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31 October 2010 @ 06:06 am
Final WPC Thoughts  
I'm often highly critical of aspects of these events (particularly since Zilina where I certainly had the cause to go nuclear while live-blogging a complete farce of a "competition"). And people have said I've been unfair at times, or very critical when I had a bad result and not at other times, and so on. So it is somewhat informative to have read what Ulrich Voigt thought of this event, translated from the LogicMasters Forum. I'd say I agree with almost all of his assessment.

Very quickly, he commented that "This WM was so rather the worst, which I had so far experienced."

His list of problems starts with the very late instruction booklet which I certainly did not see until the day of the instructions meeting since not everything was online before my travel. The instruction booklet had various errors and problems in the text which, had it been online for 2 weeks prior, could have been addressed before printing and certainly would have led to a smoother meeting and more preparation time.

Uvo is spot on though when talking about the hotel - it initially seemed fine and then you realize all the problems. The main lobby area was open entirely to smokers, which is often the case but then our meals are elsewhere. This time the lobby served as the dining area which means people who are affected by smoke had no place to go. By the end the US team took to eating in the competition hall so that I could avoid feeling a headache after a meal and I doubt this was the intention. There was no room service, the barking dogs were a constant problem, as was room heating which was off in the daytime and on full blast at night such that you needed to devise a scheme (Wei-Hwa used ropes) to hold the window open only slightly to get the correct temperature. I do not think the hotel should be a puzzle, and I would gladly pay extra to stay at a comfortable location so my mind can actually rest when the competition is not going on. If in the future I am now going to have to pay for my travel anyway, I will certainly consider putting more money towards a 1 star or higher rating hotel, and not this kind of "Polish Quality" place.

About the puzzles we agree that there were many excellent challenges but there are problems with how rounds are structured. Having an easy and a hard puzzle in a round is a good thing - particularly because not all teams are so experienced that their solvers can start at the "impossible" level often seen at a WPC with certain puzzle designers - but here the discrepancy in scoring was extreme. A 2 point battleship and then a 32 point battleship equal 24 second and 6 minute and 24 second puzzles, but to most solvers the 24 seconds do not seem worth it for the time. Even so, in the round I finished (Classics), having to do all the undervalued "easy" puzzles probably cost me some of the edge I actually had in solving speed as I really did race through that round. Without the easy puzzles I can declare finished in 40 minutes with 249 (+ 80 bonus in this hypothetical) points instead of in 57 minutes with 300 (+12 bonus) points. The value on the easy puzzles was about 3 points per minute compared to 6 points per minute on the rest and I lost potential score having to solve them that other top competitors did not. Skipping the long but undervalued paint it black puzzles was another strategy others could use that I couldn't when I ended up doing everything in the round

The rounds probably also suffered in general from having too many puzzles or too little time, and I was hurt by a strategy of trying to go through a round as I would to finish it instead of just going for 50% of the points as fast as I could. Round 9, where Ulrich topped with 60% of the total score was the big round I lost momentum and fell from essentially tied to 80 points back, because I went through puzzles in an order planned to finish many more than I did. Only three solvers finished rounds (1 in round 1, me in round 2, and 1 in Polyomino) which seems very low at a WPC. I suppose we only had 7-10 at the WSC but there I think we errored ourselves by using my time as the mean time too frequently and not making some of our puzzles easier. It is ok for solvers to finish rounds.

In the team rounds I was particularly disappointed, as I always am, as there is never enough time even for the best teams. Overall, 1 team finished a team round out of Anaconda/Sym-a-Pix/Weakest Link: our finish of Sym-a-Pix. When I heard from Vlad that he wanted Anaconda to run for an hour and the organizers chose 50 minutes, I knew we'd be on the borderline of finishing, as we were, and indeed no team completed the task. At our WSC we had >60% of the teams finish the Weakest Link round and many finish the other rounds. We got lots of applause for our fun team designs and half of this is just that more teams got to experience these puzzles, not that many of them were better than WPC designs (although I think my sticker Number Place round was particularly fun as a new sudoku concept!). We accomplished our team success by recognizing from our experience that it is impossible to predict how long to run a team round. So we used "flex timing" so that we would not stop things until some number of teams were finished and judged correct which gave all teams a chance to enjoy these tasks. I always find it a shame that you get to enjoy these rounds on the plane ride back to home, instead of at the site itself, because the team didn't get enough time to possibly finish. And I don't think just having enough time so US/Germany/Japan finish is the goal either. Target the 10th place team as the last finisher.

