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Archive for October, 2008

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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RSG Puzzle of the Day

As a storyteller and teacher, I’m partial to the puzzle below. It seems like the type of problem you could give to students of almost any age, and for classes ranging from creative-writing to math.

Again, answer to appear tomorrow in the comments thread.

“Cartoon Sequence” The six panels in this cartoon (A-F) have been mixed up. Put them back in their logical order.

Answer key: List the six letters in order.

A.
B.
C.
D.
E.
F.

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I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable guy, geography-wise. I read the paper. I travel. I know what Kyrgyzstan is, even if I can’t pronounce it. I’m good at the blue questions in Trivial Pursuit, and I have a t-shirt with the outlines of Hungary and Turkey on it that says, “I’m Hungary for Turkey.”  (Ladies?)  Yet a little over a month ago I probably couldn’t have pointed to Belarus on a map.

I knew that it was a former Soviet republic. I knew its people were called Belorussians. (Or, apparently, Belarussions, or Belarusians, or Chanukah, or Hanukkah…) I knew Minsk was where Rochelle traveled from Milan. That’s about it.

Now I’m on my way there.

And I’m scared for my American life.

After buying my plane ticket, I began to conduct some research on the place. (And yes, I’m aware that the traditional order of operations is to conduct the research first, then buy the plane ticket. Deadlines, however, were lurking.) In short, Belarus is not really where you want to be right now if you’re American. Or, simply, if you’re not Belorussian/Belarussian/Belarusian.

Our recent relations with Belarus and its authoritarian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, have been, um, frosty. Earlier this year, the U.S. and Europe imposed sanctions against Lukashenko for cracking down on a peaceful protest over his re-election, which was widely seen as a sham. Then, in March, the U.S. embassy in Minsk temporarily stopped issuing visas to Belorussian citizens in response to pressure by the government there to reduce embassy personnel. Several weeks later, Lukashenko responded by expelling ten American diplomats. Our State Department was not amused. The latest chapter in the “diplomatic deep freeze,” as the Times called it, occurred just this month: the E.U. imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko himself, which they lifted on Oct. 13th.

Belarus, “which is often described as the last dictatorship in Europe,” as one of those Times stories declares, “is widely regarded as having one of the world’s most repressive governments” (as a different story above states). In 2005, Condoleezza Rice did the Times one better: she labeled Belarus one of the world’s six “outposts of tyranny.” (These are not to be confused, of course, with the “axis of evil,” though two of those three (Iran & North Korea) were tyrannical and evil enough to make both lists.)  I’m not sure what distinguishes Belarus’s tyranny from, say, the “mere” genocide in Sudan; but, at any rate, it can’t make Minsk the most alluring of tourist destinations.

Which brings me to: my visa!

I don’t have one.

I tried to get one at the Belorussian/Belarussian/Belarusian consulate here in New York (for the low, low price of only $232), but the woman on the phone explained, in a thick Russian accent, that they stopped processing visas on October 10th.

“Can I ask why?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Okay. Why?”

“Because an occasion happened.”

Right. Well, since an occasion happened…  It’s understandable. When an occasion happens, these things take place. Happenings occur. Events transpire.

(Very) long story short: I would have to go through the Belorussian/Belarussian/Belarusian embassy in D.C., and it was too late for that. The only option left: to get one upon arrival in Minsk. Not exactly ideal — once I land, they’ve sort of got me by the balls, no? But hey, what’s a little pre-Second-Cold-War travel without a little post-Soviet-bureaucracy anal-probing?

I figure, worst-case scenario is that I’ll end up like Emanuel Zeltser, the American lawyer who was detained earlier this year by Belorussian/Belarussian/Belarusian authorities at the Minsk airport and held captive on undeclared charges. (As far as I can tell from a quick Google search, no one even knows if Zeltser is still alive, much less how he’s doing. The last update seems to be from Aug. 7th.  Scary stuff.)  I take comfort only in the fact that my ex-girlfriends — both of them — would surely set up a “Save Michael Wolman” fund (complete with http://www.savemichaelwolman.com website) to extradite me from such tyrannical outposting.

As final words tonight, I’d just like to thank my family and friends — one last time, perhaps — for encouraging me to do this project. When I told certain people in my life about possibly traveling to Minsk to write an article about the World Puzzle Championship, certain people told me it sounded like a great idea. “Sounds awesome!” they said. “You should do it!”  “I’d read it!”  Now how do you feel about it? Huh?

To Karin, Todd, Lauren, Jon, Richard, and Lashon: If I’m not home by November 2nd, not to worry. It simply means I’m being interrogated in a cold, windowless room by three beefy guys in suits named Vlad. And I’ll blame you. And so will the world.

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RSG Puzzle of the Day

We’ll start out with a (relatively) easy one.

