In theory, the last night of the WPC — the awards ceremony and goodbye banquet — is the only one that is entirely puzzle-free. In practice, it doesn’t necessarily work out like that. And if you’re a reporter on the lookout for more story material, thank God for that.

I was seated at the American table, which included, in addition to the team, the full entourage: former American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champions Stan Newman and Nancy Schuster (who won in 1978, the first year the tournament was held); Helene Hovanec of the National Puzzlers’ League, who helped organize the very first WPC; and, of course, the puzzlingly-ubiquitous Will Shortz, who helps run the World Puzzle Federation when he’s not editing the Times crossword, serving as puzzle master for NPR, organizing the crossword championships, or hosting the National Sudoku Championship.

Even with the alcohol and conversation flowing freely, it took all of 15 minutes — approximately the amount of time until one has had his or fill of yet another meal of potato-and-[insert name of meat]-liver stew — before things got puzzling, as it were. On my left, Stan, the crossword editor of Newsday, handed out copies of some recent crosswords to Zack and Roger, whose puzzling prowess extends to word puzzles — they have each finished in the top ten at the American Crossword Tournament multiple times. (Earlier in the week, when I interviewed him, Zack told me the Times‘s Saturday puzzle usually takes him about eight minutes; the Sunday magazine’s, a minute or two longer.) Roger and Zack were also each nearly featured in the charming 2006 documentary Wordplay; their scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

They flipped immediately to Stan’s Saturday puzzle. Someone suggested they compete. “I have a couple of glasses of wine in me,” Zack said, “but OK,” and within seconds the race was on.

On the other side of the table, I asked Will if he was looking forward to our guided tour of Minsk the next day. He said yes, but he indicated Minsk was never exactly on the top of his travel list. Someone joked it probably wasn’t even near his top 25, and when I joked it probably wasn’t even in his top 25 that begin with an ‘M,’ a game of Name-25-Cities-Will-Shortz-Would-Rather-Visit-Than-Minsk broke out, with Wei-Hwa as amanuensis. City names flew at Will from all directions. Milan? Yes. Montreal? No. (Already been.) Montevideo? Yes. Madison? No. (Too domestic.) Mexico City? Yes. Montgomery? No. (Too… Alamabamian.)

Meanwhile, on my left, Roger was filling in the final squares in his crossword. I looked over at Zack’s paper — he was behind. “Done,” Roger said, laying down his pencil. “Damn it!” Zack said. “You killed me.”

I looked at my watch. “He finished that in about nine minutes,” I said.

“Eight thirty-three,” Thomas said, smiling, and pointed at his digital watch.

Immediately, Roger moved on to another crossword while Zack finished his.

Malibu? Yes. Montpelier? Nope. Moscow? Definitely…

Zack finished the Saturday puzzle and flipped to a Monday or Tuesday. His pencil zipped from box to box as if he were just scribbling random words. (He’d simply put down music already finished in his head! Page after page of it, as if he was just taking dictation…) On my right, the list of 25 Cities Will Shortz Would Rather Visit Than Minsk had stalled at 24. From behind me, Thomas called out a candidate. “OK,” Will said, “I’ll take that.” Evidently Thomas’s puzzling skills also extend beyond the boundaries of the WPC.

I tried challenging the group with one of my favorite dinner-table trivia questions: Name the ten countries with exactly four letters in their name. Answers barraged me from all four corners of the table: Cuba, Fiji, Chad! Peru! Oman! Togo!  [Note to reader: If you want to stump a group of crossword champions, breaking out the four-letter-countries question is not the way to go.] It took less than a minute for them to come up with the first nine. After a momentary thoughtful silence — it’s always the last one that’s toughest, isn’t it? — it was Thomas once again who finished off the list. “Laos!” he called out. And he is one of the few who doesn’t do crosswords.

I tried again, this time with my favorite brain-teaser: the “pirate booty” problem. Will grinned, a glint in his eye — the look of a natural-born puzzler who has encountered something fresh, something challenging. I was a bit surprised he hadn’t heard that one before. Wei-Hwa had. “If that’s the best brain-teaser you’ve ever heard…” he said, not needing to finish the thought.

