Thursday, September 21

I never liked jigsaws – so what am I doing representing the US at the ‘puzzle Olympics’? | Board games

My back aches. I’m sweating. My bladder is sending out distress signals. I’ve been going full throttle for three hours, and have five hours to go, but I can’t slow down. Not when the stakes are so high: I’m representing my country among the best competitors on Earth, sandwiched between teams from Turkey and Bulgaria. I am competing in the equivalent of an Ironman triathlon for assembling little cardboard pieces. No, seriously. I’m representing Team USA at the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship.

A few months ago, I didn’t know such a competition existed. But it does, and these people are serious, and several hundred have gathered in a small town in Spain. Team USA consists of me, my wife and two teenage sons. We are at one of dozens of tables inside a hot dome. We’ve practised for a month, but nothing like the jigsaw masters, who have trained several hours a day for years.

A man in a blazer reads out the instructions into a microphone: we have eight hours to complete four large puzzles. Tres, dos, uno … puzzle! We grab one of the boxes on our table – an African safari scene. Immediately, we’re at a disadvantage. Other teams have brought letter openers and knives to rip off the plastic wrapping on the box. Team USA are reduced to using our fingernails. Dammit. We dump everything out and try to snap some of the grey pieces together, but they don’t fit. “I wish I’d brought a hammer,” my son says. Good idea. But even that probably wouldn’t be enough.

How did I get here? Well, it’s not because I’m brilliant at jigsaws. I do love puzzles, but my specialities are word and logic puzzles. Then, three years ago, I signed up to write a book on puzzles, and why I and millions of others obsess over them. The book would explore my hunch that puzzles aren’t a waste of time. They are, instead, a force for good. They make us better thinkers and better people – maybe even help save the world.

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I knew I had to write a chapter on jigsaws – they are perhaps the prototypical puzzle, the one that comes to mind when you say the word “puzzle”. But I wasn’t excited about it. Jigsaws were possibly my least favourite genre of puzzles. I didn’t hate them, but I saw them as more of a chore than a joy, more akin to loading the dishwasher than eating lemon meringue pie. I thought they lacked nuance and surprise. Well, I have seen the error of my ways. I’m a jigsaw convert and evangelist.

A few months before the pandemic, I began my deep-dive into jigsaws with a Google search. I discovered the first was created by a British cartographer named John Spilsbury around 1760. He glued a map to a wooden board and carved it up in order to teach aristocratic kids geography, so they could know which countries to invade and colonise later. I learned that jigsaws were originally created by hand with a jigsaw, hence the name.

Then, far into my search results, I spotted an intriguing link: the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship was taking place in Spain in about six weeks. Nearly 40 countries were represented – Brazil, Bulgaria, Malaysia, Canada, Italy, and on and on. Yet, oddly, no Team USA. On a whim, I filled out the application for the four-person team event. I figured this would be the first step in a rigorous screening process – timed trials, perhaps an interview – that I would surely fail. A day later, an email pinged back: “Congratulations. You are confirmed as Team USA in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship.”

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I was thrilled and horrified. I mean, I know it’s not the Olympics. But still, there’s pressure. It’s an international competition, and I will be representing my fellow 330 million Americans. “It’s your patriotic duty,” I told my reluctant teammates. They were sceptical but agreed to do it, as long as there wasn’t a uniform. No problem.

I realised my family needed coaching, so I called up Karen Kavett, a New Jersey native with a popular YouTube channel about jigsaws. She gave us a crash course in speed-solving. Yes, you should usually start with the edges – but not always, it depends on how colourful the puzzle is: some experts start by sorting the colours instead, assembling those, then working outwards.

If you’re not sure two pieces actually fit together, hold them up to the light and make sure no brightness seeps through.

Sometimes you should work backwards: visualise what’s missing and look for that piece. When confronted with a dreaded big sky, or any other monochromatic expanse, switch strategies and sort by shape rather than colour. Make a pile of pieces with two outies and two innies, another pile with one outie and three innies, and so on. This will make it easier to assemble.

