One can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of ... puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.

Georges Perec, Life, A User's Manual


There are few pleasures in life greater—to me, anyway—than the singular epiphany the accompanies the solution of a good puzzle. Teasing sense out of an undifferentiated mass of symbols and images is a sublime experience.

A well-written puzzle has a non-obvious solution and requires some sort of inspired insight on the part of the solver, but once the solver has deduced—and executed—the mechanism, the answer must be unambiguously clear. In that sense a good puzzle is the opposite of a real-life problem, which demands compromises and trade-offs, and rarely provides a way to confirm the existence, much less the nature, of the "correct" solution.

This insight is more than just an intellectual response; it is an aesthetic one too. As such I claim that puzzle authorship is—or at least can be—an art form. The transient nature of this epiphany makes the aesthetic response a fleeting one. Who saves their solved crosswords?

My Efforts

The Younger Set

It was my privilege some time ago to attend my ten-year-old niece's fourth grade class and give a small presentation on puzzle-solving. This took about an hour, just under half of which was occupied by my blathering on about The Game, the art of puzzling, and the meaning and etymology of the word epiphany.

The puzzles themselves may be found here.

The Game

"The Game," with a capital G, is a wide-ranging puzzle-solving marathon event that takes place with surprising unpredictability in various places throughout the United States. I played my first Game at Stanford in 1991 and was hooked.

The Game typically starts on a Saturday morning at 10 am with a single puzzle. This puzzle's solution identifies the location of another puzzle; the solution to this puzzle identifies yet another location. The process repeats for about 25 puzzles—typically about 30 hours—until the final puzzle identifies the final location, where there is typically some sort of low-key celebration where you would much prefer to find a bed. Sleep is optional, and not recommended.

A good historical account of this activity may be found here.

M.I.T. Mystery Hunt

The M.I.T. Mystery Hunt was established in 1980. Like the Game, it is a competition, wherein victory is realized by solving tons of puzzles. Unlike the Game, the puzzles are distributed in batches. The solutions to these puzzles are typically single words or short phrases. A "meta-puzzle" synthesizes these answers into a solution that identifies a location on campus where some victory token—typically a coin—is located.

The Microsoft Puzzle Hunt

I helped organize the Microsoft Puzzle Hunt in 1999 during my otherwise regrettable tenure at that institution. It is essentially the M.I.T. Mystery Hunt transplanted to the Microsoft campus. I've participated in all subsequent ones (ergo, my team has yet to actually win), one of the best of which was The Age of Puzzles.