Games People Play

"Puddle is to Ping-Pong as mullet is to what?"

That's the kind of question tossed around when members of the National Puzzlers' League congregate

Special to The Globe and Mail
Used by permission of the author

Tuesday, July 23, 2002 – Print Edition, Page R1

VANCOUVER — It's 12:10 a.m. Saturday morning and my mind is bleary, tormented, begging for calm — desperate to make sense of four lousy letters: AAAA. I've been told it represents a one-word answer, but all I can think of is the Automobile Association of America, and that's three words too many.

Alcoholics Anonymous? Still too long. One of my teammates glances at the puzzle. "Forays." He says it like it's obvious.

If your mind made the same quick leap, you'd have felt right at home in Vancouver earlier this month, where Jonathan Berkowitz and a handful of other Canadian league members played host to about 120 puzzlers from across North America — people who, as the Apple commercials say, think different.

The 400 members of the National Puzzlers' League (NPL) are the X-treme athletes of the brainteaser world. About 15 of them make a living — or at least derive most of their income — as "puzzle professionals." The rest are puzzle enthusiasts, a word that doesn't come close to doing them justice.

Because while the people here may not ever have used the word "foison" in a sentence, they know that it means fulsome harvest. They know that an Indian rug is a "dhurrie," that Abba Eban was once foreign minister of Israel and that Andorra is a tiny, little-known country in Europe. They devour crossword puzzles in less time than it takes most people to read the clues. They can answer any Jeopardy puzzle from Alex Trebek, and tell Regis Philbin just about anything he wants to know.

This is, after all, the NPL and arcane knowledge is a de facto requirement for admission.

When you first meet puzzlers, their passion for crosswords, cryptograms, anagrams, trivia questions and other mind-benders can seem a little intense.

At conventions, which they refer to as "cons," members are known by their solving names — "noms." So when a bus full of puzzlers pulls up to the South Vancouver home of "Witz" (as in Berkowitz) for an informal, preconvention dinner, I'm introduced to Fraz, Mazy and 100 Down, not Fraser, Susannah and Ed.

The names mean a variety of things — some have special meaning to the puzzler and others are mini-puzzles in themselves. 100 Down, a computer programmer from New York State with a grey bob of a ponytail and a Hogwarts T-shirt, explains that his nom is derived from an anagram of his name, Ed Rice. The "100" refers to the "c" in his name — C being the Roman numeral for 100 — and "down" was inspired by rearranging the remaining letters and finding that they formed the word "eider."

The group looks like any bunch of conventiongoers from middle America — they don't have calculators hanging from their belt loops (though many do carry electronic crossword solvers in their pockets), and 100 Down's T-shirt is the only visible sign of Harry Potter fans in the group. They may have heads crammed full of facts most of us don't even know exist, but they don't flaunt their knowledge. They chat about Vancouver, about their hometowns, about films such as Men in Black II and about how late people stayed up playing games at last year's con in San Francisco.

Some of them make it clear they're keen to avoid being labelled geeks — a term the outside world often applies to them. As one puzzler delicately puts it, some league members exhibit "varying degrees of sociability." Another suggests the group could benefit from a few new members. "I'm trying to get more normal people in," she says, sotto voce.

According to 100 Down, who's been working on an exhaustive, unofficial "census" of the group since 1997, the members aren't necessarily as erudite as outsiders might think. His reports show that their favourite author, for instance, is John Grisham, followed in order of preference by Jane Austen, Douglas Adams, Agatha Christie and Vladimir Nabokov. They include factory workers, business administrators, musicians, journalists and — perhaps not surprisingly — a high number of teachers, computer professionals and people working in applied math.

About 25 per cent of respondents said they are or have been involved with Mensa, but others chose not to answer the question out of a reluctance to make the NPL seem elitist or intimidating.

Still, there's no denying that you wouldn't hear many of their conversations at, say, a wrestling match. Not exchanges like this one:

"I really like your book of crossword puzzles, but I have a bone to pick with you about the index. You included the abbreviations for U.S. states, but you didn't include Canadian provinces."

"Well, do you really need to know that MB stands for Manitoba? When are you going to use that?"

"Think about it: Imbibe. Embargo. Embrace . . ."

A puzzler's mind, it seems, is never at rest.

I think about this a day later while I watch Gotcha, a 39-year-old newspaper editor from California, wander through Science World. We're on a "puzzle tour" of the exhibits, one of three designed by a local whiz called Dart, who's renowned for dreaming up elegantly creative puzzles. Other groups have headed off on Dart tours of Stanley Park and Granville Island, but Gotcha has volunteered to team up with a few of us for what's billed as "the Inquisitive Tour." At cons, almost everyone works in pairs or teams, which form almost randomly, based on whoever happens to be standing nearby.

The Inquisitive Tour is a five-page stumper that's part scavenger hunt, part crossword, part math quiz and part something else that we can't figure out. The first page shows a series of wave patterns that appear to represent light waves or sound waves, but we don't know what to do with them. The instructions say only that the puzzle was inspired by the first set of three wavy lines, and that we have to figure out what the second and third sets of waves are describing.

