The puzzles in the World Championships are (almost?) all based on logic rather than on language or cultural references, so that teams from around the world can compete against one another whatever language they speak. Some of the puzzles are spatial, mechanical or even physical, requiring manipulation of provided objects. Around twenty countries send teams of four competitors; most of the rounds of the contest are individual, but there are some rounds where the members of the national teams join up for competition as a foursome. If the concept appeals, the execution largely fulfils the promise; exactly the right people are in charge.
It would probably have been about 1997 or 1998 when I first found out about the World Puzzle Championship on the Internet - or, specifically, the annual online puzzle competition that also acts as the qualifying competition for the USA team. (An amusing sidenote is that at the start of the '90s, before the proliferation of Internet access to the public, the same competition took place with people faxing in their puzzle solutions.) A couple of years of missed opportunities passed, and eventually in 2000 I got my act together sufficiently to be able to take the test. In all, there were six people from the UK who took part out of perhaps 250 globally (210 from the United States).
As if by magic, a large chunk of luck appeared at this point to turn what progress we had made so far into a functional WPC team. First off, there was a UK representative to the World Puzzle Federation (who are the World Puzzle Championships overseers and organisers) who was keen to see a UK team there, to the point of paying all four team members' US$400 hotel-bill-and-entry-fees. The other happy coincidence is the top four UK performers on that test all turned up at Mind Sports Olympiad 4. I was working there and got to meet Nick Deller (the aforementioned ericklendl) for the first time after a couple of years' miscellaneous occasional game show chat, Ken Wilshire (a lovely guy and a dedicated family man, albeit sometimes prone to gung ho over-enthusiasm; also a MSO multiple-time medalist - he beat Demis Hassabis at the MSO 1 Pentamind, no less - and Usual Suspect) and Lionel Wright (a charming, sociable, self-effacing and likeable gentleman who is either a phenomenal gambler, a phenomenal bullshitter or a bit of both). We were never all in the same place at the same time, but we struggled by and managed to make the UK team work.
Incidentally, Nick was at MSO 4 for seven days and wrote an excellent series of articles about his experiences, the first three days of which seem to - meep - have been lost in the Great Domain Ownership Buggeration Of '02. (Or maybe even before then, as the Wayback Machine doesn't seem to have grabbed 'em. Sorry, Nick.)
None of us really had much clue what to expect from our first WPC, but you can read our experiences in full in this longer article. In short, much food was eaten, many friends were made and rather more puzzles were solved than I had feared. The highlight was the "Mr. Potato Head" team round, summarised half-way down Ed. "mathpuzzle.com" Pegg Jr.'s report by the authors themselves - some really-quite-high-ups at WotC, who were also tremendous company. It was effectively a sit-down puzzle hunt nearly completely restricted to very hard logic puzzles for two and a half hours, and wickedly well constructed. The UK team finished 14th out of 20, with ericklendl top of the Brits in a spectacular 31st place (of 78), Ken Wilshire in 54th, Lionel Wright in 59th and me in a halfway-competent 64th. (That's to say that I scored half as many points as those who finished competently.)
2001's bash was rather less fortuitous in some ways, not least that thinks.com weren't paying for it. Lionel took no part in the event - even the tryouts - this year, but a university lecturer from Northern Ireland, David McNeill, did instead. David got an outstanding - nay, world class - tryout score, but the event clashed with his university commitments and he couldn't make it. The '01 team was myself, ericklendl, Ken and our secret weapon Nick Gardner, an accountant from the South Coast who proved to be the strong-but-silent type and an ideal team-mate. Our performances were much better, being right up there in the pack rather than left a little way behind. The UK team finished 17th out of 26¼ with Nick Gardner 41st of 105, Nick Deller 45th, me 72nd (so out of the bottom quarter!) and Ken 80th. As a unit, we were much more competitive than we were in 2000 - legitimate journeymen rather than mere placefillers.
I haven't written as much about the 2001 WPC because, well, the second time never is as special as the first. The hotel wasn't as nice, the food (although good) wasn't as spectacular, I caught a nasty cold and Nick did a mischief to his ankle. Brno, as a location, just isn't as interesting to my eyes as Stamford, CT and the Big Apple. (The whole of the Czech Republic is recommended if you're big on churches, though.) There were still lots of highlights, though, not least a stunning boat trip through limestone caves and a cunning plan to redistribute free beer. The organisers put on an excellent show, garnering an impressive level of local interest and a groovin', "Fast Friends"-stylee theme tune. Still an experience not to be missed, though merely excellent rather than out of this world.
2002 gets raggedier still. I missed the official tryout slot due to attending a wedding, but all the British participants simultaneously perform well below their capacity. I unofficially do the tryout the next day and make just one mistake, but it's a biggie - I forget exactly when I had started the paper and inadvertently allow myself three hours instead of two and a half. If I had done this in the real thing, this would have brought sufficient time penalties into play to place me last in the world by a spectacular margin.
The UK got around six tryout entrants again, though, so I am placed anywhere between about second (if you only count my first 2½ hours) and sixth in the country. This year's WPC will be in Oulu, Finland - a university town switched-on enough to host its own Mind Sports Festival (effectively, a small Olympiad) in October. Unfortunately, Finland is an expensive place to reach whether by air or by ferry to Norway and a 2,000-mile road trip. The cheapest option is RyanAir to Stockholm and then rail around the Swedish coast, but that's still costly and very slow. It's a particular shame as I already have friends in Oulu who I'd like to meet, but I've had to skip this year's event on money grounds as have most of the other possibles. This means that the UK contingent this year is not a full team but just a disappointing duo - Ken and Nick Gardner. Naturally, I wish them the best of luck - and the best of health - this week and I'm sure they'll both do well and have slightly too much fun.
Crikey, it's late. I'm going to call this a two-parter and finish it tomorrow. Today's entry has been about the past of the UK's WPC involvement, tomorrow's second half will be about the future!