While Will pondered the pirates, Simon Anthony of the British team joined the table and began talking crosswords with Roger. They explained to me the difference between British and American crosswords. (In short, British crosswords resemble cryptics, and thus utilize more word play, whereas American puzzles contain more unusual words due to the fact that every square must be used both vertically & horizontally.) Simon helped Roger work through another Saturday puzzle.

Behind me, Will was emceeing an impromptu game of Categories. (Apparently he had dismissed the pirate problem.) “Shortstop,” I heard. “Knuckleball.” The base word was MINSK; they had just finished off baseball terms. “OK,” Will continued. “Auto makes.” Mazda, Isuzu, Nissan… Words five letters or longer ending in ‘k’. Stank, Knock.

Back, one more time, to my left. Simon was telling Roger about his favorite British crossword clue of all time. “Nice,” Roger said. Then he showed Simon the best clue he ever wrote himself, for a crossword that appeared in the Times. “That’s beautiful,” Simon said, sounding like an art historian appreciating a piece in a museum. “Just beautiful.”


Final Results Posted

The official final standings have been posted here.

The Playoffs

With the team competition decided, the world turned its attention — okay, the World Puzzle Championship turned its attention — to the individual playoffs, held Friday.

In the field: all four Americans, including 4-time world champ Wei-Hwa Huang and World Sudoku Champion Thomas Snyder; three members from 2nd-place Japan; defending champ Pal Madarassy of Hungary; and the top seed and favorite, 5-time champion Ulrich Voigt of Germany. Also, notably, only two women out of 17 finalists. (The only problem of the week with no solution? How to meet a chick at the WPC…)

The playoff system was a bit of a puzzle in and of itself. The instruction manual summed it up well: “17 finalists! 17 puzzles! 5 final rounds, making 17 [rounds] in total.”  (Notice a theme in this, the 17th WPC? I’ll give you one guess as to how many minutes each round lasted.)  Basically, without going into all the details, there were five competitors doing three puzzles in each round, with two advancing each time. In other words, if you entered the playoffs with weak positioning, you had your work cut out for you if you wanted to make the podium. For instance, Zack Butler, who squeaked in at 17th, would need to finish first or second in four consecutive rounds just to make the final. By contrast, Roger Barkan, who was 3rd going into the playoffs, had automatically qualified for the final round, guaranteeing himself a top-five finish. Adding to the complexity were the “proportional” time bonuses the higher-seeded players received in each round — the WPC equivalent, essentially, of home-field advantage for the puzzlers who had performed best during the two main days of competition.

In the first round, Hungarian Zoltan Horvath (one of Hungary’s “two Zoltans”) finishes well ahead of the other four. With about a minute left, and the remaining four racing neck-and-neck(-and-neck-and-neck) on their final puzzles — to keep the audience updated, the “proctors” remove wooden pieces from the desks each time a player finished a puzzle — Zack hands his final sheet of paper to his proctor. A few seconds later, the proctor raises her hand, indicating Zack’s solution is correct; he moves on to the next round.

In the second round, Zack and Zoltan #1 join Wei-Hwa and two others in the hot seats. Wei-Hwa finishes his first puzzle in about five minutes and goes on to an easy victory. For Zack, it comes down to a one-on-one race with a Dutch player on their final puzzle. As an audience member, it’s impossible to know who is winning when it’s close — you never know which questions they’ve already finished, or how far along they are on the remaining ones — but it appears Zack and the Dutchman are frantically working out the final steps of their respective puzzles. In the end, it’s the Dutchman by a nose; Zach becomes the first American eliminated. Officially, he finishes 14th.

The next round is loaded. Wei-Hwa joins Thomas and last year’s champ, Pal Madarassy. Thomas is wearing his lucky red polo — his “Tiger attire.”  As in, yes, Woods. (In my interview with him the night before, he admits that he even wears his Tiger shirt during the WPC U.S. qualifying test, which is done online, alone at home.) There’s a sense in the room, I think, that despite his relatively low seed, Thomas is the only one left in the field with the potential to upset Ulrich in the final round.

