Secrets of the U.S. Puzzle Championship

Matt Matros:

Wordstar, Nurikabe, Double Minesweeper, and the rest of the puzzles in this year’s U.S. Puzzle Championship (USPC) were kept under tight security until the last possible instant. At precisely 1 p.m. EST on May 17, a password was released to open the protected file, and this year’s contestants had a frantic 150 minutes in front of them—printing out puzzles, penciling in solutions, and hoping to submit results to the server before time expired. The test, which determined who would compete for the American team at the World Puzzle Championships (WPC) in London, was challenging even for experts, but it was also eagerly anticipated by amateur enthusiasts. 2,180 hopefuls registered for the USPC and downloaded the puzzles, but only 273 submitted answers. Some people were surely in it for the competitive glory, but it seems most were in it for fun—a familiar dichotomy that’s hardly unique to puzzling.

I’ve always loved puzzles. They combine the joy of revelation with the satisfaction of effort rewarded. Nothing tops the epiphany of realizing that the 9 in the corner of the Sudoku means the middle square can’t be a 4. It feels like magic. And when that final square is filled in, the untold minutes spent in intense focus, locked out from the rest of the world, become justified. I once got an email from the director of a Sudoku tournament wishing me many “nice moments” with the puzzles. Nice moments—to me that’s what solving is about.