The Borovets Champions: A review of the 15th World Puzzle Championship 2006Monday, November 6, 2006
Above, from left to right: Wei-Hwa Huang, Ulrich Voight, and Maho Yokota
Borovets, the oldest and largest mountain resort in Bulgaria, touts itself as a ski resort for champions. On October 7, 2006 champions of the cerebral variety converged on the town, nestled on the northern slopes of the Rila Mountains, to compete for the gold medal of puzzling. Schussers and skiers were noticeably absent from the Hotel Samokov, headquarters for the event. Instead 92 brainiacs from 28 countries tackled moguls of another sort -- Battleships, Cross Sums, Find the Differences, Crisscrosses, Mazes, etc. The 15th World Puzzle Championship (WPC) has begun.
Founded in 1992, by Will Shortz (now crossword editor of The New York Times), the WPC's raison d'etre is to bring together high-level puzzlers from all over the world to test their gray matter on a level playing field. Thus, math, visual, and logic puzzles are included while culture- and language-based puzzles are verboten. Using these parameters, coordinator Deyan Razsadov of Bulgaria Mensa, assisted by his intrepid band of red-shirted associates, dazzled and frazzled the competitors with a plethora of puzzles of varying difficulties.
Although each WPC has its own local flavor, the overall format is constant. Participants register, meet and greet on the first day, sightsee on day two (this year's excursion was to the awe-inspiring Rila Monastery), puzzle intensely for the next three days, celebrate with an awards ceremony and banquet on the last night, and depart for home the next day.
Long tables set up classroom-style
Prior to the actual contest solvers receive a booklet detailing the puzzles they'll be solving, along with specific examples of each one. During the tournament itself solvers sit at long tables set up classroom-style and puzzle for one or two hours at a time. While most puzzles are solved individually there are a few rounds requiring team cooperation. The goal of the tournament is to accrue the highest number of points.
Conceptis, a co-sponsor of the WPC since 2000, creates logic puzzles whose solutions are universally recognizable pictures and thus are ideally suited for a culture-neutral tournament. Unsurprisingly, one 60-minute solving round was devoted entirely to four Conceptis puzzles -- Pic-a-Pix, Link-a-Pix, Fill-a-Pix, and Maze-a-Pix. Recognizing that it would be impossible to complete the challenge under this time constraint, solvers strategized by choosing only those puzzles that could be finished perfectly, since partial points would not be given for incomplete puzzles.
Solvers who enjoy Conceptis puzzles on a recreational level are rewarded for their labor with a picture. However, for WPC solvers the "reward" isn't a factor. Roger Barkan, fifth-place winner from the United States, said that he never visualizes the outcome of the puzzle. "I am so focused on numbers that I don't even see the picture until I am done." Most of the other top solvers agreed with Barkan's assessment.
Five excruciatingly difficult puzzles
After two and one-half days of solving, the ten highest-scoring contestants competed in the semi-finals. During this round solvers were given five excruciatingly difficult puzzles to solve. After 30 minutes the three top finishers -- Ulrich Voight from Germany, Wei-Hwa Huang from the United States, and Maho Yokota from Japan -- were eligible for the finals, where they solved puzzles on large easels on a stage while a hushed audience watched. The winners were respectively, Voight, Huang, and Yokota, while the team winners were the United States, Germany, and Japan.
One notable difference between WPC Bulgaria and previous get-togethers was that all the après-puzzling conviviality took place in the hotel since the local lounges, bars, clubs, and other gathering places in Borovets had not yet opened for the season.
An entire corridor of the main floor of the Hotel Samokov was filled with comfortable couches and coffee tables, positioned for privacy and conducive to quiet conversations. During the WPC many captains used these areas to confer with their teams, rehash the puzzles they had completed that day, or coach them on the best strategy for the next set of puzzles. In the main lobby puzzlers played cutthroat card and board games, watched soccer matches on a large television, or slaked their thirst at the enormous bar that dominated the lobby.
The WPC is an opportunity to renew old friendships, meet interesting people from all over the world, visit a foreign country, and participate in the world's oldest and largest international puzzling event.
So, just how much preparation does five-time WPC champion Ulrich Voight do before a World Puzzle Championship? The 30-year-old mathematician from Germany admits to solving "lots of puzzles" all the time. However, he ramps up his workout a few days before a WPC by solving puzzles from as many national qualifying tests as possible, under the same time constraints that were in place during the actual event. [Note: Many WPC countries devise timed online tests to select their teams. These tests are also made available to interested solvers from all over the world.]
Wei-Hwa Huang, a four-time WPC champion, has participated in every WPC since 1993. While his work as a software engineer keeps him very busy, this 31-year-old finds time to test-solve and edit puzzles for events he is unable to attend, such as the National Puzzlers' League annual convention.
Maho Yokota, a 17-year-old high school student from Japan, started solving puzzles when he was six years old. Everyone in his family is an avid puzzle solver. When he participated in WPC 2004 he finished in 18th place. He was just 15 years old at the time.
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.