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Five days in Oulu: Report of the 2002 World Puzzle ChampionshipSunday, September 22, 2002
For five days in September, the puzzle universe was centered in Oulu, Finland, as contestants from 19 different countries competed in the 11th World Puzzle Championship (WPC). Japan is officially the best puzzle-solving team in the world. Niels Roest from the Netherlands is the new puzzle-solving champion. Founded in 1992 by Will Shortz, now the crossword editor of the New York Times, the WPC brings together puzzlers from all over the world whose language and cultural differences preclude any event involving word puzzles. Therefore, all contestants compete on a level playing field by solving math, logic, visual, and manipulative puzzles.
Each WPC takes place in a different country, so the overall event bears the imprint of its host. However, organizers generally adhere to this schedule: a meet-and-greet welcoming party where old friends catch up with each other and where newcomers are welcomed into the international puzzle community; an excursion to an exotic local place (this year the Arctic Circle); two days of individual and team solving rounds a playoff round in which the top contestants solve a series of final puzzles printed on large boards for all to watch and an awards ceremony and closing banquet.
The countries represented this year were: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Turkey, the U.S.A., and Yugoslavia/Kosovo. The individual rounds of puzzling included WPC staples like Battleships, Cross Math, Pyramid Folding, Scrambled Pictures, tangrams, mazes of various sorts, and crisscrosses.
Tiled squares reindeer
One round of team solving was held at the Oulu Art Museum, where an exhibit (timed to coincide with the WPC) showed hundreds of manipulative puzzles from around the world. The highlight of this round was a Conceptis creation where the four-person teams had to manually assemble a Paint-by-Numbers puzzle using tiled squares. The 20x20 five-color puzzle with a picture of a reindeer was to be solved on a table top using colored tiles, each about 3cm by 3cm in size.
For those addicts whose Paint-by-Numbers skills have never been tested in this manner, the physical creation of a Paint-by-Numbers puzzle was a very different experience from the pencil-and-paper variety. The teams that solved the puzzle quickly were those who were super-organized and divided up the tasks needed to complete the puzzle and discover a picture of a reindeer.
Another popular team puzzle involved an original electronic device, the OULU-tronic, created by two puzzlers from Turkey, in which buttons had to be pushed on a secret, wired box to turn lights on and off in a pattern to be discovered.
Large audience of puzzlers
After two days of puzzling, the top three scorers - reigning champion Ulrich Voigt from Germany, his younger brother Roland, and Niels Roest from the Netherlands - were eligible to compete in the playoff round. Their task was to solve nine math and logic puzzles and one mechanical puzzle in any order in 30 minutes. Each contestant took his place in front of an easel before a large audience of puzzlers, captains, guests, observers, and the press. The math and logic puzzles were printed on giant boards and the mechanical puzzle was placed on a small table next to the easel.
The successful solving of the mechanical puzzle spurred the ultimate winner to his first-place finish. Roest was slowly solving the puzzles on the boards while his competitors were furiously racing through these same puzzles. Suddenly Roest switched to the mechanical puzzle, which involved interweaving a set of ribbons to get a special effect. After quickly finding the desired pattern, he returned to the other puzzles with renewed vigor and was able to solve the most puzzles fastest to become the new WPC champion.
Much more than a solving fest for the attendees
The awards ceremony/banquet honored the winners and paid tribute to all who had created this wonderful event which was organized by Erja Gullstén, the president of the Suomen puzzle-harrastajat Ahaa! (Finnish Puzzle Association Aha!). Gullstén, who attended most of the previous WPC's as captain of the Finnish team (she did take a few years off to marry and have a child), is the only female board member of the World Puzzle Federation, the organization that oversees the WPC.
The WPC is much more than a solving fest for the attendees. The high quality of the original puzzles and the joy of competition are major attractions to all who attend and by now many in the group have formed lifelong friendships.
While the puzzlers may not see each other between championships, they like each other, enjoy each other's company, and feel connected through their love of puzzles.
About the author
Helene Hovanec was the coordinator of the first and ninth WPC's and was the Judging Panel Chairwoman from 1993 to 1997.