Finally, broken puzzles in rounds are always a potential problem and there were a few this year. They cost solvers time and confidence, and there is no way around them except better review and perhaps outside review. However in particular there is no excuse for broken/repeated puzzles in playoffs and here Ulrich's discussion returns to an area I've brought up here time and time again: Why are there playoffs? Taking from uvo's post again: "The original thought during the introduction of the Playoffs was to make the WPC more attractive for spectators and media. Only: Which spectators? Which media? As far as I know only those WM-participants and Teamcaptains in the public, who had not created it into the Playoffs, sat; Spectator from outside did not give it as far as I know, also I had not seen medium representatives. And even if - a WPC becomes more interesting by Playoffs for newspapers or television surely only if these run off error free. Which advertising effect does it have for our “kind of sport”, if with the only international competitions each year governs again the same chaos?".

I've given many of the same thoughts earlier - although at WSCs there has been press - but again the effect of minimizing the best measurement of a set of solver's skills for this audience entertainment has to be done carefully. I'd add in that in the typical large format situation the compromising of a solver's sudoku skill is greater than the entertainment value. I find it ironic that the puzzle I focus on in my "I don't think there should be playoffs" post was the repeated Irregular Sudoku in Lucca that eliminated Zoltan Horvath who had finished the entire Irregular round to top the group during the competition itself. None of us remembered the repeated puzzle, but this year's Kakuro was a similar printing/organization error which is as much a potential problem as a broken puzzle (Borovets) or broken solution key (Antalya) as anything else, if you want a fair competition.

I'd say what we did in Philadelphia would actually qualify as a good reason to have playoffs. Intermediate judging is missing from the regular rounds, and has a clear role in the playoffs. As is having an event that matches the prior competition but lasts ~ an hour so that an audience can follow and not be bored. We put in commentary as well as cameras so that we could talk about the puzzle design, what the audience should be watching for, when Jan made his mistakes we could talk about how/if he would catch them, etc. Just having cameras to watch solvers - as here in Poland - was a part of what should be done but was hardly exciting enough to merit the extra step in the schedule. And it followed 3 hours of other things that did not seem as interesting to watch including another scrubbed semi-final round.

I'd add my own critique for organizers that the playoff day should be set up so that it runs efficiently and with minimal time breaks. This means there can be NO OTHER ROUNDS on the playoff day, even a round unlikely to draw protests, but particularly rounds that require a large amount of room reordering or experimentation with technology not used other times during the championship. Here many (including myself) were getting lunch during Taro's triumph because we were running so very late. In Lucca, I never did get to eat until 6 PM, missing lunch entirely, because of the impossible schedule including delays to fix an unsolvable final puzzle by pasting numbers on grids, countless interviews, a press conference immediately after the finals instead of a break for meals/drink. This seems to me like solver abuse and I don't know why we honestly put up with it as competitors. This year I guessed at the instructions meeting that the Screen Test would start after 10 AM and on paper, and that the finals would end after 3 PM. I was right on both halves of that bet. I don't think this is because I didn't think the organizers were competent - they did many things well actually - it's that some mistakes are so common that they are obvious even with a talented and experienced group of people as the most likely outcomes. I doubt Vaclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic, would have watched the WSC2 finals if they were 3 hours delayed. As having a head of state is as good as a WPF event will ever get, let's follow the Czech model and run on time again sometime in the future.

I certainly enjoyed moments of the WPC in Poland and there were 90+% great puzzles. I certainly found I could add in sleeping medicine and music from my laptop to restore a little bit of the performance mood I've been missing away from home and certainly at the WPC playoffs in the past. But the general design of a puzzle competition still has fundamental problems that will or will not be addressed by the individual organizers since nothing is set from the WPF itself and common mistakes and broken rules keep reappearing which does not seem right 20 years into a sport's lifetime. The hotel here added onto everything else to make for a truly miserable experience. I always weigh myself before and after a tournament to see how unhealthy the week was for me. I lost > 6 pounds (~ 2.7 kg) in 7 days this time, even trying to eat and drink my normal amounts before gastrointestinal distress and other problems rear their head during the competition. It will take the next week to recover to my normal mass, and to lose this ringing in my head from so much nicotine exposure. Is it worth it? Do I have more to prove to the world of puzzlers? I don't know. I'll certainly feel better about things after some time has passed, and Hungary tops my list of organizers I absolutely trust, but am I booking tickets for the next championship already? Hardly.

