WPC 2004: My Story

Joseph DeVincentis
After years of trying, I made the US team for the World Puzzle Championship. My teammates were:
The short story: The US team won the team championship. I placed 19th in the individual. Jonathan Rivet,our other first-time team member, placed 27th. Roger Barkan and Wei-Hwa Huang nearly tied at 4th and 5th before the playoffs; Roger finished 3rd in the playoff and got to take home a fairly large but conventional, cup-style trophy. Wei-Hwa currently has our 1st place team trophy, which is even larger.

Germany had the top two in individual points but their other team members were in the 40s and they didn't do as well on the team rounds, leaving them 89 points behind at the end. Hungary placed 3rd, another 89 points behind. The Netherlands were about another 200 behind in 4th, and Canada put in a strong showing coming in 5th. The individual playoffs ended with Dutch former champion Niels Roest coming back from a 9th seed to win, German former champion Ulrich Voigt 2nd, and Roger 3rd.

The British team captain blogged an amazing amount using the hotel's internet access: http://www.livejournal.com/users/jiggery_pokery/
He has more detailed score information (though note that some of the scores changed in minor ways after what he recorded, due to corrected scoring errors; one individual moved up a few points ahead of my teammate Jonathan RIvet, dropping him to 27th).

Repeating a tradition started last year, the puzzle instructions were placed on the web the week before the event to give teams even more time to work out whatever questions they needed to ask. At least Nick Baxter (our team captain) and I attempted to solve all the example puzzles provided, though some of them were unsolvable as initially presented. The veterans called this year's puzzles "very Dutch," meaning that they were almost entirely of the types appearing in the Dutch magazine Brein Brekers. When the WPC was held in Turkey some years ago, it was "very Japanese" with features such as a whole round of Number Place puzzles. This year, the picture puzzles some of us dread appeared in a minimal quantity; just one Find the Differences, one Comic Story (put the comic strip panels in order), one find-the-parts-of-a-picture, and a "jigsaw puzzle" round which turned out to be edge matching, out of about 140 puzzles.


Everybody arrived Tuesday, with Wei-Hwa, Jonathan, and I meeting in the Munich airport for our flight to Trieste, along with our "embedded journalist" Derrick Schneider who promises to write up and sell a story about the event. The four of us worked together to solve the puzzle of packing our luggage in the trunk of the Accord driven by Croatian captain(? some relation to their team, anyway) Valter Kvalić, then crammed into the car for the drive to Opatija. After checking in and visiting our rooms, we gathered in the lobby and played a few hands of bridge with Ulrich Voigt, while Wei-Hwa greeted other arrivers and introduced them to us. At one point he introduced us as "here are our new team members, Jonathan and Joe, and Ulrich" leading to an all-around laugh as we considered the idea of Ulrich on the US team.

The hotel was equipped with two kinds of internet access. There were two coin-operated PCs which gave you 3 minutes per 1 kuna coin (1 dollar = approx. 6 kuna) and just allowed you to use a web browser. There was also wireless access which was more expensive (100 kuna for a card that gave 90 minutes of access time) but you could use it with your own laptop, and upload stuff you had written offline, or download stuff to read later, etc. I didn't use it, but some of the others did.

At some point late Tuesday afternoon, the packets became available, and Nick, our team captain, played his role and got us our packets. The packets consisted of a tote bag with the 13th WPC logo, T-shirt with same logo, the instruction booklet (more about this later), a nametag, an issue of Feniks (one of the sponsors, a Croatian puzzle magazine, 3/4 of which was crosswords and the like in Croatian, but it had some word searches and logic puzzles we could solve), and a pen with Feniks logo.

Tuesday evering there was a party with champagne (and some other horrible green-colored concoction) and snacks, and some music, and introductions of the team members. Japan brought along the youngest solver, at 15, and apparently also the shortest solver (not the same one). There were an amazing number of people I already knew either from previous meetings or from online:
Also during this time, Wei-Hwa noted that this downstairs area where the party was held had a small game area, with foosball, a couple video games, a pool table, and a pinball machine, Tales of the Arabian Nights, but the pinball was out of order, to my and Wei-Hwa's disappointment.

