learning, he is inspired to learn, which is the far greater success. He enjoys it, and thus he is willing to put in the work. (He doesn’t seem to think of it as work at all.) Lea has learned a lot, but she tolerates homeschool the way I remember tolerating school. It’s something she does because she has to.

There are elements she finds inspirational — not many, but they are there. She has taken to 3D design like a duck to water, creating dozens of objects and inventions in TinkerCAD. Similarly, I was content to let her spend hours designing her own game levels using the Portal 2 editor. She has stuff she does away from the home — rock climbing, and pottery, and tennis.

When we discuss the path of homeschooling with her, she says she wants to spend more time on science. Combined with her occasional assertion that she would like to stop homeschooling altogether, we went to look at a nearby magnet school that focuses on science and engineering. It seemed like a slam dunk, if we could get in (there’s a lottery and a long waiting list). She came away from the school’s open house in tears. She thought it would be too hard and doesn’t want to go.

Therefore, it must be up to us to push forward on science. I confess that I don’t know how to do this. It’s easy to teach Lea math: Just open up the book to the next chapter and start reading the examples. I fear that this is the real reason why I teach her math — not because kids should know math (though of course they should) but because it’s a subject where I know what I’m doing.

We’ve edged into science now and again over the past couple of years, but our approach has been hesitant and toe-in-the-water. Science is hands-on, science is all over the place. Science requires a base of knowledge from the teacher, a base that neither my wife nor I have. Furthermore, I am not sure about my daughter’s sincerity when she mentions “science.” I’m afraid that “science” to her begins and ends with reading fun facts about animals. When I ask her to write a few paragraphs about what she’s learned, she sags as if I just dropped a fifty-pound weight on her shoulders.

Logan’s video prompts a lot of questions. We see him at a Starbucks, typing merrily away a laptop with a book open next to him, working on a report or something. Is he doing that entirely on his own? Did no one steer him in that direction? Who will read his output, and will that person correct any run-on sentences and misunderstandings of grammar? Do they make him do a rewrite? Have they finagled things so that Logan wants to do a rewrite, and if so, how the hell did they manage that?

Just how “hacked” is his education?

We are tempted to give Lea the keys to the bus for a couple of months, just to see what happens. She’s years ahead in math, she has an advanced vocabulary, and she writes reasonably well — it would be no tragedy to stop what we’re doing and see what Lea does with her time. If she wants to read about animals, she can read about animals. If she wants to do science experiments, we can help her get the stuff she needs to do them. If she wants to play video games and read Calvin & Hobbes… well, I have to take it on faith that she is a smart, engaged kid, and won’t want to do that forever. But will that approach swing things around so that she is happier to explore and learn, and happier in general? I have absolutely no idea.

Sometimes it seems like we have less idea what we are doing now than we did when we first started homeschooling. That is not usually the way things work.

And that is the state of our homeschooling. Are we not an inspiration to you all? No? Then go watch that kid’s TEDx talk again. I plan to.

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