He does not disappoint. The third round, more than anything else, becomes an exhibition of Thomas’s now-legendary speed. He finishes his first puzzle in less than two minutes, then knocks off the next one just as quickly. At the 11:15 mark — less than 6 minutes into the round — Thomas finishes with a “Take that!” flourish and an audible exhalation. Three of his four competitors haven’t even finished a single puzzle yet. Hushed “ooh”s and “ah”s emanate from the crowd. I look over at Ulrich, who is sitting in the “bullpen,” to see if I can discern any worry on his face. His expression is implacable, but he must be thanking the puzzle gods right about now for the huge time bonus he will have at his disposal in the final round.

The rest of the round has been rendered anticlimactic. At the 6:30 mark — five minutes after Thomas finished — a Slovak player completes his last puzzle, then looks around behind him to check the progress of the others. When his proctor’s hand goes up, indicating a correct solution, he lets out a guttural “Yeah!” and pumps his fist. His teammates surround him and exchange hugs. Suddenly I feel like I’m at the Olympics.

Eight left now.

If the third round is a demonstration of what can happen when everything falls into place for someone who is the best to begin with, then the fourth round — the semifinals, technically — exemplifies the fickleness of competitive puzzling. The problems are clearly more difficult this round; after seven minutes, Thomas has yet to finish one. By the end, only one of the five players has finished all three puzzles; Thomas isn’t one of them, and second place goes to the competitor who was highest-seeded entering the round. Thomas is not that either, and just like that, America’s best hope — everyone’s best hope — to take out Ulrich is eliminated.

Afterwards, Nick Baxter, the U.S. team captain, echoes a sentiment I’ve heard from the players throughout the week. “It’s a little bit the luck of the draw,” he explains. “There was some variation in the difficulty of the questions. In the third round, I think we saw when everything goes right. Thomas finished them all in five minutes. Then, In the next round, you can see how everything goes wrong.”  Even within a single puzzle, there can be a strong element of luck: If the problem cannot be solved by pure logic — i.e., when it’s analogous to a maze, and you have to keep trying multiple paths — the one to finish first often isn’t the strongest puzzler but rather the one who happens to choose the best path at each “dead end.” That is exactly how Thomas, who is far and away the best sudoku solver in the world, lost in the finals of the 2006 World Sudoku Championship.

After the round, before the finals, Wei-Hwa crosses the room to ask me what I think so far. I tell him it’s about as exciting as a competition can be when you can’t actually see what the competitors are doing. I ask him where he went wrong in his round. He says he made simple arithmetic errors while tallying sums for a cryptogram puzzle involving averages. According to Wei-Hwa, Thomas was felled by similar carelessness. “Thomas was my favorite to win, but he got eliminated the same way I did: by making arithmetic errors under pressure,” Wei-Hwa says.  As Nick said later, “There’s pressure all the time. You’re solving and you’re making mistakes and you’re making brilliant insights all at the same time. You’re doing that throughout, but in the finals, any mistake can cost you.” Before heading back to his seat, Wei-Hwa makes a prediction for the finals: “Ulrich is going to be tough to beat with his [extra] time bank.”

Ulrich Voigt, the most decorated puzzler in history, fits the mold of the eccentric genius. Bald, with a Fu Manchu mustache flowing into a stringy beard, he wears wire-rimmed frames and dark long-sleeved shirts, and he wanders around with a slight smirk that gives the impression he knows something you do not. He studied math at university, but quit before getting his degree because he could not stay interested in academics. At 32, he now devotes himself full-time to puzzles: writing them, collecting them, solving them, winning competitions based on them.

And for the final round — five puzzles, 30 minutes — by virtue of his dominating performance the previous two days, he will have at his disposal exactly what he does not need: an extra 5 minutes, 23 seconds. The 2nd seed, a young Turk, has earned an extra 30 seconds; the other three finalists, including Roger, will be playing catchup from the beginning.

As expected, the round quickly turns into the Ulrich Show. He finishes his first puzzle before the Turk is even allowed to start. From there, he knocks them off with machine-like regularity. At the 16-minute mark — less than 20 minutes after starting — he finishes his fifth and final puzzle. Moments later his proctor’s hand goes up, and the crowd bursts into hushed congratulations. Cameras flash; Ulrich flashes, too — a triumphant and relieved smile, which he is unable to remove from his face for several minutes.

