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25 October 2009 @ 11:24 pm
The Cat in the Hat Strikes Back?  
I never thought, given the level of distaste left in my mouth by serious organizational mistakes, bad puzzles, and other controversy at the World Sudoku Championship in Zilina, Slovakia, that I would ever again spend most of a trip back from a puzzle event in the midst of another serious controversy and with such serious disappointment at many parties. We'd laugh before the tournament about my declaration on my blog, in answer to a question from a competitor about music that popped up over here, that my opinion that "[d]uring the rounds I cannot imagine any listening devices ... are allowed", was trumped by a facebook organizer post basically saying "yes, you are :)" with that extra friendly smile. I'm betting at least one other competitor is wishing now that basic steps taken during any other testing situation (no cell phones or electronic devices for example) were in the considerations of these organizers when in reality a lot seems to be missed, in part because of either failed imagination or limited experience competing in (not just running) a tournament.

So, here I am again, with a different controversy that needs addressing. Again I am left sitting on a plane writing a letter in my head to the organizers of a sudoku tournament to hopefully correct basic mistakes now and in the future in the organization, proctoring, and ranking of sudoku competitions. I do not believe I am a lone voice in my concerns that impropriety has occurred at the 2009 Sudoku National Championship, but I am a respected member of the puzzle community and so I am speaking out in hopes that this concern is addressed. I encourage feedback from other observers who may have additional memories or photographic or video evidence of this competitor to help solidify an understanding of what was going on with the "man under the hoodie." I've done my best to report what I know and what I saw as someone who also had a lot else on his mind.

Open Letter to the Sudoku community and the organizers of the Sudoku National Championship about the potential cheating of Eugene Varshavsky during this Saturday's tournament:

It is with a heavy heart and with the fullest consideration of the seriousness of these allegations that I am writing today. As a past US and World Sudoku Champion, a person who has solved (and watched others solve) enough puzzles to know a lot about the art of solving a sudoku puzzle, I have significant suspicions about the performance of a contestant in this Saturday's Sudoku National Championship.

Just as in college exams, sports, or other venues, intellectual competitions are certainly not free of people trying to use technological assistance or other cheats to gain an edge on more formidable competition. In 2006, for example, a suspected incident of cheating occurred in the World Open Chess Tournament. Against Grandmaster Smirin, a relatively unknown player wearing a hat the whole time performed well beyond expectations and ranking to beat the Grandmaster. After some suspicion was raised, this unknown disappeared to a bathroom where after ten minutes he was searched and nothing was found. Under closer watch, without the possibility of using unallowed assistance, the performance of this player returned to more expected levels and he lost the following matches, coming nowhere near to the mastery he had demonstrated earlier.

The city this chess tournament was held in: Philadelphia; the name of this suspected cheater: Eugene Varshavsky.

In 2009, in a different intellectual sport of sudoku, two established solvers from past years and a complete unknown, who was solving his qualifying round puzzles under a hooded sweatshirt, made the finals of the Sudoku National Championship. As competitors were (unfortunately) allowed to wear headphones to listen to music and could have electronic devices such as ipods as timers on their desks, the opportunity for something unknown to be hidden under this "hoodie" such as a camera/transceiver that would allow a person outside of the room to use a computer solver to relay a solution back to a competitor, was great. While much drama occurred in the finals between the two established solvers, it did not go unnoticed by some (ok, me, but not just me) that the "unknown", who was now forced to wear sound-shielding headphones over otherwise bare ears and under much more careful watch to eliminate potential advantages, performed well below the standard of any solver who would have been capable of being on stage at the time.

The city this sudoku tournament was held in: Philadelphia; the name of this suspected cheater: Eugene Varshavsky.

Only in Hollywood. Except it happened.

I first noticed this solver after I had finished Round 3 of the tournament. I had already turned in my paper, which did not matter for the competition as I had qualified for the Finals in Round 1, when I turned to look at each of the finishers that followed. Well, the second place finisher who handed in shortly after me was dressed in a black sweatshirt, hood up and fully covering his hair and a lot of his head, with a nametag reading "Eugene" that was handwritten indicating he was a walk-in contestant who had not preregistered. Given his attire, unfamiliarity, and the fact "Eugene" left the room so soon after he turned in his paper, my Snyder-sense was tingling. Still, I chalked it up to possibly being nerves at having an unknown facing me on stage at the time.

