So a list of the names of the participants in the World Puzzle Championship was posted to an online bulletin board, and... ah, you're ahead of me. A list of the names of the participants in the World Puzzle Championship was posted to the official online bulletin board pertaining to the championship, and the in-built obscenity check took offence to my surname being Dickson. This year, according to the bulletin board, for a while I was officially Chris Thingyson. As nicknames go, I actually rather like this.
I tell you this because the instruction booklet for the World Puzzle Championship finals is now available to the public; go and take a look to see just what sorts of puzzles the competitors will be facing. In short, competitors solve around eleven hours of interesting culture-free logic puzzles over a two-day period. This being the thirteenth championship, most of the twelve rounds of puzzles contain thirteen puzzles; all the lengths of time permitted to solve each round are integer multiples of 13 minutes, and breaks between rounds are exactly 13 minutes. There are nine individual rounds, during which each competitor can earn up to 1,500 points; national team scores are formed by adding all four individual competitors' scores together plus up to 500 bonus points earned in the three team rounds.
Some previous years' innovations have not been repeated: in the 2002 contest in Oulu, northern Finland, there was a round in which teams had to solve a puzzle using computer hardware to light rows of lights to spell "OULU". Last year, there was also a combination individual-and-team round where the four team members each solved a solo problem and only teams where all four members of the team had solved their parts of the problem could qualify to even attempt the team half of the puzzle in that round.
The top eight competitors (out of, probably, 60 to 100 entrants) will then go on to a seeded head-to-head single elimination final on the last day. Pairs of contestants each face the same set of puzzles. The first one to complete the entire puzzle set correctly wins the match and advances in the competition; however, part of the game involves deciding when to declare you think your answers are correct, for a declaration that proves to be incorrect forfeits the tie, no matter how well or badly the opponent has done. It is not unknown for matches to be decided when both people have finished their puzzles, but one player decides to check and the other does not. It's a spectacular, made-for-TV format and it works well, though I have reservations about using the first two days purely to seed the draw for the third day of competition. (Happily, last year, six out of the seven final-day matches went to the form established on the first two days; there was a #5-beats-#4 upset, but otherwise it all went to plan.)
I participated as part of the UK team at the 2000 championship at Stamford in the United States and the 2001 championship at Brno in the Czech Republic. In 2002, for which I wrote a long preview, the UK did not send a team to Oulu, merely sending two members who contributed towards an international "United Nations" team; last year, I missed qualification for Arnhem in the Netherlands but was listed as first reserve. For 2004, I am again first reserve but also team captain, a largely symbolic administrative role which gets you a trip to be there with the team and almost all the fun except without the puzzle-solving. It's not a vastly difficult role; last year's captain sent me a to-do list which was only 15 items long because at least 4 of them were to do with ordering drinks.
So all this means that a week tomorrow I shall be off to Opatija in Croatia for the 2004 World Puzzle Championship, very proudly accompanied by the four solvers on the UK team. We have the same four solvers as last year: David McNeill, Nick Deller (ericklendl), Nick Gardner and Alan O'Donnell. They'll be solving the puzzles while I, er, organise the drinks; the free time means there's an 80% chance that I'll get to blog while I'm there, but perhaps only a 60% chance that I'll get to post what I blog as live updates, something which World Puzzle Championships have traditionally been sorely lacking. Watch this space.
So with this in mind, here's the 2004 World Puzzle Championship preview.
The reason why I mention the message board in the first place is that it has details of 14 full teams and four partial teams who are going to be represented this year. Let's run through them, in descending order based on last year's results. This is all quite inexact: I expect there to be something like last year's 18 national teams - possibly more because the World Puzzle Federation is expanding, possibly fewer because Croatia is not the easiest or most convenient destination to reach. (Compare the 19 national teams in the Czech Republic in 2001 with the 16 national teams in Brno in Finland in 2002.) It's also quite possible that someone who hasn't participated in the World Puzzle Championships at all before can turn up, win completely unexpectedly and go from literal zero to hero: take Germany's Ulrich Voigt, who has appeared four times and finished 1st-1st-3rd-1st. All part of the fun of the fair.