After this was dinner in the hotel restaurant (all meals were buffet style, except that drinks were only available served by waiters, and overpriced, but Google took care of those for our team). Throughout many of the meals
and in-between times, we had the opportunity to watch Wei-Hwa solving puzzles in his Xeroxed Japanese magazine. He had one of these magazines from Nikoli which is full of puzzles like we do in the WPC, and in order to be able to re-solve the puzzles later, he had made a copy of the entire thing and was solving it on a clipboard, throwing pages away after he had completed them. He solved Fences puzzles at an amazing pace. After dinner, it was time for bed for most of our team to get a real sleep, as opposed to that kind of half-sleep you get during flights.


Wednesday, we had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which, like all the meals, had a full and varied buffet, with perfectly normal breakfast food except for the inclusion of pizza. Also, at breakfast they had normal drinks like water and orange juice available from dispensers, unlike at other meals.

Later, we were loaded into 3 buses for the excursion which took us to Poreč and Motovun. Poreč was another tourist town, but larger. They showed us a Byzantine church (original building, with some reconstruction) and then we had 1.5 hrs free time. A group of us from the US delegation stuck together, as we wandered among the shops and other attractions in the area they dropped us off. We walked to the coast, where there were a number of different boat tours available. As we approached one sign offering a 1.5 hour tour, a man nearby asked if we had the time for the tour. When we said no, he asked "well do you have money? Because time's not important." Apparently he was willing to make a tour of any length as long as we paid him, but we pressed onward. Wei-Hwa gave up in his quest to find a Polo shirt with "Croatia" printed on it, and settled for a T-shirt.

Later we saw what looked like a toy store and some sort of electronics store side by side, with something inside that attracted somebody from our group. We went in and it turned out they were parts of the same store -- a department store which went on and on. There was a grocery store area (we picked up cold 1.5 liter bottles of water for about 5 kuna) and several other departments on two levels (which we moved between by climbing a stopped escalator). The third floor seemed devoted to furniture, so we skipped it. After we exited through a different door than the one we came in, we ended up near a casino whose sign we had noticed earlier. We stopped here so Wei-Hwa could see if there was any pinball in the casino, but it was pretty small inside and there was none.

We got back on the bus, and the next stop was lunch, at some restaurant that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We had a great and full meal (appetizers, soup, a main course, and the dessert was rather similar to what we would have called doughnut holes in the USA, with powdered sugar on top. I and some of my teammates sat at the table with the entire Russian team. As was to be expected among this group, at times when there was no food, several of us pulled out puzzles to work on. When the dessert was served, one of the Russians seated at the end of the table was engrossed in his puzzle and didn't notice -- or else had eaten so much that he was intentionally ignoring it. One of his teammates placed a doughnut hole on the table next to the top of the magazine, and when he failed to notice, then put a second one there. Then they moved one of them onto the puzzle he was solving which finally got a reaction.

The next stop was Motovun, a reconstruction of an entire medieval town at the top of a hill which the buses went most of the way up a narrow, switchbacked road to reach. There was a steeper and narrower part toward the top that we had to walk up. More chances to buy souvenirs here, as well as local wine (we passed lots of vineyards on our trip) and truffles.

Finally we went back to Opatija, and had dinner, and then attended the question and answer session for the next day's puzzles. The instructions and examples for all the puzzles were given to us online the week before, and then we got a printed, updated version in our packets. One of the major changes was that a 17-puzzle, 26-minute individual round was corrected to be a team round, where the four of us together would work on those puzzles in the short time limit. It still wasn't enough time for any team to finish. Also, some of the example puzzles were broken in various ways, and most of these were fixed in our updated packets. For instance, in one puzzle we were to divide a grid into two pieces that could be rearranged to form a chessboard. The first example had 70 squares, and simply didn't work.

In the Q&A session, all these people from all over the world nitpick the English instructions for any defect, missing rule, etc. If you read Chris Dickson's blog, this is where the "not even diagonally" bit came from. There was a whole section of pentomino puzzles of various sorts, and everywhere they had been careless enough not to state each of these things, somebody had to ask if the pentominos could be rotated, mirrored, or could touch at a point.

In the late evening I broke out my Tichu cards. I think just one game was played this night, with more on later days. Over the course of the week we taught the game to a couple people, and played with some veterans of varying skill levels.


