The U.S. team placed second overall in the World Puzzle Championship (WPC) held in Bangalore, India, last month, and two of the team’s four members are CTYers. SET alumnus Palmer Mebane, 27, is a programmer and puzzle writer for Art of Problem Solving in San Diego. Walker Anderson, 16, from Doylestown, Pa., is a member of CTY’s Study of Exceptional Talent (SET) and has taken four CTY online math courses; he’s currently enrolled in Introduction to Abstract Mathematics.
Fresh off their win, the two spoke to CTY about how they became puzzle masters—and how you can become one, too.
How did you first become interested in puzzle solving?
Walker: I’ve always liked puzzle books, mechanical puzzles, word searches, and puzzle magazines such as Highlights. When I was in sixth grade, I took an online math course taught by Palmer Mebane through Art of Problem Solving. I learned that he was a world champion logic puzzle solver and I became curious about logic puzzles. I find most grid-logic puzzles online from puzzlers around the world; some websites I use most often are Grandmaster Puzzles, LMI, and Nikoli. I also search for puzzle championships from countries around the world, which offer previous championship puzzles for anyone to view and solve.
Palmer: My first interest in puzzles came from a video game. The one that got me really hooked and took me years to finish was Adventures of Lolo 3. Its puzzles still hold up today.
How many puzzles would you say you work on per week?
Walker: I complete about 50 grid logic puzzles per week. They vary in range of difficulty. I also do crossword and game puzzles such as those found in Games magazine.
Palmer: Since creation is part of my job right now, I do a lot more puzzle creation than solving, except when the WPC gets near. Offseason I probably do 20 a day or so. When the WPC is near, it's probably more than 100 a day, since I'm doing them around the clock.
Where do you normally work on puzzles?
Walker: I have been known to take puzzles with me everywhere. I can always be found with a clipboard and a printed puzzle, a sheet of graph paper, and pencil in hand. At home, my favorite spot is a well-lit table. I often play music to help me focus while I’m solving.
Palmer: Anywhere, even MSPaint on a computer if I'm not in the mood to print something out.
What’s the longest amount of time you’ve ever spent on a puzzle?
Walker: I recently solved a puzzle of a type called Double Kakuro, which was large and challenging. It probably took me about 10 hours total over several days. The author, Serkan Yürekli, arranged the clues to look like a Stormtrooper from Star Wars.
Palmer: I once spent almost an entire waking day (12-14 hours) trying to execute a very tricky idea when making a puzzle. I ended up skipping a couple meals.
How do you stay focused on solving for that long?
Walker: In competition, staying focused depends on the puzzle. I may try to look at different sections of it to see if I can make progress elsewhere. When I solve for fun, I take breaks when I feel like I'm not making progress. When I return, I often have new ideas about what to look for and can spot the next step.
Palmer: For me a large amount of focus comes naturally and the more important question is, How do I avoid staying focused that long? I don't have an answer yet.
What are the range of feelings you experience while working through a puzzle?
Walker: I am generally pretty calm when I solve and write puzzles. I sometimes get a “wow” feeling when I see an unusual trick or step that I hadn’t seen before. I have a bad feeling sometimes when solving puzzles as well. The worst is when I realize a deduction I made earlier in the solve was not logically justified. I feel uncertainty about whether to start over and think through it more carefully, or continue solving and hope that what I had already written was correct.
Palmer: Finishing a puzzle can feel like a number of things; during a competition, it's "what's next?" by necessity, and when practicing or at leisure, it's a muted exhaustion while the adrenaline drains away. Sometimes it’s awe, if the puzzle I did was particularly good.
What are your suggestions for students who might be interested in puzzle competition?
Walker: Familiarize yourself with as many types and difficulties of puzzles as possible. I try to learn the rules of any new type I come across in case it shows up later. I would also recommend looking at notation, or how you write the answer to a puzzle. A world champion and fellow U.S. team puzzler, Wei-Hwa Huang, has helped me with notation tips. For instance, he’ll say to never mark an X when you can mark a slash (/); this may save time when you must mark hundreds of slashes in a puzzle.
Palmer: Get started creating puzzles as soon as possible, even if you have to do it on graph paper by hand. One of the Nikoli.com authors said in an interview that they made their first puzzle in fifth grade, so it's never too early. Other than that, the obvious applies: do a lot of puzzles, and compete in anything you can. As you compete, you'll start to see where your weaknesses are and can go from there.
The U.S. team placed second in the 2017 World Puzzle Championship.
Pictured from left to right are Will Blatt, Walker Anderson, Thomas Snyder,
and Palmer Mebane. Photo credit: Will Shortz
Think puzzle solving might be a good fit for you?
Here are some places to get started
by Palmer Mebane
This blog might be rough to start with for a novice, even if you do start with their easy link on the sidebar. But it’s a good site for more advanced puzzle solver. I contribute puzzles to this site occasionally.
This site runs a lot of fantastic contests, in addition to several years’ worth of archives.
Not free, but a great starting point with 4+ puzzles a day, a nice online interface, and leaderboards featuring some top WPC competitors. Puzzles are a bit easier than typical WPC material with fewer rules to remember. The members-only “Botsu Bako” and “Pick of the Puzzles” sections are a hall of fame of sorts, with content accumulated over 10 years. Lots of "wow" content there.
This is the online home of the once-a-year U.S. Puzzle Championship. Anyone who starts doing the puzzles above, finds they're good at them, and wants to look toward WPC attendance can go here and see if they qualify. The site also features an archive of past competitions.
This site includes puzzles from the WPF's official series of competitions, which are held every year. Anyone who wants to see how their speed measures up to others worldwide, this is the place to start.
Palmer Mebane is a CTY alum, puzzle creator, and World Puzzle Championship winner.