Puzzled in Vancouver

Mind-numbing crosswords, cryptograms, trivia quizzes, brain teasers, even puzzle sing-alongs — they're all on the table at this convention

Published by The Ottawa Citizen
Used by permission of the author

Sunday, Sept 15, 2002

VANCOUVER — It's the kind of Friday afternoon that a Vancouverite treasures. The sky is an unbroken blue and the warm weather has tempted thousands to leave work early and claim a spot at the beach or a restaurant patio. The uncommon climate has failed to move a dozen or so hotel guests, however, most of whom don't even glance at the postcard view from their 30th floor hospitality suite.

Their focus is firmly on sheets of photocopied paper, which they occasionally scribble with notes, or pass to a neighbour for help. They will spend most of their five days in Vancouver this way. Though they are officially on vacation, they're also hard at work unravelling clues in the many puzzles they've travelled thousands of kilometres to solve. These are the members of the National Puzzlers' League, or the NPL for short.

"It's not that I don't love the mountains and the ocean," explains longtime member Henri Picciotto. "It's just that I'm here really for the puzzles" — puzzles that require him to know that "sulci" is a Latin word meaning "depressions" and that "Croatian" is an anagram of "raincoat."

Organizers of the annual convention have spent all year making sure puzzlers' brains will be teased to the extreme. The schedule is crammed with crosswords, cryptograms, trivia quizzes and even a puzzle sing-along. For members seeking maximum mind-bending, unofficial games go all night in the hospitality suite, whose kitchen is fully stocked with brain food — M&Ms, Oreos, nacho chips and onion dip. A box of white wine is still sealed, however.

"You need to stay sharp to be competitive," explains one sleepless puzzler. "Wine dulls the mind."

"It's such an intense break," Picciotto says. "Normally when you go on vacation, it's still continuous with your life. You're with your spouse, your kids, and so on. Here, it's so full-time. It's another world. It's the ultimate escape, in a way." Picciotto, who's escaped from his math teaching job in San Francisco, is better known to NPLers as "Hot." He's not the only one using an assumed name on this trip. Most members choose alternate identities called Noms, a tradition that dates back to the League's formation in 1883. Though the 52-year-old is clearly among the hottest of solvers, he says that has nothing to do with his Nom.

"I joined the H of Henri with the last two letters of Picciotto in reverse order, to get Hot, which is more in keeping with my Mediterranean temperament."

His Nom is one of the more straightforward. Many involve byzantine wordplay with several layers of meaning. A few NPLers decline to reveal the origins of their Noms, refusals that don't offend anyone in this group. Trying to figure them out provides yet another puzzle, and that's the League's raison d'être. According to its Web site, the NPL is for anyone who delights in the fact that the word "schooled" has the words "shoe" and "cold" perfectly interlaced.

"As one of our wittier members once put it, it's like meeting people from your home planet," says Darren Rigby, whose Nom is Dart.

Rigby is one of four Vancouver area residents hosting this year's convention, or Concouver, as it's been dubbed (There are few words these people will not alter). It is only the third time in NPL history the event has been held in a Canadian city. Though the 28-year-old math adviser has become one of the league's stellar word game creators, words did not come easily to him at his first convention three years ago. Most of the famous names in crossword creation are NPL members. One part-time puzzle author, who likes to go by the Nom Mr. Tex, is also the Emmy award-winning co-creator of TV's The Critic and former executive producer of The Simpsons.

"I was really intimidated about meeting all these people who had been doing their puzzles, and hearing about past conventions and other things that they'd been doing," Rigby says. "And they just welcomed me with open arms, and made me feel at ease in a way that no other group of people ever really had."

That sense of belonging is echoed by most of the 400-plus members, many of whom say they've gotten used to being labelled "geeks" by the less word wise.

"Some of my friends here resent it," says Picciotto. "It's not that important to me. I know who I am. I know what I like. I don't have to please the public."

Others, like Dean Sturtevant, a 46-year-old Massachusetts software designer, take the put-downs with pride.

"We are comfortable with our 'geekiness' if you will, with our love for puzzles and doing things that most people might not understand," says Sturtevant, whose Nom is D. Ness (a homophone of Dean S.). "I think sometimes it's that they choose not to understand, and that's their issue, not really ours."

Sturtevant admits, however, he resisted recruitment 20 years ago, while living with two eager NPLers.

"They showed me this magazine full of verse puzzles, and I was not the least bit interested."

Aptly named The Enigma, the monthly NPL publication contains games so challenging that an 80-page solving guide is sent to new subscribers. The Enigma is largely filled by puzzles called flats, which, at first glance, appear to be poems with a couple of words gone awry. The trick to solving them is to replace the questionable words with new ones, arrived at through various forms of wordplay.

