The Puzzler’s Toolbox and Pre-DASH Jitters

The Puzzler's Toolbox


A couple of weeks ago, after a post about the second artifact in the Black Letter Game, I speculated in the comments about what role one’s familiarity with a wide variety of puzzle types plays in one’s ability to solve puzzles quickly and well.  Reader Jude commented the following:

“Familiarity with different types of puzzles definitely makes a difference. You just have more tools in your toolbox.”

A great analogy!  It reminds me of my recent experience with crossword puzzles.  After a few prominent crossword puzzle makers and solvers started reading and commenting here, I decided to play a few crosswords online.  My experience is limited to occasionally flipping through my grandpa’s crossword books as a kid, or seeing if there are any answers I know in a newspaper crossword.  Usually I can only get one or two.  But the online ones will tell you if a letter is right or wrong, so I had a much better chance of figuring out answers.  As I did a couple of puzzles, I noticed there were a few terms and clue formats carried over from puzzle to puzzle (“crosswordese”).  Some of these were things that confused me on my first crossword, but by the time I had done a few I could recognize them.

It’s the same with a lot of other puzzles.  You learn about shifting, indexing, number letters, braile, morse code, semaphore, and all of these different ways to encode data.  The bigger your puzzle repertoire, the more tools you have to tackle future puzzles.

The toolbox idea raises an interesting question in my mind:  is there anything more to being “good” at puzzles beyond just having a robust toolbox?  Are people who are good at puzzles terribly clever, or have they just been exposed to the more than the average person?

I think there is this image of the Sherlock Holmes-style super-genius in my mind, someone who is so sharp and quick that they could look at an unfamiliar puzzle and instantly glean out the patterns and connections.  I think that’s sort of the image that pops up in my head when I think of somebody who is “good” at puzzles–they would be able to quickly solve a puzzle even if their toolbox was empty.

Realistically, however, I think that image probably is mostly fictional.  There might be a few of those kinds of super-geniuses out there, but I don’t think I’ve ever met one.  And surely not everyone who could be considered “good” at puzzles is one of those people.  To be “good” at puzzles you probably need to do the same thing you do to get good at anything:  practice, practice, practice.  An episode of Radiolab with Malcolm Gladwell even explores the idea that talent and genius as we recognize them are nothing more than compounded practice, that genius is just an “extraordinary love” for something.  Very worth a listen!

This is all very comforting to me!  As I mentioned in those comments, I feel that although I like puzzles, I’m not very good at them yet.  And I have definitely been thinking of it as a sort of fixed mental ability thing.  I had never really considered that they might be something you can practice or become more familiar with.  I think I still even have sort of a negative association with that concept… like, “Oh, I’m not actually ‘good’ at puzzles, I just have seen a lot of them.”  It seems almost like you’re being tricky, like you just know all the tricks and secrets or something.  Maybe it’s just my definition of what a puzzle is that is flawed.  Or my definition of “good”, or both!

I think this all hits on much more complex issues than just puzzles.  Why is my husband so good at using mathematical and scientific concepts and practices while I struggle to even understand them?  Did he just love those sorts of things from a young age, the same way Wayne Gretzky loved hockey in the Radiolab episode, or the same way I loved arts and crafts?  Did the love beget the talent, or did the talent establish a love?  Not everyone is good at what they love to do, not everyone loves all the things they’re good at.

For the purposes of having fun, which is what this puzzle thing is all about for me, I think I should stick to the toolbox model and just enjoy exposing myself to all sorts of different puzzles and events.  Which brings me to DASH…

DASH4 is coming up this Saturday.  It’s my first DASH, so I thought it would be smart to check out some of the older DASH puzzles like the website recommended.  Last night, Nick and I started tackling the puzzles from 2009, and OH MY GOODNESS.  They were a little different than we expected!  And they definitely made it very clear why DASH is feeling like my first “real” puzzle hunt.

When I was asking my friends for interest in DASH, I was also looking for anyone who wanted to do the Richmond Adventure Race (nobody turned out to be available that day).  RAR sounded like it was going to be an Amazing Race-style event with lots of running from place to place, kind of like the Diamond Dash.  DASH, on the other hand, sounded like a more evenly-paced, very long event where there wouldn’t really be any dashing around (ironically) or getting exhausted.  Comparing it to RAR, DASH sounded like a nice, laid-back, easy-going day of solving puzzles with friends, and that is how I presented it to my teammates and to Nick.

Then, Nick and I started working on the DASH 2009 puzzle Honkey Tonk Music, and it became clear that DASH would be a different beast from anything we had experienced.  First of all, the puzzle had 34 different clues to solve!  After about 20 minutes, we had figured out the nature of the puzzle and had solved 7 of the 34 clues.  Nick figured we would probably need another 20 minutes or so to solve it completely.  Hmm..  40 minutes x 9 puzzles + travel/food time = more time than we would probably have on DASH day!  Not to mention, it looks like DASH4 is going to have 13 or 14 puzzles instead of 9! (DASH has confirmed only 8 puzzles and a meta, we might stand a chance after all!)