The first question on the national qualifying test is usually a 10-point “Battleships” puzzle. Below is an example from the 1999 exam. (Answers to appear in the comments thread tomorrow.)

Locate the position of the 10-ship fleet (one battleship, two cruisers, three destroyers, and four submarines, as shown in the legend) in the grid. Each segment of a ship occupies a single cell. Ships do not touch each other, even diagonally. The numbers on the bottom and right edges of the grid reveal the total number of ship segments that appear in each respective row or column. Cells with water (indicated by tildes) do not contain ships. (For solving, ignore the letters and numbers on the top and left edges.)


Answer key: Enter the location of the four submarines (i.e., the single-segment ships). Use the coordinates on the top and left edges to specify their places. For example, the given water locations are A4, F1, and H4.

A B C D E F G H I
1 ~ 2
2 2
3 3
4 ~ ~ 2
5 2
6 1
7 s-sq.jpg (329 bytes) 5
8 1
9 2
4 0 3 2 2 2 1 4 2

Battleship
Destroyers
Cruisers
Submarines

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Hello, and welcome to Really Smart Guys (or, as it shall henceforth be known, to save bandwidth, “RSG“), where one sort-of-smart guy will chronicle four really smart guys’ quest to win the World Puzzle Championship. If all goes according to plan — that is, if dictatorial former-Soviet republics have reliable WiFi — the aforementioned sort-of-smart guy (that would be me) will keep you up to date as the competition unfolds.

To get you started, here are some Questions That Will Be Frequently Asked Once This Blog Becomes Famous (QTWBFAOTBBF), or NAQ for short:

What is the World Puzzle Championship?

The WPC is an annual international logic-puzzle competition put on by the World Puzzle Federation — sort of a “brain Olympics.” The puzzles deal with numbers, shapes, pictures, patterns, even letters and words (though they are designed to be language- and culture-neutral). To get a sense of the types of questions asked, go to the bottom of this page and check out the puzzles from past years’ tests. In short, think sudoku on steroids. Really, really serious steroids.

As for the competition itself, about 15-20 countries compete, with four members each. This year, 25 countries are participating, with most of them fielding complete teams. The competition lasts four days. At the end of the week, individual and team champions are crowned. Of the 16 previous WPCs held between 1992 and 2007, the U.S. team has won the title 10 times, including the last two years.

When and where is the WPC held?

It’s usually held in October sometime; the location changes every year. This year’s competition will take place the week of Oct. 27 – 31 in Minsk, Belarus.

Who is on the U.S. team this year?

The defending champs are bringing back the same four from last year: Roger Barkan, Zachary Butler, Wei-Hwa Huang, and Thomas Snyder. You will hear more about them next week.

How did they get picked? Can I try out for next year’s team?

Well, for one thing, they won the championship last year. No one asks why the Bulls brought back Jordan, Pippen, and Phil Jackson every year. Also, all four of them scored magnificently on this year’s national qualifying test.

You can try out for next year’s team by registering for the 2009 qualifying exam. It will probably be sponsored by Google (as it has been for the past few years), and will probably be held in June. And you will probably have to score higher than two or three members of this year’s team to unseat any of them. Good luck with that.

Who are you, and why are you blogging about it?

My name is Michael Wolman. I am a New York-based freelance journalist, short-story writer, poet, blogger, and SAT & GRE tutor. In other words, I’m unemployed.

I first heard about the WPC when my cousin Todd actually qualified for the national team in 2003. Ever since then, I’ve wondered — I’ve been puzzled — as to why these creative puzzles and the expert puzzlers who solve them have not received more attention. There have been a few small stories here and there, but nothing of note in a major publication.

I finished grad school in June. When I began looking for a freelance project to pursue, the WPC jumped immediately to mind. The guys who form this realm (and yes, they are mostly guys; more on that next week) represent some of the sharpest, most creative minds in the world — and yet few people outside the insular subculture of hardcore puzzlers even know what the WPC is. If the few geniuses I’ve met in my life so far are any indication, the four members of the U.S. team — along with the 100+ other competitors from around the world — will be fascinating individuals on whom to report. I’m looking forward to the task.

Are you good at puzzles yourself?

I’m okay. I’ve taken the national qualifying test online a few times for fun, and my best score was 90 points, which is respectable by normal person standards. To give that a pinch of perspective, this year’s U.S. champion, Thomas Snyder, scored a perfect 365 (and finished 15 minutes early!).

Does that mean Thomas Snyder is four times smarter than you?

Yes.

How does that make you feel?

I’ve come to terms with it. More disturbing, I think, is the corollary of that conclusion: that there must be someone out there four times stupider than I am. If this is in fact the case, let not this man be unleashed upon the world.

Is that all?

Yes, for now. More tomorrow.

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