"Typically when I explain a flat to a normal person, they kind of give me a blank look," says Picciotto. "Then there is the occasional person who gets a charge out of this. I have become pretty expert at identifying those people."

For Sturtevant, who thinks up math and word problems when having trouble sleeping, it took another 15 years before he identified himself as NPL material. Eventually the idea of meeting like-minded people proved irresistible.

"I went to a convention in Atlanta that summer, and just fell in love with the group. I love engaging my brain, solving puzzles and playing games. Having other people with whom I can do this is just great. I think it's a blast."

That joy is obvious as he fits the final solution into a cryptic crossword he's been solving with another member. "Ruche!" he shouts the answer, racing toward her through the hotel lobby. "I looked it up, and it does mean a ruffle!"

Sturtevant does not have to go far for confirmation. It's a safe bet the hotel has never contained so many dictionaries at once. Several members have portable versions with them at all times.

"It has given me a whole new way of thinking," says new member Steve Gelhorn, known as Niblits. "I am always having to look up stuff in the dictionary, so I learn new words all the time. It's really added to my vocabulary."

Rigby has created three incredibly elaborate games that will force players to take their dictionaries beyond the lobby, at least for a few hours. Each is a puzzle tour of a popular recreation site, sort of a written scavenger hunt in which solutions are found by warping the words on landmarks and signs. Through a complex code, the years of Shakespeare's birth and death (1564 and 1616) become letters spelling "Bard" and "Dane." These solvers know The Bard's Dane is 'Hamlet.' and so, fit that word into another, more cryptic maze of letters. All three tours ultimately lead to the same question:

"What other attraction brings people to British Columbia?"

The answer: "Whistler's Mother Nature."

Once solved, it seems simple, but for NPLers, who are overwhelmingly American, the name of B.C.'s most popular ski resort becomes a new nugget of knowledge they file away for future use. Dozens of members have already cashed in on their command of esoteric information, appearing on such TV shows as Jeopardy and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

When seven competitors unravel a Stanley Park riddle with an hour to spare before dinner, they board a sightseeing trolley that winds through the rest of the park. As the tour operator points out attractions, the NPLers point out missed clues from the puzzle. On the walk back to the hotel, the group breaks into an impromptu anagram challenge.

"What word can be made from the letters in 'bean soup'?" It takes less than a minute for everyone to form the word "subpoena." Such a scene will probably never appear alongside bathing beauties and Caribbean cocktails in an ad for a dream destination, but for these people, that's exactly what an NPL convention is. Picciotto, who has recruited more than a dozen members, is always on the lookout for these types. He holds monthly Enigma brunches, in which starting solvers are eased into the complexities of NPL puzzles.

"In general, people aren't interested," he says. "When I run into somebody who seems like they would enjoy them, I feel like I am doing them a favour. Typically they have this interest, but can't find anyone to share it with."

Thirty-four-year-old Adrienne Siskind Berns, also known as Panther, recruited more than a solving partner through The Enigma. The Virginia software engineer met her future husband three years ago while playing an online strategy game, and decided to test his puzzle potential by showing him the latest issue.

"By the time we talked next, he had actually solved a couple of flats — the ones my team was working on," she says. "I didn't know if he was doing it to impress me or whether he was actually interested, but it turned out he was."

The two have been solving together ever since. Sturtevant, who also teams up to tackle each Enigma, says puzzling in pairs cuts solving time.

"Sometimes, I'll look at a puzzle and see the answer pretty soon, and sometimes my co-solver will do the same thing. Sometimes it's only by our combined efforts that pieces of the puzzle come together, and that's a real rush."

For NPLers who live far away from other members, and who can't wait a year for contact with co-solvers, a chat room session is scheduled two nights per week. In it, members compare notes on Enigma solutions, fine-tune flats and convention games, and chat about everything puzzle-related. The words about wordplay often continue until early morning. It is perhaps the only place on the Internet where you can get half a dozen decent anagrams of "Tegucigalpa" in less time than it takes most people to remember that it's the capital of Honduras.

The convention officially ends Sunday morning, and next year's begins — at least symbolically. Organizers can't find a torch, so they pass a box of pencils to the host of the 2003 event in Indianapolis. A few members have picked up small prizes for their quick completion of quizzes, but no one seems to care much about the rankings. The mood is sombre as most convention-goers head to the airport, reluctantly taking off their Nom tags and making last-minute address exchanges. A die-hard dozen or so remain, however, mostly the same people who were holed up in the hospitality suite Friday. As hotel staff move past them to clear discarded puzzles and programs, the group gathers in the lobby, intent on fitting more games into their remaining hours. An organizer brings down a pushcart full of leftover snacks, and they grab some cookies and cola. The box of wine stays unopened, though. After five days of intense mental effort, these puzzlers' minds are as sharp as ever.

Mazy is the creator of the Ottawa Citizen Weekly Cryptic Crossword.

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