While I am proud to again be part of the same podium of finishers from the last three championships, and of course proud to have been part of a very successful US team completing its 14th world title, there is something quite crushing in how the last few minutes of my championship went. I found myself at the final desk of a playoff round, having earned by good performance over a minute lead on my German rival Ulrich, and I let it all slip away.
The playoffs started with my teammate Palmer Mebane having a large lead on the field -- about five minutes over second through fourth where Ulrich Voigt, Hideaki Jo, and I sat, but only 21 seconds between the three of us -- as we entered a semifinal that this year would eliminate 10 solvers down to 2. As I sat and watched Palmer race through the first couple puzzles while the clocked ticked up to 5 minutes, I knew this would be a sprint to the finish with just one spot for the three of us as Palmer's seemed very safe. On the first puzzle, a Bosnian Snake, I bested both Ulrich and Hideaki by about a half minute and was immediately into the second spot with the narrowest of leads. This widened as I systematically attacked and conquered each of the next puzzles -- a Word/Nurikabe variation, a Pentomino variation, a large and oddly shaped Slalom puzzle, .... I always held onto the second place desk, and slowly the margin went from about 15 seconds to what seemed at least a minute. By the sixth or seventh puzzle in the race, Hideaki must have lost a few steps as it was suddenly just Ulrich close at my heels. I was most worried of puzzle 9, a new puzzle style that had not been present in the championships nor that I'd ever really solved before, and seemed most likely to potentially trip me up. But I managed that well enough and found myself at the final desk as Ulrich was still working on it. With me starting 10 before he had turned in 9, I had over a minute edge and just needed to hold serve on what should have been easy for me -- a number placement style. But it too had not been in the championships and I had somehow forgotten some of the important meta-strategies of thinking that would get me started quicker. I was a bit slow to see the first few moves, but was quite anxious for all the numbers to arrive. This impatience is maybe my biggest puzzle weakness at this time as it can lead to really bad decisions. I've recognized it before -- and even a week or so ago with the only LMI tests I've done this year -- but everything seemed to go wrong here and suddenly. In this case, with ~12-15 numbers to go and the feeling Ulrich might be close to the end too, I used quick placements without a sure check of the constraints to put the last numbers in. And while I checked that I formed locally valid groups, I failed to consider the rows or columns before I raised my hand to turn in. And two seconds after the hand went up, but while I could still see my grid, I observed that a minute (lifetime?) of pain was awaiting me. I was obviously wrong (but somewhat easily fixed) but had to serve out penalty time. And Ulrich turned in before I could make any correction and that was that. Wide right. No goal. Renban Words. Things we will not speak of again.
Not since I lost the 2009 Philadelphia Sudoku tournament by a digit transposition error and turning in too early (with what would prove to be over 4 minutes I could have checked after destroying the puzzle itself) have I felt that I was the sole reason for my defeat and that is what is most unsatisfying. Maybe I'll never learn particular lessons from the past. But maybe I'd not be in these situations if I hadn't walked the risk-reward line of a logical to intuitive puzzle style in the last few years to become as fast as I am. I know over time I will come to accept how great my 3rd place performance was, as how many can be a podium finisher at a world tournament, but for now there is mostly disappointment. I'm left with a lot of what ifs, and the long flights home are never comforting when the questions are so numerous.
Added onto my own loss was that after not making it into the finals, I had to watch my teammate Palmer Mebane hit his own wall of performance against Ulrich and lose in the five puzzle finals to deny the US another individual title.
But I am leaving the competition with a different kind of joy, unrelated to how fast I can solve a puzzle. I was delighted to hear the thanks from the community for non-competitive things I have been doing in puzzles like my Grandmaster Puzzles site. The Around the World in 80 Puzzles rounds seemed to be well received and I achieved a goal of writing puzzles for the WPC now. My favorite moment was the unexpected news that some of the puzzles I had written for one nation's team had helped them gain team sponsorship which, with the current WSC/WPC makeup, is quite difficult. Having my small efforts pay off in such large ways is rare so I am glad to have helped. It has been obvious for awhile that I may be well past an inflection point in my life where competition interest diminishes for puzzle creation and other roles instead. I at least feel more consistently successful in the latter, and the rewards are ones that are shared with others which makes them even sweeter.