We practised on weekends but felt woefully unprepared as we flew off to Valladolid, a small city two hours’ drive north of Madrid. The tournament took place at the Millennium Dome, a bubble-shaped structure with an indoor space the size of a minor league baseball stadium. The floor was packed with jigsaw enthusiasts, hundreds of them. I saw shoulders, wrists and calves adorned with jigsaw tattoos. I saw jigsaw earrings and jigsaw-patterned clothes.

‘Yes, I know. I promised my kids they wouldn’t have to wear jigsaw T-shirts.’ Photograph: courtesy of A.J. Jacobs

My family were wearing jigsaw T-shirts, too. Yes, I know. I promised my kids they wouldn’t have to. But I couldn’t resist designing customised shirts for my first world championship. After much cajoling, my sons and wife reluctantly put them on. The shirts featured a US flag in the shape of a jigsaw piece, along with the motto “E pluribus unum pictura”. It translates as: “Out of many, one picture.”

We were shown to our spot, one of 86 tables (some countries have more than one team), each with a name card adorned with a flag. The Turkish team consisted of four women wearing hijabs and skirts with a jigsaw pattern. “I can’t believe it, but I’ve got butterflies,” my wife, Julie, said. She started doing stretches as if she were running a 5K. One of the Turkish puzzlers had her head down and hands cupped in prayer. I said my own secular prayer to myself: please don’t let us finish last.

Let me pause the white-knuckle action here to say that my newfound love was eerily timely. Just a few months after the tournament, the pandemic shut down the world and, all of a sudden, jigsaws were everywhere, as coveted as hand sanitiser. The Onion ran the headline “Violently Bored Americans Begin Looting Puzzle Stores”.

That didn’t happen, as far as I know. But the gist was true. Facebook feeds filled up with families piecing together jigsaws of Renoirs or The Little Mermaid. Celebrities got in on it, with Ellen DeGeneres posting a photo of her table covered with a 4,000-piece puzzle. Factories and retailers struggled to keep up with demand. “It almost feels like a war footing,” one told the New York Times. One retailer reported a quadrupling of sales.

This boom tapped into a side of jigsaws that is almost the polar opposite of speed-solving. People don’t want to solve their puzzles quickly. Speed is the enemy. They want to fill their days. I interviewed several psychologists about what drove the jigsaw boom and they talked about the mental health benefits. Jigsaws are Paxil in cardboard form. They are meditative. They take our minds off our problems. They’re an exercise in creating order out of chaos when the world seems particularly chaotic. They provide closure and certainty. They allow families to cooperate instead of squabbling. They tap into the flow state, when hours pass by like minutes.

Jigsaw fans compare them to other stress-busting activities. On one podcast, devoted jigsawer Hugh Jackman says that, when the pieces click together, it gives him the same satisfaction as popping a zit (his words, not mine). I watch a Netflix series where a religious woman tries to explain sex to a naive new bride. She says sex is like a jigsaw puzzle – the pieces just fit.

During the pandemic, my family and I explored the limits of puzzles. At one point, I bought the world’s biggest jigsaw – a whopping 48,000 pieces – thinking it would be a fun challenge. It was not. It arrived in a box the size of a small refrigerator. I told my wife we might have to move to the suburbs to make room for it.

Pairs of hands opening a bag of jigsaw pieces at the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship Millennium Dome, Valladolid, Spain. 28 September 2019
‘Other teams have brought knives to rip off the plastic wrapping. Team USA are reduced to using our fingernails.’ Photograph: Paco Toledo/Alfonso Alvarez-Ossorio

Each night, my family and I knelt on the living room floor and got to work. The puzzle featured scenes of beautiful locations around the world. We started with Santorini, the Greek island. We began with the windmills and the blue church domes. We finished a couple of weeks later with the whitewashed cottages and sandy hills. Now just 23 other scenic cities to go!

