Ian’s Labyrinth (Part 1)


This Post contains SPOILERS of puzzles that appear the book The Maze of Games by Mike Selinker, specifically ones in Chapter One: Diamonds in the Rough.

In my summary of the recent National Puzzlers’ League convention in Portland, Maine, I mentioned that I bought my nephew a copy of Mike Selinker’s puzzle book The Maze of Games. The book dropped during convention week and Mike brought copies to Portland to sell to puzzlers who had not ordered copies in the Kickstarter campaign. I had not seen a copy of the book when I bought it for Ian; my copy was waiting in my mailbox back in Colorado. But Ian was very enthusiastic about the book and I was confident he could handle the puzzles, or at least interested to discover how he would cope with puzzles that he couldn’t handle.

Ian has fairly good experience with games, both board games and game apps on his iPad. He is interested in math and logic puzzles, and is currently fascinated with nim-style analysis puzzles, but doesn’t, to my knowledge, spend much time with word puzzles. He has been exposed to some puzzle books such as The Westing Game and Eric Berlin’s Winston Breen series though I’m not sure how much unassisted solving he indulged in regarding the puzzles in those stories. He has participated in of my birthday puzzle hunts over the years and even co-wrote and presented his own puzzle hunt party last fall. So while he may a novice at some of the puzzle types featured in TMoG, he can grasp the solving approach when given clear instructions, which Mike has provided. And the experience of the birthday puzzle hunts and the extravaganza presented at MaineCon he has some familiarity with metapuzzle structure. Because TMoG does not offer puzzle solutions in the manner of Westing Game or Winston Breen, Ian has been texting me about the puzzles in the book, thus I am able to monitor his progress and share that progress in the blog.

Ian, along with his mother and grandmother, spent an additional week in Maine after the convention. According to my sister, Ian was fixated on the book throughout the remainder of the vacation. Mom and Grandma worked with him on some of the early puzzles of Chapter One, but eventually he turned to “Mr. Todd” for help.

Hello this is Ian. Do u know a word that means “the germ of an idea” that begins with I and the third letter is k

I got this text the first day of my return, before I had even opened the package containing the book. I suggested an answer to the clue, figuring that it could be a word he was unfamiliar with; it seemed a reasonably small toehold in some kind word grid puzzle. He asked after a few more clues with letter placement and I begged off, telling him that I needed some time to catch up on my own solving before I could help him.

I began solving my own copy of the book and caught up with Ian when he was working on the fourth puzzle in Chapter One. He confirmed his keywords for the first three puzzles — all three were correct. Then he texted:

Wait sorry. I don’t understand 9. What does it mean encoded

I realized that Ian was asking about cryptograms.

It’s a letter substitution. Each letter in the list is encoded with a different letter.

So if a was b then b would be c. Or is it completely different letters

A letter can encode any different letter but always the same letter within the same list.

Ok thanks. So e.x. if the word peanut were there spelled pexnut would x stand for a as the key letter



It was a meager explanation of the mechanism of cryptograms. I wasn’t entirely sure if Ian understood the concept, and I didn’t mention any basic cryptogram solving techniques, but with a few days he texted me and confirmed the correct answer.

This evening Ian finished the fifth puzzle, which features a pirate story with missing words and phrases that must be deduced by context cues and cross-referencing of numbered bigrams. Ian texted me in the afternoon.

Ok and I just realized that there is one more letter on pirate one. did it right when i woke up so I missed a few. I’m now looking at it and I’m completely wrong.

The Dead Man’s Bounty is a tricky puzzle. Let me know if you need help.

Ok I will. It is the hardest so far

Throughout the evening Ian texted to check on missing answers. His guesses were either correct or very close.

Is SUPERB CHESTS one [of the missing answers]

Four of the bigrams in SUPERB CHESTS are correct. Two are incorrect

What are bigrams

Eventually, Ian cobbled together enough missing answers to start attacking the puzzle’s keyword.

Is [the keyword] one word or a phrase

It is not a single word

Does it have to do with the life of pi

I encouraged Ian to go back to solving the missing answers. He finally got everything and texted the correct keyword for me to confirm.