The race for 2nd place ends up just as one-sided. The Turk, a rising star in competitive puzzling, finishes his final puzzle at the 9:30 mark. (As it turns out, Ulrich would have won even without the time advantage.) With only one spot left on the podium up for grabs, it looks like Roger is behind. The Japanese player to his left has been working on his last puzzle for a few minutes now, while Roger still has two wooden diamonds sitting on his desk. With about four minutes left, however, Roger finishes his fourth; it will come down to their final puzzles. Somehow, a minute later, after a flurry of scribbling, Roger hands his final page to his proctor. He gives a “what the hell” shrug and covers his eyes as if to imply he knocked off that last one with blind guesses.

However he did it, it works: Roger takes third. (I find out later he had already put down a lot of the groundwork for that final puzzle when he went back to it at the end.)  Wei-Hwa is the legend and Thomas is the almost-legend (his own blog is titled “Almost Famous”), yet it is Roger, an amiable [insert top-secret profession title here]* from Columbia, MD, who ends up performing most consistently for the Americans. He started off strong on Wednesday morning, held his place near the top of the standings on Thursday, and finishes on the proverbial podium, earning an individual medal and a spot in the “top three” photo at the awards ceremony.

It is Roger’s third 3rd-place finish at the WPCs. “I seem to have found my plateau,” he says. I ask him if he’s happy with 3rd. “I didn’t have a realistic shot at first, so I did about as well as I thought I could do,” he says.



* All he will say is, “I work for the government.”

Day 2, Part II

1:36 p.m.  After the Americans have finished, Thomas sticks around to do “recon,” as he calls it, on the team’s main competitors. I ask him how he thinks it’s going so far. “I was hoping to give you a good story this week,” he says, “but Zack and Wei-Hwa aren’t doing as well as expected so far.” As for him individually, he says his goal is to be in the top three going into the playoffs, “so that I know I’ll have a good shot at the podium. I left some points on the table [in the second part today], but I’m where I want to be.”

1:45 p.m.  After the round ends, I talk to Pal Madarassy of Hungary, last year’s champion. He describes that last round as a “catastrophe” for team Hungary.

3:00 p.m.  The final team round begins. With a hundred intense competitors literally sweating things out in a too-small conference hall, the room now smells like a men’s locker room. Olfactorily, that still makes it a better place to be than the smoky lobby.

3:30 p.m.  The Americans successfully complete one of the two “chrono” puzzles. The lost points will not affect their place near the top of the standings, as only two countries (Serbia & the Czech Republic) are able to solve both.

4:00 p.m.  A much-needed nap.

7:30 p.m.  A much-needed dinner.

9:00 p.m.  Once again, Team U.S.A. relaxes with some card games in the lobby. Nick Baxter, Zack, and Roger are playing Take-5; Wei-Hwa, Thomas, and two others are playing Race for the Galaxy, a Settlers of Catan-type game that one of Wei-Hwa’s friends invented several years ago. Four Serbs are playing hardcore Serbian Scrabble (chess clocks and everything) on the card tables in front of me.

11:55 p.m.  During my interview with Thomas, Nick brings over Thomas’s tests from today. Thomas pages through them. He looks disappointed but stoic. “How’d it go?” I ask. “Not as well as I’d hoped,” he replies. “This is going to drop me down a bit.”

12:40 a.m. The updated standings are posted. Thomas has indeed dropped. Still, barring protests, all four Americans have qualified for tomorrow’s playoffs. Roger Barkan finishes 3rd, Thomas 9th, Wei-Hwa 13th, and Zack Butler 16th (the top 17 make it). The team results are merely updates, not final results, but the Americans have overtaken the Germans (3898 to 3850), and from the looks of it, that’s how things will finish: U.S. 1st, Germany 2nd.

12:41 a.m. Here is where a lesser blogger would type, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” But I am above that.

12:42 a.m. I stand up and belt out the national anthem in the middle of the lobby. The Germans are not amused.

