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Archive for October, 2008

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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RSG Puzzle of the Day

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:

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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.

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Just returned from Philadelphia, where I spent the day at the 2nd annual National Sudoku Championship. As far as I know, it was just a coincidence that it took place the weekend before the WPC, but it was serendipitous nonetheless, for both the U.S. team and myself: them, because they could consolidate two of their biggest puzzle competitions of the year into one trip (and two of the members, Thomas Snyder and Wei-Hwa Huang, could use Philly as a “stopover” on the way to Europe from California); me, because it gave me the opportunity to catch my first glimpse of the competitive puzzling community before flying out tomorrow. So what did I see?

An impressive display, by both the organizing committee and the players. Apparently over 1,000 people competed, which would mean a new Guinness World Record (breaking last year’s) for simultaneous sudoku participation. Yet the atmosphere was more library than sporting event: it could hardly have run smoother. Will Shortz hosted, fulfilling his emceeing duties with earnestness and a dash of flair (“Ready, Set, Solve!”), and the red and green t-shirted officials were on the ball throughout the day. Until the finals, it was a bit like watching a thousand people take the SAT, so I spent most of the early rounds wandering around the convention center, chatting up puzzle-book company representatives and family-business entrepreneurs trying to cash in on the sudoku craze (Joe Sudoku, perhaps?) with their own variations.

The playoffs, however, were worth the wait. The three finalists in each division (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced) competed on giant white boards in front of the audience. Lucky for me, two of the finalists in the Advanced division were also members of the U.S. puzzle team: the aforementioned Snyder and Huang, both from the Bay Area. Huang is a four-time individual World Puzzle Champion; Snyder was the defending world and national sudoku titlist, and the first ever perfect-scorer in this year’s national qualifying test for the puzzle team. Heavy hitters both.

In the playoff, Snyder appeared to take an early lead (although, to be fair, what do I know about sudoku?…), filling in spaces while Huang made notes in and outside the matrix. Then, after three or four minutes, Snyder looked stumped. He got down on one knee, as if proposing marriage, and stared at the board without making a mark for what must have been two or three minutes. Meanwhile, Huang continued his slow but steady pace. Around the 7-minute mark, Snyder got up and began what looked like a furious comeback, but Huang picked up his pace as well — those last few squares go fast, even for novices — and ultimately it was too much ground to make up for Snyder. Huang finished at around 8:20, a minute or so ahead of Snyder, and took home a cool $10 grand for his toils. (I’ll ask him next week what he plans to do with the money.)

Oh, and I saw this too:

First time I’ve ever seen the blueprint of a men’s room laid out for me at the entrance. Probably unnecessary, but at least it was correct. I know because when I tested its accuracy by walking straight ahead, I bumped into the wall jutting out away from those sinks. Bloody nose and everything.

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RSG Puzzle of the Day

In honor of today’s National Sudoku Championship, today’s puzzle will be a sudoku. There’s a twist, though. This one’s called an “Arrow Sudoku,” and in this variation, each circled number is the sum of the numbers along the corresponding arrow path. (Otherwise, use the standard rules of sudoku.)

As always, answer to appear tomorrow in the comments thread.

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Last night I attended a panel discussion at the Japan Society, in Midtown, called “Puzzling the World,” about the popularity of Sudoku and crosswords. First Japanese puzzle designer Maki Kaji, who is known as the “Godfather of Sudoku,” spoke through an interpreter about how he discovered Sudoku in the mid-’80s and, 20 years later, turned it into the phenomenon it is today. Then Will Shortz, crossword editor of the Times and all-around puzzle lord (if you don’t know who he is, odds are you’re not reading this anyway), discussed his all-time favorite crosswords and how he makes his daily Times selections. Finally Liane Hansen, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday (where Shortz does his popular “Sunday Puzzle” segment), moderated a discussion with both of them.

Some fun facts and other highlights from the evening:

  • Shortz’s “Sunday Puzzle” podcast gets downloaded over 100,000 times per month.
  • When Kaji came upon Sudoku, in a games magazine in 1984, it was an obscure puzzle called Number Place. He was the one to name it Sudoku, “su” being Japanese for “number,” “duku” meaning “single” (like a bachelor). He chose that as the name because “the single-digit number should be kept alone and unmarried, like a bachelor.”
  • The name Sudoku is only trademarked in Japan (by Kaji); everywhere else it is in the public domain. Thus, with the exception of Kaji’s company’s puzzles, Japan is actually the only country in the world where Sudoku is not called Sudoku.
  • Sudoku, while always popular in Japan, didn’t truly take off until 2004, when Kaji got it a spot in the Times of London, and the Brits fell in love with it. A year later it appeared for the first time in an American paper (The N.Y. Post). The rest is history.
  • The crossword puzzle first appeared in 1913, making its debut in the New York World, and became a national craze in the ’20s. Strangely, the Times — now, of course, the standard-bearer for the country’s best crosswords — was the last major American newspaper to print them, holding out until 1942. (The Times still refuses to include Sudoku.)
  • Here is Kaji, on the merits of Sudoku: “Please remember that Sudoku is not a mind-training or brain-training game. It’s not mathematics; it’s not educational. It is a worthless game. It is a time-killer…. In case that you are so involved in Sudoku that you are lacking reading time, or your wife is not making your lunch or dinner, or your husband is staying at home playing Sudoku and irritating you, then retire from Sudoku as quickly as possible and move on. Please get tired of Sudoku — and [instead] get involved in my other new puzzles.”
  • Shortz disagreed with that sentiment, calling puzzles of all types “excellent mental aerobics.”
  • Shortz receives 75-100 crossword submissions a week from puzzle-makers. How does he choose? He starts with his six basic rules of what makes for a good crossword:
  1. It must be symmetrical (i.e., if you spin it 180 degrees, it will look the same as it did before).
  2. Every square must be used twice.
  3. No 2-letter words.
  4. No repeated answers within the same puzzle.
  5. It has to be a real word. (For this one, Shortz laughed and said, “I had to include this one — believe it or not, we get a lot of submissions with completely made-up words.”)
  6. It should avoid “crosswordese” (e.g., “Esne,” a totally obscure 8th-century Anglo-Saxon bishop of Hereford, which often appears in crosswords because it uses common letters and begins and ends with “e”).
  • There’s an old maxim amongst puzzle-designers: “Every type of puzzle has a flaw.”  For instance, crosswords’ flaw, Shortz said, is the abundance of short, often obscure words. Double-crostics’ flaw is tedium: transporting the letters from the first set of blanks to the second.

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