You got it


I will mention that, in addition to my texts, Ian is getting help from his mom and from some of her fellow middle school teachers who drop by the house. I’m happy with Ian’s solving pace and I’m noting the puzzle concepts he is learning (cryptograms, bigrams). I look forward to talking to Ian on the phone to find out more about his solving process, e.g. the method he used to get the solution to the cryptex puzzle in the book’s introduction.

By the way, Mike Selinker has just launched a followup Kickstarter campaign for the Audiobook of The Maze of Games narrated by Wil Wheaton.

MaineCon Memories


On Monday, July 14, at 11:59 p.m., I boarded a plane in Denver that was scheduled to take me to the greatest place in the world. I knew I was bound for the greatest place in the world because I had boarded similar planes (well, a car one year) every July for the past sixteen years and never failed to arrive that greatest place — a place anointed by members of the National Puzzlers’ League as the site of the annual convention, and a place that said members would make great through their presence. As certain as I was that I would soon be in my perfect place I had some distractions. This year my 13-year-old nephew Ian and his mother and grandmother were making a family vacation to the same place and, since Ian has developed puzzling interests, planned to drop in on the convention. Would Ian find the convention activities accessible and would I be able to reconcile my attentions to members of my first and second family at the same time? These are the questions that paced around my head as I settled into my aisle seat and went to sleep.

I woke up in Boston, transferred to a bus, and in two hours — 8 a.m. local time —  I was in Portland, Maine! Given my early arrival time, both in terms of the day of the week and the time of the day, I knew that I was unlikely to run into fellow NPL members but I was determined to hit the ground running and make the most of a day of solo sightseeing. Jenn Braun, the convention host, composed a document of notable tourist attractions and eateries and I had sketched out a Tuesday itinerary that worked out very well. I walked from the bus station to Holy Donut and had a breakfast of bacon-cheddar-filled potato-flour donut and coffee with a dark-chocolate-sea-salt to go. That got me to the hotel where I was fortunate enough be able to check into my room at 9 a.m. (yay, Westin Harborview!) After a shower and change of clothes, I hiked a mile up Congress Street to the Portland Observatory, joined its first tour of the day, and got some great views of the city and Casco Bay. After the tour I marched over to Maine Mead Works in time for its initial tour of the day and a free mead tasting. With two bottles of mead in tow I opted to head back to the hotel for a quick lunch and a power nap. By the time I set out for afternoon touring I realized that I had missed the last narrow-gauge rail excursion but had enough time for a tour of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow childhood home (incredible, historical artifacts but a bit overpriced and the tour docent was a bit lets-get-this-over-with). For dinner, I started with the raw bar at Eventide Oyster Co. and then bolted through the rain for chowder at Gilbert’s. I wanted to have a third course at Portland Lobster Company but was feeling full so strolled around Old Port and eventually made it back to the hotel for a nightcap at Top of the East Lounge. I met the lounge manager, Taylor, and assured her that the incoming convention group would do good business through the weekend. Trip Payne arrived later — he wasn’t surprised to discover that I had found the bar — and became the first of many people I would hug in Maine.

I managed to get up early on Wednesday and walked to another spot Jenn Braun recommended: OhNo Cafe. My breakfast was proscuitto and Tabasco on a maple bagel, black coffee, and a Dan Katz cryptic crossword: a fantastic way to start any day! Back at the hotel I found a good group of NPL members arising and arriving. I joined a small group for lunch at Otto pizzeria and then joined Trip for a tour of the International Cryptozoology Museum with a fun museum puzzle tour provided by Jenn Braun and Scott Purdy. In the afternoon I invited some friends to my room to sample the mead purchased the day before. The evening activities started with a welcome picnic, moved indoors due to inclement weather. Jenn Braun catered the picnic with blueberries, Whoopie pies and Moxie soft drink, and Adam Cohen presented a mixer bingo game where I proved useful as a person who arrived Tuesday or earlier, a contributor to PBS and NPR, and a person who knows the meaning of the word “ucalegon.” The post-picnic activity was a puzzle pub crawl called “Solve a Puzzle, Take a Drink” devised by Roger Barkan, with stops at eight local beer halls. Each stop on the crawl featured a puzzle, with a final answer to be extracted at the end. Stops on the crawl included a converted church, a German biergarten with hipster musicians, and a dive bar that we barely managed to reach before last call. I had beers at five of the eight locations (skipping the crowded Corner Room, the frat-laden Oasis, and the closed In’Finiti Fermentation & Distillation bar) while kibitzing on the crawl puzzles and introducing friends Kevin Wald and Katie Hamill to the Sondheim Rhyme game. I was good and toasted by the crawl’s end, along with a few solvers who didn’t skip drinks at any of the locations, so we stopped on the way back at Nosh for sober-up food.