Compare that to my other “first” puzzle hunt, Post Hunt, where we had three hours to solve five puzzles.  We didn’t run anywhere (well, until the endgame where we ran like fools), we took it super easy, and we solved them all with time to spare (well, except for the vanity puzzle, but it wasn’t for lack of time that we didn’t get that one).

Suddenly, DASH seems less laid-back and more like a race to solve them all in time.  Which is exciting and appealing!  I just hope my teammates don’t mind the shift in perspective.  I suppose we’ll still have the option to take it easy (though Nick has expressed he will be “annoyingly competitive”).  And at least it sounds like none of the stress will come from physically moving quickly from place to place or not knowing where to go next.  And we’ll probably solve more quickly with our other two teammates in tow!

I’m getting really excited about DASH now, even though I feel a bit out of my league.  I feel like I’m such a puzzle rookie, and all of the DASH puzzles are so creative and clever, and keep broadening my idea of what a puzzle can be.  I love it!

I’m also excited to see what my teammates’ strengths are.  Working together with Nick last night was fun (though we did have a few moments where we didn’t connect very well), and I think it helped us both get a better idea of what kinds of puzzles we’re good at.  For all of what I said above about puzzle toolboxes, everyone will of course have their own strengths and weaknesses based on their backgrounds outside of puzzles.  Nick is great with numbers, he knows the rules and hands of poker, and he surprised me with his play-on-word band name abilities.  I can read quickly, detect visual patterns, and work well with words (I think?).  I know one of our teammates is a pun fiend, and the other is a total wild card!  The more I think about it, the more excited I am for how fun this is going to be!

I’ll do my best to get a write-up of our adventure ready by Monday’s post.  Are any of you readers out there going to a DASH?  Have you been before?  Why am I so excited?!

6 comments on The Puzzler’s Toolbox and Pre-DASH Jitters

  • River

    I really appreciate your perspective on the puzzler’s toolbox concept! (And bonus points for referencing that RadioLab episode. Wasn’t that incredible?) Even though I consider myself a relative novice when it comes to puzzling, there are few things that bring me more joy — particularly when it’s a collaborative effort. I’ll be participating in my first DASH in Chicagoland this weekend, and I’m both nervous and incredibly excited! Can’t wait to read about your experience.

  • Jude

    I love that shoutout. Thanks 🙂 I hope your DASH goes well. I couldn’t play this weekend because of out of town guests, but I’m really bummed.

    It’s heartening to hear that other puzzlers didn’t start out being experts at puzzles either. I remember my first few puzzle events. If I made a little contribution that helped someone else solve the puzzle, I considered that quite the achievement. Now I routinely can solve them on my own. I’m still not a fast solver and couldn’t hold my own on one of the “elite” teams, but I feel like eventually I’ll solve a puzzle unless it requires a really weird unclued jump. Again, though, it’s becuase I’ve seen enough puzzles. I kinda know what to look for. Maybe more importantly, I trust that given enough pondering, I’ll eventually get it. I know I don’t give up nearly as quickly or get as frustrated when the path through the puzzle doesn’t readily present itself.

    I hope you guys have a great DASH. Wishing you luck and can’t wait to hear how it went. (and just a little jealous ) But the next Black Letter Game artifact comes next week and I can’t wait!


  • Jude

    Oh. And I have a great cheat sheet with encodings I could share with you. It’s a .pdf and may prove helpful. Let me know and I can email it to you.

  • Jen

    Ah, yeah! I got pretty good at crosswordese senior year of high school and into first year of college. I did at least one a day, and even now if I do one with someone and figure out some obscure word or person, I have to explain that there are just things that pop up frequently and you get familiar with crosswords the more you do them.

    Haha, I think Sherlock Holmes is just untouchable. I think some people may have base advantages — the power of observation can be an incredible help, and same with pattern-finding skills (when I was little and good at math, I loved those math puzzles where you were given a series of numbers and had to figure out the next few numbers in the series by figuring out the math pattern…) — but overall, familiarity and experience takes the cake. As with many things, eh?

    • clavicarius (author)

      Cool, I didn’t know you were good at crosswords! =) I’ve also heard of a thing called cryptic crosswords that are used often in hunts.

      Good points! Observation is definitely valuable — in DASH and in the Black Letter Game, we keep coming up with instances where we have just failed to observe things. And pattern-finding.. that’s an interesting skill because I think it’s more obscure/less recognized than observation. Being observant of one’s surroundings is a generally appreciated life skill, I think, but you rarely need to find patterns outside of work-related problems. I guess they do try to teach us that a bit in school though, so there’s that at least. (I’ve never been good at those number series or shape series puzzles!) Maybe there are a whole list of skills you can come up with that make you a better puzzle-solver, and that come with experience.

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