I next observed Eugene much later as he came to the front of the room after being announced as the round 3 winner in the advanced division. He was not speaking to anyone - instead having a phone to his ear the whole time - and while I did congratulate him and shake his hand, he did not seem interested in much conversation with me. Again, fully explainable for other reasons - who would want to be intimidated by a world champion? - although I tend to offer friendly advice to solvers for how to deal with the whiteboard format since it is a big change from standard solving. I lost sight of him during the Beginner and Intermediate finals and frankly had my mind on other things as I stepped on stage to begin my own final puzzle.

The results of my attempt at this puzzle are now well reported: I raced through the final puzzle but by going too fast ended up making a transposition error in the last few digits I placed leading to my turning in an incorrect grid. While my errors were unknown to me and the judges for a couple minutes, when I finally stood up and looked back I got a quick bulge in my throat as I saw two sixes in the 5th row and saw for myself that my fate was sealed. So, instead of congratulating Tammy McLeod on finishing 2nd as she completed her puzzle in seven and a half minutes, I was the first to tell her she was the champion. The organizers would learn this fact from me too, which is unfortunate. Regardless, the rules of the tournament state that a second place finisher who is clean within twenty minutes would trump my boneheaded error, so I was concerned about the state of the third finalist's grid because he had stopped, similar to an apparent error in the first beginner final, when a finalist seemed to me to have been better off continuing solving as another solver had turned in an unfinished board with notes instead of givens.

At this time, in this advanced puzzle, with a thousand dollars extra on the line, Eugene also stopped solving as the round would be over and he would get the third place prize money. But I was not correctly finished, and the rules would allow him to continue for the full twenty minutes to try for a correct grid and in this confusion organizers were trying to figure out if it would be fair to give him more time (I would quickly have countered that he had seen two basically completed grids in the interim as he was standing near us when I was explaining to Tammy my problems, check the video). But I did take a chance to peek at his board to see if he had a decent claim to finishing second with more time and was beyond shocked to see that there were very very few numbers written in. He also had absolutely no notes or other markings as would be typical of every other advanced solver I have met in the US and overseas who could have qualified as a solver on stage.

While there are many assumptions made about sudoku, such as that the puzzle is originally from Japan, or that computers create the best puzzles, these assumptions are incorrect. Yes, computers create most of the available puzzles, but the best sudoku challenges, including those used in this tournament in the past, are hand-crafted and all the memorable hand-crafted ones like this final puzzle or Wei-Hwa's "Q" puzzle will have very tight solving paths with very specific sticking points that slow down a solver. Signatures of the designer's thought process, such as the type of sticking point, where it happens in the grid, if the same kind of sticking point is used multiple places, ..., are often a sign that can be used to tell if a puzzle is at least partially hand- versus completely computer-crafted.

A tight solution path also means that almost all solvers going logically through it without guessing will place numbers in a similar order and get stuck at similar/identical spots. On this puzzle, that path starts with placing at least a dozen digits in very quick succession - all of the 9s and all of the 3s and possibly a couple others - before hitting a stopping point where two sets of locked triples in boxes 1 and 9 are identified to lead to further progress. The evens are the key to the puzzle, hinted in part by having none of the evens in box 5 where progress is impossible for a long time, but the big triple for me was the one in box 9 with just evens. After these nice breakthroughs on opposite corners of the grid (the symmetrical placement another sign of the designer's hand at work here), a race to the finish will result as all the remaining digits are relatively "easy" singles. In fact, the trail of these final digits should be somewhat narrow and I'd bet that Tammy ended close to where I ended but wrote 46 and 4 instead of 64 and 6. The point of this aside is that on a difficult, well-crafted sudoku, the top solvers will certainly follow a similar series of moves and be stuck in the same spots. Just as a grandmaster in chess could look at a game and analyze inconsistently strong or weak plays and smell something funny, a grandmaster in sudoku (no such rating exists, but I'll suggest I probably qualify for consideration) can analyze a board and see a huge inconsistency in the level of progress a solver at the advanced level would have after 8 minutes even given the large whiteboard format. Indeed, in many online sudoku communities, the order and speed with which a player enters his digits is a very strong consideration for making a claim that a solver is cheating with computer assistance when solving a puzzle. So, being stalled at one of the triple-identification stopping points in this final puzzle would have made sense if at least ten more digits were in Eugene's grid. Having some notes or other markings on the board that speed solvers use to help find the way through the stopping point would have made sense too. It would at least show he was trying. Having a basically empty board missing several of the "easy" placements after 8 minutes does not.