Thursday was a planned road-trip day, and I set off in the morning with Trip Payne, Scott Purdy, and Katherine Bryant for the Funspot arcade in New Hampshire. The arcade boasted a miniature golf course, dozens of classic arcade games I remembered from my youth, a huge pinball machine that used a cue ball, a snack bar with delightful, borderline food offerings, and an electronic advertising screen that occasionally flashed Ayn Rand quotations. Chad Brown, Tanis O’Connor, and Sean Molley met up and we had giddy day plunking tokens and cursing ineffective putts. On the drive back to the hotel, Trip, Katherine, and passed the time with group solving of cryptics from Adam Cohen and Ben Smith. By the time we got back to Portland we had minimal time to get dinner before the opening night of the program started. I opted to grab a bite at Top of the East and, while scarfing down a lobster roll, spotted my nephew peeking into the bar.

Ian was apparently confused by the room-key specifics of the hotel elevator but I got his attention and found out that my family was having dinner in the lobby restaurant. I met them downstairs and, once they were through, managed to set up a ballroom table with my family, my friend Andrew Greene and his family, Jan O’Sullivan, and my hotel room mate Patrick Berry. I opened the program with a “get acquainted” game called Meet Your Match based on anti-match games. Trip Payne followed with a well-received mixer called Ten Clued Very Much. Ian and I teamed up for the game, which gave him the chance to meet some great puzzle people and gave me the chance to choke by not being able to conjure the answer word JAWBREAKER with every available hint. Nathan Curtis wrapped up the evening with the challenging word optimization game Par Fours. Ian and I made a decent score, as did my sister Martha who partnered with Patrick and my mother Sybil who partnered with Jan. It was a solid opening night program but I couldn’t tell if Ian was getting much enjoyment. I joined some friends at the bar after the program and then, missing opportunities for after-hours slots, opted to turn at a relatively early hour.

Friday started with a return breakfast to Cafe Ohno with Patrick Berry. The midday activity was a short road trip with my family to Portland Head Light, a lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth. When we returned, I managed a sixth-place finish in Adam Cohen’s excellent Jeopardy! game (ah, well, losing is the new winning) and some more bar time before the Friday night program. Ian and I tackled Mark Oshin’s On Beyond Initials first and Ian snagged a fairly good score for our team by finding the name Albu(s) Dum(b)ledore for the initials S B. Jonathan Berkowitz and Fraser Simpson presented a clever trivia game with answers that varied before and after the year 1980. My team, which included my family and Nancy Coughlin, achieved an average score — we saw through the geography questions, such as the largest African country in area and the closest capital city to Luxembourg, but tanked on the Broadway musicals question that we assigned for a “daily double.” The evening concluded with Scott and Susan Weiss’s delightful presentation of Snake Oil, a game in which players seek particular customers to sell unusual products. Sybil and Martha sat out and the nature of the game meant that Ian and I would be separated as the game progressed, but Ian had no qualms about being a new face in a room full of seasoned puzzlers and successfully sold a Turtle Tub to a High School Dropout.