Thursday we had breakfast and then, before the competition, was a photo session. A photographer took pictures of each team and all the teams together. Then we went in and solved two rounds of puzzles.

This was the 13th WPC. Croatia integrated a number 13 theme throughout the event. Among other things, all the rounds were timed in multiples of 13 minutes. Also, they put us under intense time pressure, with only a few opportunities for anybody to completely finish a round.

The first round featured 13 standard puzzle types, such as paint by numbers, cross sums, number place, and lighthouses. I began on the 20-point Paint by Numbers, which worked out to form large letters WPC with a small Opatija below it. Next I jumped to the Radar puzzle (a grid of rectangular clouds, all at least 2x2, with battleships-style clues telling you how many cloud parts are in each row and column. This seemed overvalued at 25 points. I also did a cross sums for 25, bringing me to 70. I started briefly on the 25-point number place but decided it was going to take too long, and instantly decided the same about the 25-point domino hunt on a double-9 set, leaving the lower valued puzzles. I managed to finish a zigzag, 1 of 2 minesweepers, the lighthouses, and an End View (called Easy as ABC here) for a total of 100 of the 200 possible points. A few people actually got perfect 200s here -- perhaps those who have practiced these standard puzzle types to an extreme. Wei-Hwa had a bit more, I think about 130, but the rest of my team was similar to me, and when the results from this round were posted later, we as a team were 4th or 5th at this point.

Round 2 was a very important team round, with each puzzle counting 4 times normal value and 800 points possible for the team. Again we had 13 familiar or somewhat-familiar puzzle types, but this time only 39 minutes and
we could work together on them. We had agreed the night before to split up the work in a certain fashion. I had taken the single highest-scoring puzzle, the most unusual type, because I saw how it had to be solved. This Common Letters puzzle asked us to arrange 13 names in a grid so that the various numbered connecting lines showed the number of shared letters between each the connected names. I knew that I would need to find the numbers of common letters between all pairs so I pulled out my graph paper, drew up a grid, and spent the first 9 minutes counting common letters in all the pairs among 13 names. Then it took me about another 10 minutes to fill in the grid. It took me half the time, but the puzzle was worth 4x30 = 120 points, worth half of one solver's time. Wei-Hwa finished his assigned puzzles quickly and also took a couple others, including one of mine, and we
ended up all checking everybody else's work at the end. We had enough time to solve all the puzzles and check all but one of them, and were one of a few teams to get the perfect 800.

After lunch we had 4 more rounds. Round 3 was a "medley" -- which Wei-Hwa pointed out is usually called a relay in these events. The puzzles were dependent on one another, so each used information from the previous one. The first was a picture puzzle where you had to locate 10 parts in the picture. Their coordinates were used to give the clue numbers for two battleships puzzles -- standard, except for the fact that we were told that there were multiple solutions, but only one that worked for the next puzzle. In this case the dependencies worked both ways. It turned out that one puzzle had a unique solution and the other had many solutions. You had to work back and forth from the next puzzle, a fill-in which needed black squares on every square that had a ship part in both battleships puzzles. This was very time-consuming. I finished but only made it part way through the fill-in, ending with only 30 of 100 points.

Round 4 was another long one, this time with one puzzle type from each of the past WPCs and one from the Croatian qualifier. A lot of people found this one tough. I finished a 25 point hidden cars (a list of cars and a grid of letters, where each row and each column has one of the cars in scrambled order, with each letter used exactly once), and a 20 point I crossword (a fill-in puzzle where all the I's are already in the grid, but all the black squares are also marked as I's. I got 14 points on an archipelago puzzle, which had a lot of similarities to one which appeared in the Feniks magazine they gave us with the initial packet. I also finished one of two Spokes puzzles and one of two Elastic Bands (which were new to me). 71 points wasn't all that great but my teammates did better on this round.
Round 5 was a "sprint" - 13 little arithmetic grids to be solved in 39 minutes, with bonus points for the earliest correct solvers. Each grid was a 3x3 arrangement of squares to be filled in with the numbers from 1 to 9, with operations between the numbers in each row and column, with the goal being to make each row and column come out to a specified value. In this case, all rows and columns in the first grid were to result in a value of 1, in the second grid 2, and so on. The 13th grid was also missing the operations (each of which must be used at least once), and the numbers in this grid were to be copied from corresponding gray squares in the other grids. And we were also warned in advance that the solutions for some individual grids were not unique, but there was only one configuration which would allow the 13th grid to completely work with 9 different numbers. Roger and Ulrich finished first, seconds apart, although in the end Ulrich turned out to have an error. The rest of the bonus went to other teams. Wei-Hwa made the error of failing to use division in the final square, but otherwise our team got all the puzzles correct.