2:20 a.m. As I finish this entry, Tatsuya Nishio, the venerable inventor of many successful types of puzzles, stumbles over and starts chatting me up. Or at least, he tries to. His English is extremely limited; he knows maybe two-dozen words, and that’s when he’s sober. He is tanked off his ass, and is slurring (I think) the few words he knows. I try to oblige, but all the gesticulation and enunciation in the world isn’t going to help with this one. He leaves. He comes back, tries again. He leaves. He comes back, tries again. This is awkward. “Our communication,” he says. “Not good.” “I agree,” I say. Then, silence. Awkward for me; amusing, it appears, to him. Finally, after a few more attempts, I realize that he is telling me he has misplaced his 17th World Puzzle Championship canvas tote bag. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I haven’t seen it.” Tatsuya smiles broadly.

2:55 a.m. All right, there is no one else here, and it still reeks of cigarettes. I’m out of here.

Day 2, Part I

Without ado, the blow-by-blow from the second day of competition at the WPC:

8:30 a.m.  The wakeup call. This time they bother with it. The woman on the other end sounds as unhappy about waking me up as I am to be woken up.

9:05 a.m.  Breakfast. It’s a bit like Asia here in that they pretty much serve the same food for breakfast that they do for lunch and dinner: in this case, many varieties of anonymous meats, sometimes covered with cheese; potatoes, sometimes covered with something unidentifiable; and no fruit wheresoever. The exception is the table of rapidly stale-ifying permutations of American cold cereals.

I can’t find the American team, so I sit with Valter Kvalic, an imposing Croatian who used to compete but now attends as a key member of the World Puzzle Federation. He has big, carpenter hands and a salt-and-pepper beard, and when he talks — in slow & accented but competent English — his eyes roam from side to side, past my head, as if there is something more interesting behind me. He tells me that his biggest goal for the WPC is to increase participation in future WPCs amongst the WPF member nations. There are currently 43 countries with membership, but only 22 were able to afford to send complete teams this year.

9:25 a.m.  At the coffee/tea station, I run into Ken Wilshire, one of the British competitors I ate dinner with last night. He is emptying a packet of Nescafe into a cup. “Shouldn’t you be drinking tea?” I say. “One cup of coffee in the morning,” he replies, “then tea for the rest of the day.”

I ask him how his team did yesterday. “Not very well,” he says with a grimace. “We were ready. We prepared well. The problems are just too hard for the British team. We’re a bit shell-shocked.”  I point out that it’s only half over. “That’s true,” he says. “We could do well today. We’re British, so we’re full of optimism.”

9:55 a.m.  The updated scores are out. The five traditional puzzle powers top the standings: Germany is in first, with 2637 points, followed by the U.S. (2542), Japan, Hungary, & the Czech Republic. Ken Wilshire and his (team)mates are 19th (out of 22), with less than half the score of the leaders (1033).

Individually, there is virtually a three-way tie at the top between Hideaki Jo of Japan (554 pts), defending champ Pal Madarassy of Hungary (553), and Thomas Snyder (553). Roger Barkan is 12th with 500, Wei-Hwa Huang 25th with 410, and Zack Butler 29th with 379. Wei-Hwa and Zack have their work cut out for them today if they want to finish in the top 17 and qualify for Friday’s playoffs.

10:00 a.m.  The first two rounds today are individual paper-and-pencil tests, so I decide to leave the hotel for the first time and explore Minsk a bit.

10:05 a.m.  It’s cold, gray, and windy outside, but this feels appropriate given Minsk’s Soviet hey-day era aura.

10:10 a.m.  I arrive at my first crosswalk red light. Lonely Planet strictly discourages jay-walking here, as any transgression, however minor, can result in unpleasant confrontations with KGB cops. So I wait. And wait, and keep waiting. I feel like a schmuck. The other side of the street is 15 feet away — it’s just a parking-lot exit — and there are no cars even showing hints of movement in the lot, yet here I am waiting for the little green man anyway. The lady next to me seems perfectly content to stand and stare. I begin to wonder how the Russian Revolution ever happened. The green man appears. I wait for the woman to move before crossing myself.

10:40 a.m.  My Lonely Planet map is shitty — it’s in English, for one, and small — but it doesn’t matter anyway, since there are no street signs in Belarus. I decide to follow my intuition, which is how I’ve managed to get lost in every city I’ve ever visited, ever. I’m more worried about finding my way back to the hotel later than I am about missing out on the one or two buildings supposedly worth seeing here.