And when will the other nations I would trust (like the Germans who run spectacular puzzle championships or the Japanese who would as well) step up to organize an event? Is there something about the cost limits and other rules of running an event that discourages potential hosts from making one and running it in a well-populated city instead of the middle of nowhere (which kills media presence)? It's certainly impossible to get sponsors if there is no way for anyone to ever observe the sponsorship.
thesubro on November 1st, 2010 12:07 pm (UTC)
Missing capitalism and missing the best puzzlers ...
Allow a complete outsider to chime in ...

Sudoku is hugely popular, and people will care to read and observe who the world champion is. In turn sudoku championships have the opportunity to generate sponsors, along with the media attention. With sponsors and funding comes possible better conditions and organization supported by same.

Puzzles? Other than Kenken (which was always just a way to expand on the sudoku frenzy) no one in America's mainstream culture knows about the variety of Nikoli puzzles. Not in newspapers. In bookstores, there is a wall of sudoku books, and a wall of crossword puzzles, and only about 12 other puzzle books somewhere mixed into the shelves. Without broad public interest, who is going to want to sponsor such an event or organization? While I may love this stuff, no one in my world is interested in this stuff. No one has ever heard of Ulrich Voight.

The only mention of the world puzzle championship when plugged into Google News was Selinkers' one paragraph mention: "Where the geeks are this week: About 30 miles from Warsaw, knocking noggins in the World Puzzle Championship, the hardest puzzle competition in the world. National teams from all over the world battle head-to-head over language-neutral puzzles which are not at all kind. The USA won the team challenge, and Taro Arimatsu of Japan won the individual title. I had the honor to co-write the team event when it was last held in the United States; you can read my writeup of that Mr. Potato Head-inspired throwdown if you like. We’ll have more coverage upcoming in Decode."

Never has any world championship of anything garnered less media attention. No one cares - except this little community of puzzle people.

Further, who knows puzzles best? The 100s of competitors competing? Who is organizing and running the competition? The people who are not as good or who are less sensitive to the highs and lows expressed by others above.

So, when an unorganized group of unfunded people set out to put together a competition for 100's of people from around the world that nobody cares about and where they cannot use as resources the smartest puzzle people in the world (because they are in the competition) it is probably gonna suck often.

Money funds organizations. Lack of money usually generates amateuristic chaos.

If the competition was run each year by a well-funded organization that had run it the year the before and the year before that and came up with consensus as to hotel conditions and competition requisites, the experience and product would be different.

If the competition was run each year by a handful of prior top ten finishers, the product would be different.

That is why the hotel sucked. That is why the organizers repeated a puzzle in the semi-finals. That is why there is no organizational consensus as to difficulty levels in the competition and the need for playoffs (or a lack thereof).

Oh yeah, by the way, ... This is not gonna change.

So, continue to be king frogs in a very small pond. Continue to be my puzzles idols. Compete more in the expansion of on-line international competitions. Contribute to the international organizations with your time and money if you truly care, but stop complaining after each world championship. It always sounds like homeless people complaining about the accommodations at the shelter.

The Subro
motrismotris on November 1st, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC)
Re: Missing capitalism and missing the best puzzlers ...
I disagree with so much of this comment, but let's just walk back to the one thing we agree we have the immediate potential for the world's attention at: sudoku. The WPF does organize the WSC but, five years in, can we say that the popularity of sudoku has strengthened the financial position of the organization, brought in new sponsors, or increased event visibility? In years one and two, sure, just from the fad's energy itself, but in the years following I'd venture a clear no. So one question we should be asking is how do we make the WSC an event with a stable financial base, that includes sponsorship and media. Right now we can't even agree on what a "sudoku" is, let alone how you'd make a puzzle to do a "World Record" round, the type of round that would get instant media attention since it's easy to talk about a "fastest" thing and a 40 second sudoku solve is pretty cool, works on youtube and the news, etc.