All we can think to do is look for wave patterns in exhibits and hope they offer some sort of clue. I start checking out the displays with a single-minded purpose: to find those waves. But Gotcha moves through Science World at a different pace. She stops to marvel at air cannons and zoetropes, and takes the time to figure out what they're meant to demonstrate. Here's what you should know about Gotcha: She has a degree in fine art and a minor in English literature but, like most puzzlers, she has a formidable general knowledge of just about everything and a keen interest to learn more.

When we come across a tank full of intensely blue water that contains some sort of aerator blowing tiny, burbling bubbles, I say: "Cool." She says: "Look, it's a double helix. And look at those bubbles, the way they're rising up like that — chaos theory."

When we come across a tabletop that creates a mushy sort of kaleidoscope effect when you spin it, I don't say a word. She smiles and says: "Cool. That's some sort of liquid-solid substance they use in fluid dynamics to study turbulence." Good puzzlers look for patterns, they make associations and connections, teasing meaning out of the inexplicable.

I keep barrelling through Science World, turning on my concentration for each new exhibit, then off again once I've established it has nothing to do with the wave patterns we're looking for. Meanwhile, Gotcha's thinking about what she's seeing, using her mind laterally to make unexpected connections.

And two hours later, that's how she solves the puzzle. She realizes that the wave patterns aren't actually displayed in an exhibit — they're a fiendishly disguised cryptogram.

Gotcha's noticed repeating sequences in the waves, and figured out that each little crest and trough in the first pattern represents a letter of the word "oscylinderscope" — a sort of giant guitar with three thick strings. We'd seen it earlier, but couldn't figure out how it related to our puzzle. It had delighted Gotcha though, so much so that she gave it a little burst of applause when she saw that the strings could be plucked to demonstrate waves.

After she cracks the cryptogram's code she discovers a message. It reads "They race under contraption centre." The words send her running off to the Contraption Centre, a nearby exhibit. Under it is a set of wheels: the one-word answer we need to solve the puzzle.

Or at least the first page of the puzzle. The next two pages take almost as long, and 3½ hours after we've arrived, I surrender. I'm exhausted.

No one gets much of a prize for solving anything here — points are awarded for wins on a few puzzles if you want to turn your results in, but many members don't bother. And when teams of solvers are working on the same puzzle, no one disrupts the others by announcing they've solved it. The game's the thing. The winners are almost irrelevant.

Still, some puzzlers can't resist coming in first. During a round of trivia testing involving volunteer contestants (all the games and puzzles are voluntary at the con) host Fraz doesn't even have time to read the full question before an eager puzzler blurts out "Toscanini!"

The question? I'm still not sure, but it started like this: "Who conducted the world premiere of . . ." and the answer was correct.

If trivia games aren't your thing, there are word games, like the one Willz — as in Will Shortz, the long-time editor of The New York Times's crossword and the only person in the world with a degree in enigmatology — presents to the group: "Puddle is to Ping-Pong as mullet is to what?" I don't even know how to approach the question, when someone calls out the answer: Croquet. Then I still have to think it through. Puddle, paddle, ping pong. Mullet, mallet . . . nice!

Even some puzzlers respond to this sort of wordplay with a dismissive shrug, but those who delight in the slippery nuance of language smile at the tweak of a letter that can turn a weak performance into a peak performance, the mental hop, skip and jump that can make the brain hear the word "number," and think "anesthesiologist" — someone who numbs.

Witz is the first to admit that there's no intrinsic value in solving any particular question or problem, but he says cultivating a puzzler's mind can bring beneficial side effects: Over all, puzzling simply helps keep the mind sharp. There's a growing body of research that suggests that puzzle-solving may help ward off Alzheimer's disease. But that's not why most of these people are here. They're here to challenge themselves, to engage the playful sides of their minds in an environment where no one will invoke the dreaded "nerd."

One of the most popular features of the con is the hidden puzzle, which has to be found and recognized as a puzzle before it can be solved. This year's turns out to be lurking at a Scrabble board left outside the ballroom as though the players planned to return. A sign by the board reads: "Game in progress — please don't touch." I never thought to look more closely. Eventually though, one of the puzzlers did. Turning over the letters, he discovered a message to look inside the bag of tiles. Those letters spelled out a message declaring the puzzler a winner. To me, even thinking about looking for a hidden puzzle seems a chore. But to the people here, the hunting instinct is an automatic response.

"There's a real pleasure that comes from working on something and knowing that the answer is known," Witz says. "You know that if you work at it long enough, you'll be able to solve it." Assuming you have enough time. One of the slogans of the NPL, he says, is "so many puzzles, so little time."

It's 1 a.m. on Sunday morning at the con's finale, known as the "extravaganza," and this year it's an elaborate, multilayered series of 15 puzzles that have to be solved and then resolved to get a set of directions that have to be applied to a map of Canada to reach the puzzle's final answer.

Some of the best teams have been finished for more than an hour, but our "a-ha" moment comes, blissfully, at 1:20 a.m. — four hours after we started.

The next day, I can't help myself: I pick up the Science World puzzle. Gotcha has left me with the four words I need to figure out the anagram that answers the question: "What other attraction brings people to British Columbia?"

The letters swim in front of me, and eventually "Whistler" emerges. I try thinking laterally. There's an apostrophe "s" in the answer, so I realize it must be Whistler's . . . Mother. Then comes the "a-ha" and the rest clicks into place: Whistler's Mother Nature. Wish Gotcha could have been there.

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