Round 6 was the "jigsaw puzzle" round. Having been told we would get 8 nine-piece jigsaws that could be easily distinguished from one another, and 39 minutes to solve, we knew this wasn't going to be ordinary jigsaws but rather some kind of tricky thing, probably edge-matching. And indeed it was. Each team got a bag of 72 cardboard squares with fish, shells, clowns, and various other things split in half over the edges of the pieces. Wei-Hwa made the correct assumption that these would be cheaply produced with the pieces initially printed together and simply cut apart, so that the grain on the back of the pieces could be used to orient the pieces, and the cutting could further be used to test the validity of matches, and he was correct on all counts. We were the first to finish, getting the maximum bonus. After this round, there were copies of all the puzzles waiting outside for us to pick up. There was also another issue of Feniks distributed at some point, I forget when, and some other magazines from other countries that got distributed via team captains.

Then we had dinner, which we had been asked to wait until 8 before eating, because another group in the hotel was eating dinner 7-8 and this would avoid overcrowding the dining room. So we played a little Tichu before dinner, and after eating went on into the next day's Q & A session. At the Q&A session we were told that team round 9 was moved to the start of the day tomorrow, to minimize the number of times they had to rearrange the tables from individual to team settings. We took the time during/after the session to assign puzzles for round 9. Another game of Tichu after the Q&A and off to bed.


After breakfast Friday we went into team round 9. This was a tough, tight round; 13 puzzle types to be split among the team and solved in 26 minutes! The scoring was the same 4 times normal scoring from puzzle 2, so it was potentially worth 800 for the team for a complete solution. I solved three easy-to-medium mathematical puzzles: Darts (choose three numbers from a given set that add to a given total; four of them to be solved), Animals in Equations (a 4x4 grid with one of four animals in each space, with sums for all the rows and columns, and the number represented by each animal to be determined; two of them to be solved), and Arithmetical Progressions (a 7x7 grid of digits; along each edge of the grid an arithmetic progression needs to be written, with the digits of each number taken from the corresponding row or column of the grid, and all the digits used). Wei-Hwa failed to solve a hard Balancing Act puzzle (place the weights 1 to 13 in specified places on a set of balance arms so that each arm balances) so we did not do so well here, solving only 7 puzzles -- but nobody finished them all.

Back into sequence with round 7, which was a set of various puzzles each involving either pentominoes or arrows. I solved 6 puzzles for 85 points and the rest of the team had similar scores. Next came the optimizers round. Three puzzles on which to try to obtain the highest scores possible. I know from experience (even if not in this particular setting) that in doing optimizers it is important to first try to get a decent, complete, and correct solution for each puzzle; use the remaining time to try to improve scores. Each puzzle had its own scoring system, but these were added and then the top score assigned 100 points, the next score 99, and so forth. I scored 321 out of a possible 368 points which was the 11th highest score for 90 points. I think Wei-Hwa got the 100 here and the others also did well, but there were horror stories from some who submitted incorrect solutions on puzzle 1, where there was no possible partial credit for a solution which broke the rule, thus falling far down the overall ranks.

After lunch, round 10 was another sprint, this time 13 mastermind puzzles to solve in 39 minutes. 6 numerical ones (5-digit) on the first page; 7 more with letters on the second page. The letter masterminds had various sorts of themes; one used 6-letter city names. The last one mixed letters and numbers and came out to a solution of 13WPC. Despite the hint-ish nature of the second page, few finished all the puzzles. I finished 8 of them for a score of 48.

Part 11, the last individual round, was an "innovative" one -- new puzzle types or new variations of known puzzle types. There were 13 in 91 minutes, but this time worth 300 instead of the typical 200. I solved 7 puzzles for 170 points, which I think was the 8th highest score in this round, and this good round at the end boosted me a bit in the rankings. One interesting one was Atomic Alert. In a hexagon-shaped grid of triangles, we had to place 10 atomic alert symbols (each made of 3 triangles, in either of two possible orientations), so that the number of filled triangles in certain rows added up to the numbers shown outside the grid, and none of the symbols touched, even at a point.