In the after-hours I tried Twins Jeopardy! written by brothers Bruce and Roy Leban and lost to trivia maven but wonderful guy Eric Berman (I should have taken a chance on that Rime of the Ancient Mariner question). I also formed a team with Mark Halpin and Miriam Nadel for a difficult but satisfying Con version of the BBC game show Only Connect, presented by Darren Rigby. Our team floundered the first two rounds but demolished The Wall and made nearly caught up in the Vowels round. I then secured a seat on a team with Kevin Wald, Katie Hamill, Tom Gazzola, and Jimmy Williams for a brand new multi-round trivia game called World Cup of Pub Trivia. Game inventor Todd Etter led us through various trivia rounds with mechanisms inspired by the progression of the World Cup: qualification, group stage, knockout, etc.The rounds were beautifully designed and our team emerged victorious!

Saturday’s afternoon program included two enjoyable pencil puzzles: Camouflage by Will Shortz and Opposable Sums by Mike Shenk. I finished both puzzles in the time limit but didn’t hand either in, which was just as well because I made an error on both. The flat competition, Starting Lines, was organized by Saxifrage and I co-solved with my usual partners Jeffrey Harris and Patrick Berry. The theme of the competition was flats (verse puzzles) that open with the line that opens a famous poem. The entries in the competition were great but the memorable element for me was that I discovered that my submitted flat and the flat submitted by Trip Payne both used the opening line from the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool.” And, back in the Funsport car trip from Thursday when Trip and I were in the same car, I asked flat competition organizer Katherine, the driver of the car, if there were any interesting duplications of opening lines. Katherine with a perfect poker face noted that there was such a pair and that the two submissions reach her inbox with hours of each other (she was referring to the flats from Trip and I). And, in the kudos competition for flats, Trip and I nearly tied for kudos, both ranking in the top five!

The Saturday night event was an extravaganza called Extravagawesome constructed by Rick Rubenstein, Joshua Kosman, Mark Gottlieb, Tanis O’Connor, and a slew of contributors. Ian was excited to try out an extravaganza, so I formed that included Patrick Berry, Eric Berlin (one of Ian’s favorite authors), and Roger Barkan and his wife Angela. Eric included his daughter Lea, close to Ian in age, and so we started with team that was an early favorite for the cute award. I prepared myself to cater more to Ian’s comfort than my own puzzle solving but Eric, an experienced puzzle popularizer in classrooms, was a perfect mentor for Ian and Lea. The two chose the puzzle that they wanted to work on and required only a small amount of supervision to reach the answers. A wonderful early moment of the solving came when our youngest team members were working on a spot the differences puzzle of a beach scene and Lea announced that the differences were a MAN, a HAT, and a TAN but couldn’t figure out the answer. Later Ian and Lea collaborated on an astronomy-themed word search and I felt a visceral tingle of excitement as these solvers discovered some extractions techniques such as rebus letters, messages in unused letters, and connect the dots. The meta puzzle of the extravaganza was brilliant: sections of a seemingly benign circuit path from a secondary puzzle were traced onto a piece of acetate to produce the letters of the final answer. Lea was in charge of the tracing while Ian and the rest reviewed the clue list to guide the orientation of the acetate. At one point Ian exclaimed, “Oh my God, this is so cool!” It was a sentiment that we all felt, but, perhaps due to our adult years or puzzle experience, restrained ourselves from actually stating out loud. Hearing a young puzzler gush his feelings without inhibition, like the child in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, was the perfect conclusion to the official program.

The after-hours activities in the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday morning included a seating in Tom Gazzola’s It Takes Two game, a rebranding of his celebrated Doubles Jeopardy! invention. I partnered with Trip Payne and we did fairly well in the early rounds, particularly in a challenge to mold partners into statues representing famous pairs. Trip and I made it to the finals but fell short in a concentration challenge and finish in third place. After a few rounds of Exquisite Fruit I watched a round the Makeshift Jeopardy! game presented by TK Focht. I had played this game at its premiere in Las Vegas last September and kept tight-lipped about its secrets and hilarious production value for almost a year, knowing that TK would want to bring it to a convention. Watching a new set of player make the discoveries that my group made back in the Coconuts Bar & Gaming room of the Embassy Suites was very satisfying. I volunteered to be the Jimmy Kimmel question presenter for the Win My, TK Focht’s, Ben Stein’s Money round and ended up singing a clip from a Beethoven symphony for reasons I don’t quite understand.