11:00 a.m.  Despite the crisp air and wind, Minsk smells like exhaust. Evidently smog testing is still stuck with all the other Western values on the other side of the border.

12:00 p.m.  I wander into one of the many underpass stalls hawking CDs, DVDs, video games, even cassettes. I am surprised to find they sell soft-core porn. I almost pull the trigger on a “XXX” Cinemax DVD for 11,000 Belarussian Rubles (~$5.oo), but I figure it is probably just the American version dubbed in Russian, which would be a huge disappointment, so I pull out, as it were, at the last moment. Also, I’ve seen that one.

12:20 p.m.  I wander into what must be Belarus’s version of Costco — an enormous musak-less warehouse packed with aisle after aisle of much too much everything. The overriding smell upon entering is salami. Women outfitted in various primary colors (if it’s blue, it must be cheese…) make their pitches to me as I pass. Some even smile. I settle on a bottle of water and some sort of instant-lunch pastry. It’s a bit like a flattened-out churro, except that it doesn’t have cinnamon or sugar and it’s more fried and has meat inside instead of air. I take three bites — two more than I would have taken were it not for politeness and guilt — and toss it in the trash as surreptitiously as I can.

12:35 p.m.  I get lost on the way back. I fuckin knew it.

1:00 p.m.  OK, my feet really hurt.

1:15 p.m.  Luckily, Hotel Belarus rises 23 stories into the sky like a dull, ugly beacon. When I finally see it, I’m good to go.

1:35 p.m.  I arrive back in time to catch the second half of the day’s first team round: a three-dimensional “manipulative” puzzle involving wood-carved diamonds. The Americans let Wei-Hwa carry much of the load — these are his specialty — and finish third, ahead of both the Germans and the Japanese.

I finally got out of the hotel for a few hours today. More on that later.

In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out the website for the place where I’ve spent most of my time thus far. (If it loads in Russian for some reason, click on the “ENG” at the top. Unless you know Russian, in which case, Why do you know Russian?) Some of the descriptions of Hotel “Belarus” rival those found on Engrish.com. Some highlights:

  • “It’s location has certain advantage: It’s near bussiness, administrative, trade centre of Minsk, combining with separation from noise of big city.”
  • The latest event, apparently, hosted by the hotel was the “competitions on bench shooting” (“In Minsk will take place competitions on bench shooting”) — on July 18, 2007(!!). Even with a little imagination, I can’t hazard a guess as to what bench shooting is.
  • The pool: “The unique aquapark in city is in our hotel. Having visited it and you and your children receive weight of sensations. You can swim for a while, come in a sauna or have a rest in a jacuzzi. For children the separate pool with small depth is stipulated. For our visitors living in numbers of a business class, we give free-of-charge visiting an exercise room and an aquapark”
  • The sauna: “For amateurs of good rest we give an opportunity to visit ours a sauna of a class “Lux”, executed in classical style”
  • The night club: “In a court yard of hotel the night club ” West World Club ” is located. At your service a casino, a night club, a peep-show.”
  • The travel company(?):  “We – with you all over the world.

    Welcome in Minotel express.:

    We are glad to present you our travel agency Minotel express!. It has been founded, as a part of a network of hotels and restaurants of JSC ” Minotel ” in 2000. We are responsible for service of foreign tourists and tourists from the CIS countries for this reason we can guarantee the best service in the hotels belonging JSC” Minotel “. The personnel Minotel express is the qualified experts in the field of tourism and represents young ambitious enthusiasts who love and know the work. Our overall objective consists in becoming leading travel agency in Belarus.”

And in front of me, next to the lobby, is Kafe “PORNO.” Like the rest of the country, the “R” is backwards. Still, it was funny when a woman dressed as a hooker — maybe she was a hooker — click-clacked out of there around midnight last night. Heh heh — Cafe Porno.