And then, three days into Tokyo, I went online to check the latest puzzle news and saw a crushing article: Kodak had just come out with a new world’s biggest puzzle. A 51,300-piecer of international landmarks, such as the Taj Mahal and the Colosseum. Ugh. Even if we finished ours, we would still not have completed the biggest jigsaw ever. My motivation faded. We taped Santorini to a big sheet of cardboard and stashed it in the closet, where it sits today, a mocking reminder of overambition. Four hundred dollars, gone. Damn.

Lesson learned: mega-puzzles weren’t for us. But was there another kind of extreme jigsaw experience to be had while stuck inside? The answer was yes. And it was provided by a small company in Vermont that is iconic in the jigsaw world. Founded in 1974, Stave make beautiful hand-cut wooden jigsaws that are notable for two reasons. First, they are insanely expensive, from $400 (£235) to $10,000 (£8,200) – Bill Gates is a fan, as he can afford to be. Second, they are hard. Really hard. They run from challenging to nearly impossible. The founder gleefully refers to himself as Chief Tormentor.

As I was writing a book on puzzles, the folks at Stave loaned me a handful of their puzzles. One weekend, my teenage son and I opened one of the dark blue boxes – there’s no image on the cover to give you a clue. The pieces are tricky: edge pieces look like middle pieces. There are pieces carved in whimsical shapes, such as dolphins and fishermen. There are pieces from other puzzles that don’t belong at all, but are there to throw you off. There are pieces that fit in multiple ways.

At one point, I laughed out loud when a piece required being flipped to the opposite side. I never thought I’d laugh at a jigsaw puzzle but there I was, chuckling like a fool. My wife joined us for 20 minutes before saying she preferred the meditative joy of regular jigsaws: “I have enough frustration in my life.” The puzzle – which turned out to be an aquarium full of fish – was just the right amount of frustration for me.

Other Stave puzzles were well outside my zone. They produced far too much vexation. Olivia the Octopus, considered Stave’s hardest, has 10,000 possible arrangements of the pieces but only one is correct (and allows the octopus to fit inside the coral reef). My niece actually left the room screaming at one point.

Competitors at the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship in Valladolid, Spain, September 2019.
‘These people are serious’: championship competitors. Photograph: Paco Toledo/Alfonso Alvarez-Ossorio

But the mid-level Stave puzzles? I’m a big fan. I’ve even grappled with the puzzle of how to afford them. Some solutions: you can borrow them from generous friends, buy them used, or try a company called Liberty, which produces cheaper (though still pricey) woodcut puzzles. These helped get me through the pandemic. They kept my mind occupied and taught me life lessons, such as expect the unexpected, have grit, be flexible in your cognition. Small differences can have outsize effects.

OK, back to the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship action. Team USA is 15 minutes in, and we’ve been busy sorting edges and colours. It’s become clear the monkey will be a problem – it’s the same colour as the tree. “Monkeys used to be my favourite animal,” Julie says. “Don’t make me hate you, monkeys!” I love that Julie, once sceptical, has fully committed. She’s trash-talking the puzzle.

We’re making headway on the zebras, but the elephant is troublesome. He and the rhino are both grey, but slightly different. This is a good life lesson, I tell my sons. Life is full of subtleties, different shades of grey. Nothing is black and white. No response. I tell myself it’s because they’re focused.

At the two-hour mark, a mini-crisis. On the carpet between our table and the Bulgarians, I spot a yellow and green piece. “Is that yours?” I ask them. “Not ours,” says a Bulgarian man with a tone that implies: “Do we look like we’d make a rookie mistake like that?” I pick it up. Imagine the nightmare I just dodged – a missing piece at the end. I glance at the Bulgarians’ puzzle. They’re close to finishing, only missing the lake and sky. On the other hand, we are not close to finishing. In fact, we are well behind every other team I can see.