A few side notes: Ian was intrigued to discover the concept of a hidden contest. When I told him that the contest could be anywhere he squinted about the hotel lobby looking for anything unusual. Of course, the hidden contest was not in the lobby. It surfaced in the ballroom before breakfast on Saturday in the form of a clever word puzzle disguised as a discarded Jeopardy! clue sheet — Great job, puzzle creator Joe Cabrera!  Ian was also very interested in the announcement Mike Selinker made about his book The Maze of Games. I bought Ian a copy at the Con and he is already further along than I am in navigating the puzzles of the maze (he keeps texting me and exhorting me to catch up). Last but not least, Jenn Braun did a fantastic job of hosting this year’s convention from providing sightseeing suggestions to arranging meals to assisting with hotel accommodations when the record turnout of our convention expanded beyond the Westin room block. Jenn did an awesome job and my family and I had a wonderful vacation due in no small part to her efforts.

Most of my return trip to Denver was dedicated to catching up on sleep, but I did place this question in the back of my mind, and I am still thinking about it: what would be a good nom for Ian Derrick Chaney?

Crosswords LA Tournament Update, Myles Nye on RHAP


Tournament organizer Elissa Grossman has announced the time and place for the 2014 Crosswords LA Tournament. The sixth edition of the tournament, which benefits the nonprofit organization Reading to Kids, will be held at the Fowler Museum, part of UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture, on Saturday, October 18. The starting time has not been announced but will probably be close to the 9:30 registration/10:45 solving start of previous years.

On this week’s Survivor installment of Rob Has a Podcast, host Rob Cesternino announced that Myles Nye would be a guest on next week’s show. Myles is a former challenge consultant for Survivor and will be talking with Rob about memorable challenges in the reality series’ 26-season history. Myles is a talented designer of puzzles and games, not just of the balance-over-water or dig-up-bags-o’-puzzle-pieces variety, and I’m looking forward to hearing his views on what makes a good game challenge for television and in general. You can read some more about Myles’s professional game activities at his Wise Guys Events website.

PUZZLE: Podder’s Wheel #1


I’ve made an iPod playlist of ten songs arranged alphabetically by title. The paragraph below is a mashup of lyrical segments from the songs in playlist order. Can you identify the songs and the theme of the playlist? Feel free to guess songs explicitly in the comments, but only one correct guess per person; I will edit the initial comment to add correct guesses. To guess the theme please use ROT13 in comments or contact me privately.

* * *

Don’t tell me it’s not worth fightin’ for. I can’t help it ’cause this land’s the place I love. And here I’ll stay out in the forest where I might get eaten by a bear. Break free from the chains! Yeah I know that there is pain but that won’t make me nervous, wondering what to do. Please accept my apology, but love is blind and your kisses, sweeter than honey! And guess what? So is my money! You can rely on the old man’s money. Don’t stop it…*b-b-b-b-b-b-b-buh* *b-b-b-b-b-b-b-buh* *scritch-scritch scra-atch* *Scri-scruh-scritch scra-atch* Yeah, but in your head, baby, I’m afraid you don’t know where it is.





In each round a group of players is given the description of a trivia quiz from the Sporcle website. Each player in turn chooses one answer to the described quiz; correct answers are written on a score sheet and incorrect answers are disregarded. Players try to rank the answers by difficulty based on Sporcle website statistics. Players score points for correct rankings and for correct answer choices: more difficult answers score more points than easier ones.

Sporculation is an adaptation of the BBC quiz show Pointless. On the show the difficulty ranking of answers within a category is determined by a set of 100 pre-game test takers. I realized that the statistics on the Sporcle website could be used in the same way. The game was presented as an after-hours activity at the 2010 NPL convention in Seattle. In each session eight players played eight rounds with quizzes including “Can you name all the Monopoly Properties?” and “Can you name the 50 different words in Dr. Seuss’ ‘Green Eggs and Ham’?” After the sessions a few players proposed a impromptu beat-the-champ version using a portable Internet device: A moderator announces a quiz and the players take turns choosing answers; a player wins by either choosing the most difficult answer or by making it through one round of guesses without any other player choosing a more difficult answer.