Day 1

Blogging to you from the lobby of Hotel Belarus, after a hard day of watching 90-something of the world’s smartest people think their brains out. As I type this, the U.S. team is five feet away, cooling off with a four-way card game of tichu, whatever that is. Wei-Hwa Huang, one of the stars of the American team, seems relaxed, maybe even happy — he smiles for the first time since I’ve met him. Meanwhile, behind them, three Italians push cardboard squares around a card table, still working on the manipulative/spatial puzzle they weren’t able to complete within the time limit earlier today. Two of the Brits I just ate dinner with amble over to the Americans and begin talking “mutant sudoku” with Thomas Snyder, the current World Sudoku Champion.

My computer is once again about to run out of batteries, and so I once again revert to default-lazy-blogger-mode, also known as

  • bullet points!

And so, also of note:

  • My luggage finally arrived, so I am now wearing deodorant and a clean pair of socks. Other people stand near me again.
  • The first day of the 2 main days of competition is complete. They’ve only scored the early-morning round so far; through that first part, American Roger Barkan is tied for first with 2-time World Champ Niels Roest of the Netherlands. The Americans as a team are 2nd, behind the Germans. It is rumored, however, that, like in World Wars, they finish strong.
  • (Is it wrong to make a World War joke at the expense of Germans?)
  • I still have not left the hotel since arriving. I feel like a Vegas tourist. On the bright side, I haven’t been arrested by former KGB agents for jay-walking yet. I think tomorrow, during one of the long individual pencil-and-paper rounds (which aren’t the most exciting, journalistically/observationally speaking), I’ll do a round around Minsk.

Here’s the story from the Philly Inquirer about Saturday’s chamionships. I also recommend checking out the accompanying video, which is nicely done.

Complete results are here.

Today’s example, known broadly as a distance puzzle, is a type that shows up often at competitions. It again showed up in one of today’s individual rounds.

The instructions: Fill in the circles with different integers, starting with 1, such that each pair of consecutive integers is farther apart than the previous pair. (Hint: You’ll have to do a little time-traveling back to high school geometry and dust off that Pythagorean Theorem!)

Here is an example of a solved puzzle:

Well, I made it. And with minimal bureaucratic nightmares or anal-probing. I attended the welcome dinner last night, where the American team (as well as the other guests of the team and Nick Baxter, the team captain) seemed more than willing — enthusiastic, even — to “talk puzzles” with me. That’s the good news.

Here’s the bad news:

  • My flight out of JFK was delayed by 90 minutes, which was exactly the amount of time of my connection, so I spent most of the first 12 hours of the trip freaking out that I would have to spend the following night roaming the streets of Kiev, Ukraine, waiting for the next flight to Minsk. Fortunately, Aerosvit’s (“Ukrainian Airlines”) pilot made up about an hour in the air (which made me wonder, as Seinfeld once quipped, Why don’t they always make up an hour in the air??…), so I made it to Ukraine with plenty of time to catch the connecting flight. My luggage, however, was not as fortunate, and I was forced to spend my first night here without dental- or armpit-hygiene products.
  • I couldn’t sleep on the flights, and so I arrived not only jeg-lagged but sleep-deprived. I set my wake-up call for 9:00 a.m. (no alarm clock in the room) and, figuring 10-11 hours of sleep would be enough to catch up, went to bed around 10:00 for the first time since maybe junior high. Next thing I know, it’s 10:30 and I’ve missed breakfast. Apparently wake-up calls from high-end Belarussian hotels neither call nor wake up.
  • Fast-forward one hour. I arrive in the lobby for the WPC-organized 12 o’clock field trip to a local farm (“lunch and dinner in tradition Belarus folk style!”) to discover that they apparently decided, extempore, to move the trip up an hour; no one called me to let me know. According to Lonely Planet, “If you only make one day trip from Minsk, let this be the one.” Great. Even worse, I was planning to use the outing — the only extended period of relaxation in the WPC schedule — as my best opportunity for informal interviews and eavesdropping.
  • I called the airline to recover my luggage. No dice. Call again tomorrow, she says, mostly in Russian.
  • And so, here I am, in the lobby of the Hotel “Belarus” (as they endearingly punctuate it), blogging to you from a laptop that has 9 minutes left of battery time, and with my volt-converter in a suitcase that may or may not be on a runway in Kiev somewhere.

Thus, no time for further updates. No time for new Puzzles of the Day or answers to old ones. No time for anything other than:

More to come tomorrow. Perhaps.