1. Germany: Ulrich Voigt, Georgios Papoutsis, Marian Kraus, Michael Ley. Three-time champion Voigt must be considered the favourite to win, even ahead of four-time winner Wei-Hwa Huang. Ley is making his ninth successive appearance at the finals; we shall see whether this year he finishes 4th, as he has done three times before, or 15th, as he has done three times before. Marian Kraus makes a second appearance (last year, 41st) and Georgios Papoutsis is new but finished fifth in PQRST 10, the most recent installment of the quarterly series. Voigt may win, Ley will contend, Papoutsis will not disappoint and Kraus will improve. They have a shout at retaining the team title.
2. USA: Roger Barkan, Jonathan Rivet, Wei-Hwa Huang, Joe DeVicentis. The USA qualifying competition is the granddaddy of them all. Barkan and Huang came 3rd and 2nd last year; Rivet and DeVincentis must be there or thereabouts, not least because they beat two-time second place finisher Zack Butler down into fifth. Admittedly qualifying test success doesn't always translate into glory in person, as last year's fellow qualifiers Todd Geldon came 17th and Michael Miller a lowly 66th - Rivet and DeVincentis beat them both by at least 60 points in this year's qualifying test. The USA are on a joint-record two-year losing streak, but barring a huge disappointment or illness, they must be strong favourites to regain the team title and it would not surprise me unduly to see at least three of the team in the final eight.
3. Netherlands: Niels Roest, Jan Beelen, Tim Peeters, Rick Uppelschoten. Roest won in 2002 (I am still pleased that I wrote that "you can never rule [him] out"), Peeters has two appearances (both top ten finishes), Uppelschoten also has two appearances (both top twenty finishes) and Beelen is starting a third iteration of a two-years-on-two-years-off shift pattern. Likely to be one of the best-prepared teams there. Third place again would be a real feather in the cap.
4. Belgium: Sebastien Leroy, Bart Leemans, Philippe Niederkorn, Wouter Simons. Leroy has established himself in the top ten over the last three years, Leemans too is making a fourth consecutive appearance and looking to continue his climbing streak into the top ten. Niederkorn makes a fifth consecutive appearance and Simons is new. The Benelux championship will be close.
5. Hungary: Tomas Csizmazia, Zoltan Horvath, Pal Madarassy, Zoltan Csorba. Horvath and Madarassy finished 8th and 9th last year, plus the two "Cs"es both finished in their top thirty in their previous appearance. One of only seven ever-present nations and gearing up to hosting in 2005, a very strong threat to match their best-ever performance of third. Heck, let's tip them for third.
6. Japan: Maho Yokota, Daisuke Takei, Takeya Saikachi, Jun Ito. The Japanese have probably sent more different competitors to the World Puzzle Championships than any other nation over the years and I have only any previous WPC form on one of them: Jun Ito, 30th last year. Perenially a top ten nation, could finish anywhere in that top ten. A repeat of their 2002 victory would be a real surprise, though.
7. Canada: Derek Kisman, Byron Calver, David Savitt, Gary Sherman. The very quiet Kisman has three top tens and is most unlikely not to come at least close again this year; Byron Calver makes a third appearance and will be aiming for top twenty. The Canadians all used the US qualifying test, so we can judge the other two based on those scores; Savitt will be about top-quarter, Sherman will be looking to improve on his year-2000 60th. (Only four ahead of me that year, fact fans!) Seventh again won't be too far from the truth.
8. Czech Republic: no team yet declared! The Czechs are three-time team winners and three-time second places, not least due to Robert Babilon (two wins, nine top-10s). Last year they had a tenth, two 15ths and a 38th and yet eighth place was a bad year for them. If Babilon isn't being left behind by the top stars, then they could well make a return to the top five.
9. Poland: no team yet declared. Have filled every position from 6th to 11th over the last six years. I'm going to say that the trend is down and that staying in the top ten will be difficult.