As I was working through a complex mixture of disappointment and disgust with myself at the time I first observed these facts, I did not bring up all of these concerns with the organizers immediately which leads to this letter. Its probably not my role as a competitor to make sure the competition is run fairly, but it doesn't take a Dr. Sudoku to diagnose something is not right here. I did mention afterwards, and certainly that evening to Nick Baxter, that I thought the "Eugene" under the hoodie was possibly not the same "Eugene" on stage as the ability of the two solvers was so different from expectation. I'd barely seen any of his face when he qualified given the hoodie over it, so it was hard to rule out my wild speculation of two competitors. I began referring to the person(s) as "Eugene" with quote marks and this got into my initial posting on the tournament. Thankfully, the curiousity of that construction led to a foreign friend in puzzles, Johan de Ruiter, to post that he tracked this suspicion further and found a link to the past story about questionable behavior at a chess tournament in the exact same city by a competitor with the exact same name. Not caught red-handed, but with enough questionable signs that something certainly was up.

These suspicions are therefore rather serious and require some investigation. It would certainly be helpful for the Inquirer's film and photography coverage to be reviewed for pictures of this competitor before the finals and on stage, and specifically that the state of his final puzzle after various amounts of time and certainly after eight minutes when he stopped be made publically viewable for the community of sudoku solvers to see as, just like an odd sequence of chess moves, it will be prima facie evidence of this claim I am staking some of my reputation on that this is not the kind of filled-in board a person who supposedly can finish 3 hard puzzles in 12 minutes on paper could have by any stretch of the imagination. Even with all my ranting about the difficulty and problems of the stage format, it simply is not possible. Rather, in my mind, cheating of some form must have occurred.

What to do?

As I do not believe Eugene fairly qualified for the stage, and therefore only two true sudoku solvers were in the finals, it unfortunately brings the championship of Tammy McLeod under a cloud of uncertainty which she does not deserve as she did beat me fairly after I certainly helped beat myself. As the rightful third finalist would have a very reasonable chance of finishing this puzzle within twenty minutes cleanly and beating me out for second place given the scoring method of the finals where accuracy counts first, if a decision to disqualify the current third place finisher is made, I believe the only fair decision is to declare us both runners-up to Tammy and split the difference in the prizes to each receive $3,500. I ask that the checks for both my prize and Eugene's be held until this suspicion is addressed, perhaps by establishing through various means in the chess community that this Eugene Varshavsky is the same person at the World Open. While I will reluctantly accept the $4,000 second place prize if no change in the results is made, I would much more gladly receive less money and see a deserving sudoku solver who should have been on stage claim the prize he'd won (yet still have to deal with wondering what could have been, short this malfeasance). I ask that we at least take some time to make sure the so-called "Cat in the Hat" did not strike back here this past weekend in Philadelphia.

I am sending this letter to the organizers of the tournament, and posting it for all to see on my blog (motris.livejournal.com), because I do not believe this matter should be dealt with entirely in private for the future health of the competitive sudoku community.

-Thomas Snyder
(Anonymous) on October 26th, 2009 09:36 am (UTC)
I second that!
When the finalists were announced, I was trying the get a glimpse on this mystery guy. I had never heard before of a solver named Eugene Varshavsky, and was curious who that was. After all, during solving I always compared myself to Thomas, Tammy and Wei, hoping to beat 1-2 of them in a round to have a chance to get to the final. Well I couldn't, but somebody else apparently did it. I was curious.
But the guy was in his hood all the time, was moving like a shadow, it was just bizarre.
And then the round started and it is true - within 10 seconds I copied the puzzle on a sheet of paper and immediately was able to place all the 9s and started with the 3s. Then decided to solve it on my own later, and instead to concentrate and watch the better solvers.
There was no surprise with you and Tammy, but Eugene had 2 - exactly 2 numbers placed for the whole of the first 6 minutes?!? At which point he saw the 9s (or some of them). We were asking each other what is he doing, why is he not placing the 9s, why not put pencil marks - there were plenty of hints to be marked down ... I was joking that he is probably a cheater, because even the stage fright or the big boards could not explain such a performance.
Thomas, you are right - any experienced solver, especially one who is good enough to manage to finish 2nd in the 3rd Round, should be able to place a lot of numbers on that grid. Eugene's solving was extremely suspicious.