Another puzzle from this round was Connected Magic Squares, which was like a Number Place except that we had 4 copies of the grid which were to be filled in the same way, but the sub-regions were drawn differently in each grid. A disappointment was the last puzzle in this round, a rolling cube maze where we had to roll the cube so that letter on top of the cube always matched the letter on the page it was sitting on, AND we had to spell out the name of sponsor FENIKS twice between the (S)tart and (F)inish. We discussed this one on the bus during the excursion and decided it was trivial if they gave us the pattern -- it simply meant finding the unique sequence to roll the cube so that those letters came up on top in that order and applying this to the grid. And they did give us the pattern, with a lame grid that simply had the letters FENIKSFENIKS across the diagonals so that any pattern of rolling the die the minimal number of times would hit all correct letters. They might as well have not bothered to have letters in the grid at all.

Round 12 was a single puzzle to be solved by the team in 26 minutes. We were given a deck of cards and a page with the puzzle. We were to arrange the cards in a 7x7 grid so that a path could be followed A, 2, 3, ..., K in one suit, followed by some other suit and so on. Three cards were to be dropped from the sequence, and the sums of the values (with A=1, 2-10 = 2-10, and face cards = 1) and suits (clubs 4, hearts 3, diamonds 2, spades 1) were given to us in each row and column. Only the three unused cards were checked, and each correct one was worth 26 points. There were bonus points for the earliest correct solutions, but nobody completely solved it, and only a couple lucky teams had managed to get one right card and make the correct guess as to how to split up the remaining rank and suit points.

After dinner, we managed to get 8 people together for 2 tables of duplicate bridge. Results from various rounds came out as we played, and by the end of the 8 hands we had all the scores and knew we'd won the team title. I joined in a quick game of 10-player 6 Nimmt which I came from behind to win with a clean last round. Roger and Wei-Hwa went to bed to get a good sleep before the finals while Jonathan and I stayed up later playing Tichu (with Ulrich, which led to Nick dropping by and jokingly commenting that we had a good strategy to keep Ulrich up late -- though it hardly mattered since he had gotten the first round bye which meant he had at least an extra hour before he had to compete). At another point in the evening, somebody asked Ulrich if he thought it was unfair that he wasn't going to get to do all the puzzles the next day. He responded by pointing out that there were already many rounds when he couldn't do all the puzzles, so this wasn't any different.

Saturday and Sunday

Saturday morning and early afternoon was the finals, which Chris Dickson has described in far more detail than I ever could. But the shortest Japanese team member made the playoffs, and his easel was lowered upon request.

Then lunch, and in the afternoon, Tichu and other card games, and many people's final trips into town to buy whatever souvenirs they hadn't bought yet. In the evening we went about a mile down the main road in Opatija to the Hotel Kvarner where the farewell dinner party and awards ceremony was held. Every team got to be announced, and go up and get handed at least a packet of photos from the photo session, get a round of applause, and yet another opportunity for people to take pictures of the team. There were also some random prizes for the youngest solver (a seashell about the size of his head) and best-scoring female (I didn't see what this was).

The top three got team trophies and other prizes. It was reported that the number 2 and 3 teams got puzzle books, though I didn't see them. We got Croatian-English dictionaries, while we would have preferred puzzle books, but at least they will help us decipher any puzzle instructions in Feniks that we are unsure of. And when you're a world champion, they take a lot of pictures of you. I had Nancy Schuster take a couple shots with my camera of us accepting our prizes. The top 3 individuals got their prizes later, each a trophy and a shopping bag. The bags turned out to have identical bizarre collections of items from the market, including a ladle, a jar of salsa, and a package of some kind of food seasoning.

There was lots of music during the party, before and between the awards, and it continued on into the night, but after the last of the awards, many of the teams started filtering out back to the hotel. I went back around 11:30 and joined in a game of Great Dalmuti that lasted until about 4 AM, when it was time for many of us to check out of the hotel and catch our rides to Trieste or Zagreb for morning flights home.