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.”