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Final Results Posted

The official final standings have been posted here.

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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.

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

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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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