I do think the size of the pond is frankly irrelevant to the discussion, but you are short-changing puzzle solvers by a lot. But let's jump to a similar size pond and look around a bit. Can you name the world champion in the Rubik's Cube? I bet you can't, but speed-cubing entered a resurgence in popular attention in the last decade for a puzzle long past it's fad phase. It did so (in my opinion) by taking the energy from a small and spread out set of speed-cubers, rallying around an organization (the World Cube Association, founded by Ron van Bruchem and Tyson Mao - both solvers) with the goal "more competitions in more countries with more people and more fun, under fair conditions" that standardized competitions, introduced stackmats for timing and real Guinness Records, and created intelligible rankings at all levels. There are many local, national, and international cube competitions every year. There are often sponsors and media coverage and such, and some of this is from having that become a goal of the organization and taking steps to make a sustainable thing. It comes from hosting events in world capitals or large cities, for one, and having video-friendly moments for the media to attend. But how large is the pool of Rubik's Cube solvers really, in comparison to sudoku solvers?

I certainly read about the WPC in GAMES magazine when I was a kid. I got the WPC books at the bookstore and dreamed of going to this international event. GAMES may not have the biggest subscription base, but there are people out there who know about these events. And with the sudoku boom there are certainly more people who know what "logic puzzles" are and would have interest in such things. But I don't feel the existing organization is really acting to "professionalize" the events that give out these titles, to build off of this potential visibility and increase knowledge of logic puzzles. Some of us, as competitors but also puzzle authors, see this. And we will always reserve the right to complain. Now that the WPC and WSC are combining, there is one shot each year to get the world's attention. I seriously doubt we will get there if we don't start to do things differently, which begins with a standardization of competition rules and a walk back from so many impenetrable "puzzle" designs that cannot be commercial to something that the public could understand, if the media ever came to an event. This hardly has to be the dire situation you describe, but it will continue to be if all we do is business as usual.

Edited at 2010-11-01 05:06 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous) on November 2nd, 2010 03:19 am (UTC)
Re: Missing capitalism and missing the best puzzlers ...
I think some valid points are raised here - nevertheless I think the last half of the post sounds like someone seriously rained all over your parade. So an event/community/whatever is "small"; does that mean it shouldn't strive to do things well? Does that mean that when things go wrong, we should all shrug our shoulders and mutter to ourselves: "well what did we expect anyway?"

To firstly claim:

"If the competition was run each year by a handful of prior top ten finishers, the product would be different."

Before proceeding to tell one of them to pipe down with their constructive criticisms doesn't make much sense to me. Yes there's a bit of whining about how crappy the hotel was, but there's plenty more in the original post which (as I originally replied) was well-considered and thought out, and ought to act as a driving force towards improving the WPF and the championships which run under its banner.

I am happy for the current competitive scene to improve via evolution rather than revolution. I think it'd be mistake to go chasing the dollar. Look at what capitalism has done to sudoku: it has given us the wonder of The Generator which endlessly churns out cheap and cheerful middle of the road puzzles that has turned puzzle solving into little more than a soulless algorithmic routine to repeat over and over. Even if we are to cite well-meaning companies like Conceptis, we still have the problem of The Generator rearing its mediocre head. I think actually Amateurism - in very much the old-fashioned sense of the word - is one of the community's greatest assets. The people who really care about puzzles will make and solve puzzles the best.

I also don't think there is a problem here either - the puzzles are still tip-top. The issue is with event management. Money helps, but with a bit of know-how and guidance from the WPF I don't think running an event should be beyond the smart minds of the puzzling community without a billionaire benefactor. Essentially before we start getting ambitious about media coverage and sponsorship, we can at least begin to put our house in order with the resources we currently have. Several good championships have been run in the past so with that common knowledge how hard can it be to hammer out some guidelines?

(Frankly I think all it'd take is for someone to independently hammer out those guidelines, present them to the WPF, and the ball would start to move).

Where you go from there is another issue. As has been numerously pointed out sudoku seems to be the most media friendly way forward.

It really is late this evening, and again I'll shall leave my rambling at that.