10. Ukraine: no team yet declared. Three past appearances: 16th and last in '97, a good 11th in 2001 and 10th in 2003. Kassabli has top-10 ambitions, but hard to see the Ukraine finishing far from half-way.
11. France: no team yet declared. Four past appearances: a fantastic debut 5th in 2000, sliding to 6th in 2001, 8th in 2002 and 11th in 2003. Auroux has two top tens and celebrity chef namesake Jean-Christophe Novelli had a fine personal best 26th last year. Lots of resources and potentially a strong infrastructure, but they need something to change to make certain of top ten again.
12. Turkey: Hüseyin Kayabasi, Kamer Alyanakyan, Cihan Altay, Metin Örsel. Kamer Alyanakyan is an institution - the only contestant to have appeared at all twelve events to date, but is now only a top-halfer. Örsel makes his seventh showing and is likely to come about half-way too. Cihan Altay will be a very popular guest due to his PQRST stewardship, but will he be as good a solver as he is a site admin? Three twelfth places in the last four years looks ominous.
13. United Kingdom. Presenting! The! United! Kingdom! Last year's #19 smash-hit debutant, David McNeill! Our vastly improved secret weapon, Alan O'Donnell! And the backbone of our team, each with three appearances: Nick Gardner and Nick Deller! All four guys are clearly top-half calibre and can aim higher; O'Donnell and ericklendl will both improve considerably on last year, and David McNeill will be pressing for the top ten himself. After 14th of 20 in 2000 and 17th of 27 in 2001, 13th of 20 last year was a disappointment. We WILL finish in the top ten this year.
14. Croatia: Goran Vodopija, Andrej Ivankov, Sanda Reic-Tomas, Dalibor Grdjan. Three of last year's team and a return for Ivankov. Towards the top of the lower half. I don't think there's evidence to suggest that being the home team offers any particular advantages.
15. Russia: Andrey Bogdanov, Ivan Grischenko, Alexey Oleshov, Olga Leontieva. Bogdanov has only one past appearance, but got best non-native-English score in the US Qualifying test and has placed second in PQRST, so will be looking for the top twenty. The other three are experienced but mid-table. Will give the UK team a run for their money, but won't match us.
16. Slovakia: no team yet declared. Three sixteenth-place finishes in the last four years indicate that they need to pull something out of the bag.
17. Bulgaria: no team yet declared. Two past appearances, not yet higher than third last national team.
18. Romania: Alexandru Szoke, Bernat-Barna Laszlo, Daday Hunor, Prezenszky Istvan. All have appeared before. May be competitive within the bottom half.
We also have confirmed teams from:
A. Finland: Juha Hyvonen, Jouni Sarkijarvi, Liisa Sarakontu, Eeva Terasvuori. An experienced and popular team, but six consecutive appearances among the bottom three national teams bodes ill. One new face.
B. India: Rajesh Kumar, Rajib Borah, Prateek Agrawal, Aditya Utturwar. Four new faces. One year, India will win, but it won't be this one. Looking good for the 2020s, though. It's a shame that their imaginitive bid to host the 2005 championship was not successful.
It would not be unprecedented to see teams from Argentina, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Australia or South Korea - though one would expect any teams from any of those five to finish in the lower half - and Estonia joined the World Puzzle Federation recently, so a team there would be logical. Peru and Switzerland are also WPF members and might send teams one day. The Croatian bid was well-supported not least on the basis that they would try hard to get teams from the Balkans to appear, so I would hope to see teams from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia at least. Individual guests are coming from South Africa, Brazil, Austria and Israel, which might make for a highly intercontinental United Nations Team.
So putting my neck on the line, I predict a final of Voigt (GER) over Huang (USA), again, with Niels Roest finishing third. The team podium will go USA - Germany - Hungary and the United Kingdom will finish tenth. Hurrah. It's going to be a great World Puzzle Championship!
There's also some chess going on - World Championship match between Kramnik and Leko, European Clubs Championship, the Olympiad at the end of the month - but even though Garry Kasparov lost today, it's not as interesting as the World Puzzle Championship. Really.