At around four hours, we hear a hubbub. A scrum of people around a table on the far side of the dome are chattering, holding iPhones aloft to get a video. “What’s happening?” I ask a group of Canadians near our table.

“It’s the Russians. They are close to finishing.”

“Finishing a puzzle?”

“No, finishing.”

As in all four puzzles.

The hive around the Russian table buzzes louder. Moments later, a loud cheer. I see four women emerge from the mob. They’re in their 20s, wearing T-shirts in the colours of the Russian flag. They walk to the stage to be interviewed by the man in the blazer. “Campeones del mundo!” he says. They are beaming. “That’s insane,” one son says. “How’d they do that?” Someone at the next table suggests the Russians are doping. I can’t tell if he’s kidding. “Just keep working,” I say.

Every five or six minutes, we hear another burst of applause. The Brazilians finish. Then Japan. Then Mexico. Each is a knee to my ribs. Finally, at six hours and two minutes, we do it. We finish. Our first puzzle, that is. My sons don’t even fight about who gets to put in the last piece, which makes me proud. Julie whoops it up and applauds. Other tables join in, before realising we’re only one-fourth of the way through.

Later, the results are posted on a TV screen. I jostle to see it, and there we are. Way down at the bottom. But not the very bottom. We beat one of the home-town Spanish teams. I don’t mind being second to last. I don’t even mind being beaten by a man from Uganda who is colour-blind, but loves puzzles so much he still chose it as his hobby. A colour-blind jigsaw champion! That’s inspiring. Like Jim Abbott, baseball’s one-handed pitcher. It’s humiliating, yes. But we are in the mix, here with the best of the world, participating, not spectating.

During the awards ceremony, the Russian team accept their €1,000 (£849) prize along with a jigsaw-shaped trophy. I approach to congratulate them and ask for an interview. “Where are you from?” I ask Irina, who acts as their spokesperson, as she speaks better English than the others. “Siberia.” Makes sense, I think. What else is there to do in Siberia? I don’t say it out loud. I’m sure they’ve heard the same lame observation a thousand times.

“What’s your secret?”

“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”

Fair enough. But Irina relents and tells me one key to success: division of labour. One of them specialises in sorting colours; another, edges. Yet another solves the monochromatic sections – skies, oceans – by shape.

“Wait a moment please,” Irina says. She goes off to a duffel bag and returns with a little stuffed animal. Their team mascot: Ivan the bear. “We want you to have this.” The world is now cut off from ordinary Russians due to Putin’s unjust war but this scene, long before the invasion, was a lovely moment of humanity.

As absurd as a jigsaw puzzle tournament might seem, and as badly as we performed, I enjoyed this experience for many reasons. I got to spend time with my kids, who took a break from Nintendo Switch. I got to see people performing at peak skill, even if this skill isn’t one prized by the Olympic Committee or ESPN. (I later watched a video of the Russian team solving. Their hands flew around the table so quickly, I had to check to make sure the video wasn’t on double speed.)

I felt part of a community that transcends national borders. Geopolitics is a messy business. Just like many things in life, the pieces don’t fit smoothly. But every bit of face-to-face interaction helps. Jigsaw diplomacy. There’s even research on how puzzles are a unifying force. The Harvard law professor and behavioural economist Cass Sunstein studied methods that would bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives. He found that one of the only activities that brought them together was jointly solving a crossword puzzle. More evidence for my thesis: puzzles can help save the world.

And most of all, I felt gratitude. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can enjoy mental pain. That’s a crazy luxury. It’s like marathons – our ancestors didn’t find pleasure in running 26 miles on a weekend, then going out to brunch. They were too busy fleeing predators and rival tribes. Same with these puzzles. Our brains were evolved to solve problems such as, “How do I eat?” but we get to use them for fitting together colourful wooden pieces. I am a lucky bastard.

The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life, by A.J. Jacobs, is out now.

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