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Puzzles and Me

"Uncle Bob"

There are many reasons people shun puzzles:

“I don’t have the time to waste.”
“They are too hard.”
“You have to be a mind reader.”
“I’m terrible at math.”

You can probably add more reasons of your own. As my teaching career fades further back in time, puzzles have grown in importance to me, so I thought I’d tell you why I like them.

I suppose I had a predisposition to puzzles. I was facile with numbers, but other types attracted me, too. I can remember tackling the hidden picture puzzles at a young age. These are line drawings that have small incongruous objects drawn among and camouflaged by the larger coherent ones in the scene. A hatchet among the tree leaves, or a clock in the bark. I can remember doing the Jumble at Sadie's Cafe as a preteen. You must anagram four scrambled words and then take certain circled letters and anagram them to a final answer. Even back then, I sensed the progress I was making and the elation of a completed solution.

Setting aside all the puzzle-phobes and detractors, I know there are lots of people who do puzzles. There are the very serious puzzlers like Will Shortz and other members of the National Puzzlers League; the puzzle constructors; the daily solvers like myself; computer game players; and the casual Sudoku solvers. The Sudoku craze of the last dozen years has been a surprising phenomenon, attracting young and old solvers alike. Throughout my teaching career I’ve challenged my students with a variety of puzzles and have seen all sorts of reactions to them. I persisted with them because they are a form problem solving and an engaging challenge for a developing youngster.

“Arrggghhhh!” Puzzle solving requires the same set of attitudes and skills that other problems do. It’s a real balancing act in lots of ways. Puzzles require persistence. Many are not as difficult as they at first seem. The top of a crossword is often more difficult than one of the lower corners or the center. Try the shorter answers first. If you’re having trouble, put it down and come back to it. You’ll see things you hadn’t before.

Puzzles require flexibility. Perhaps you have picked one that is above your current skill level. Many puzzles carry a difficulty rating that allows you to find a reasonable challenge to start with and to build from. Perhaps in tackling a puzzle, you’ve chosen a strategy that seemed right at first but has proven unworkable. Don’t surrender, just try a different tack.

Puzzles require a balance of observation and focus. I’m better at focus. I can zero in on a clue and put all my concentration into its many possible meanings. When I work a puzzle I’m not easily distracted; however, I sometimes miss details lying just to the side that impact on the answer. Did I observe that the clue stipulated that the answer be a two-word phrase? Did I notice that the fourth letter is known to be an “s?” Focus is good – tunnel vision, not so much.

Puzzles require risk taking and note taking. The algebra teacher would be disappointed with a student who just kept guessing at the solution to an equation, rather than using a procedural approach. I would be, too; however, there are certain problems in which, from a pattern of wrong guesses and unsatisfactory results, you can learn lots more than from a narrow path to a single solution. Think systems analysis. The Boy and the Devil is a prime example. Of course, if you haven’t recorded the guesses you tried and the results they gave, you may have lost some of the learning potential therein, and some information that could be used in future tasks.

I have found that there are times in the day when I am better or worse at solving some puzzle types. Along with the morning coffee, I’ll wake up my brain with two crosswords, the second one more difficult than the first, and two KenKens which are based in arithmetic and similar to Sudokus. KenKens give you all the answers, for example, a product of three numbers is 24, but you must figure out the combination and placement that fits within the rest of the puzzle. KenKen puzzles are a daily feature at the New York Times website.

If I have the time after lunch, I’ll pick an uncommon type of puzzle to solve. There are paper and pencil Battleship puzzles modeled after the box game, or visual-spatial types, cryptograms, or puzzles that draw questions from pop culture. Before dinner I’ll try Kakuro (another KenKen type) and then I’ll tackle my favorite type, the cryptic crossword. These are crosswords that have clever, more devious clues. The real definition of the answer is only part of the clue and is not obvious. The other part of the clue is a wordplay description for the answer. An example clue would be, “Oakland player forfeits a contract provision” in five letters. This is the type that does require a little mind reading. (The answer is at the end of this chapter.)

The really odd thing I’ve noticed is that I do well with these cryptics at the end of the day when my brain is ready for a break. I might be having a cocktail before dinner and these cryptic solutions come one after the other. The reason may have to do with a brain less directed – one shirking orders so to speak – and free to go its own way in many possible directions.

I created a mini-cryptic crossword puzzle for my website Uncle Bob's Puzzle Corner to give solvers an introduction to this type, and to have it require ten minutes or less – solved or not. There are just six clues to solve, three answers going across, and three down, and I post a new puzzle and its solution every month. There is also a tutorial summarizing the types of wordplay often used to obfuscate the answers. Give one a try.

Most puzzles are fair to solvers and provide a cross check. In standard crosswords, every letter is part of both an across and a down answer. There are some clever variations that also contain this checking. One type called the spiral has a string of answers sequentially filling the boxes of a spiral grid proceeding counterclockwise from the inside to the outer rim, and a second set of answers running through the same boxes clockwise from the outside in. Another favorite of mine is Rows Garden. Here the answers going across the grid overlap an array of six-letter “florets.”

I’ll mention one last class of puzzle that I’ve come to enjoy and that I call “The Puzzle After the Puzzle.” Solvers might be asked to solve a set of standard or cryptic clues and then do something else with the solutions. Certain letters in the initial solution might be used to complete a famous quote and the name of the author. One of my favorites is “Some Assembly Required.” This and most other types I’ve mentioned come in the magazine Games World of Puzzles®. In “Some Assembly” there are clues for two consecutive words in each row of a rectangular grid, and another set of clues for answers that fit in jigsaw-like pieces that will be superimposed over the row answers. Two puzzles in one! One of Uncle Bob’s regular forms in this category is the Crisscross Crunch. Solvers answer fairly easy word clues and string them together to fit 5 rows and 5 columns in a grid. The words must overlap to fit in the available spaces, so that if “ladder” is followed by “dermal” in a row, it will be entered as “…laddermal…” along with one or two other overlapping words to compete the row.

As the magazine title suggests, there is a world of puzzles out there. Find a couple to your liking and then keep challenging yourself by stepping up the difficulty or branching to a new type. Oh, and another way to challenge yourself is to create a puzzle of your favorite type for a friend to solve. You can even send one to me. Time wasters? Maybe, but glorious time wasters. Happy solving.

Answer to “Oakland player forfeits a contract provision” – Rider. One tip I’ll give you is to ignore the meaning of the entire clue which often clouds the issue. You are looking for the real definition part (contract provision) and the wordplay. In this case and many others, small words and abbreviations play big roles. The player is a Raider but he has forfeited an “a.”

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