Now after you telling us about the same occurrence at a chess tournament, involving the same name there is no doubt in my mind.

He should be stripped from the 3rd place and the money award!
And whoever was 3rd in the 3rd round should be declared a finalist instead of the cheater.

I wonder how can the organizers prove that he was cheating. Because what is obvious sometimes is not enough. Probably his first 3 rounds can be examined. If for example he did not finish 1st and 2nd round (I don't think I saw his name in the list of the correct finishers), and then finished 3rd round with clean grids - no pencil marks, no traces of eraser, the obvious will be OBVIOUS!!!
The 3rd round required a lot of pencil marks in puzzles 2 and 3. Puzzle 3 had as far as I remember 3 empty rows and 3 empty columns - you needed your pencil marks there! Ant I even solved it by guessing (guessing wrong and erasing), and still finished 5th. There is no way to solve it without extra steps in such a short time.

And for the organizers.
I was pleased with the overall organization, the festive mood, the whole thing. But allowing electronic devices is ridiculous. Even though the concept of somebody cheating at sudoku solving is more ridiculous, unfortunately it happens!

Svilen Dyakovski
motrismotris on October 26th, 2009 09:42 am (UTC)
Re: I second that!
Puzzle 3 in round 3 was the hardest in my opinion of the competition, and maybe the only one I couldn't have accomplished without pencilmarks in my lifetime at the best I ever got at that format. The final is possible, but certainly not smart to be that way. I completely agree on checking the papers, certainly as to how other solvers' look, to see if on their surface they feel like a person solving a puzzle, or a person being fed an answer. Scans of those grids should also be made available if the organizers can find the papers in that safe or whatever they hide all our work in.
nickbaxternickbaxter on October 26th, 2009 03:29 pm (UTC)
Re: I second that!
Stefan Heine included the sudokusolver.co.uk ratings for all the puzzles he submitted. They didn't correlate with Jason's and my times, so I started using Scanraid's grader as well. I mention this to Thomas and/or Wei-Hwa after the championship, noting that neither rating program does a decent job of rating the human solving experience.

According to Scanraid, puzzle 3 of round 3 was the "easiest" of all the advanced puzzles!! And it scored less than all but one of the intermediate puzzles.

I had originally considered this puzzle for the finals, but the difficulty (not the easy rating) spooked me. After strong recommendations from both Jason Zuffranieri and Tom Collyer, I switched to the "xo" puzzle that was eventually used.
Re: I second that! - motris on October 26th, 2009 04:10 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I second that! - lunchboy on October 26th, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I second that! - motris on October 26th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I second that! - lunchboy on October 26th, 2009 04:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I second that! - nathan_0 on October 26th, 2009 04:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I second that! - motris on October 26th, 2009 05:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I second that! - lunchboy on October 26th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I second that! - motris on October 26th, 2009 04:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I second that! - (Anonymous) on October 26th, 2009 06:12 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: I second that! - motris on October 26th, 2009 09:14 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Mike Selinkerselinker on October 26th, 2009 01:57 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating to me. I hope they investigate it further.

However, if I were running the tournament, I would reject your magnanimous solution. The rightful third place finisher should not be presumed to tie with you. He was third going in, and should be assumed to be third in results, with you getting $4K and the new third place finisher getting $3K. The Olympic precedent when a bronze medalist is disqualified is not to melt two of the medals down and forge two shibuichi-like medals, but instead to give the fourth place finisher the bronze.

But it's nice that you offered. If you still feel bad about it, offer him a timed one-on-one showdown with $1000 of your money on the line.

motrismotris on October 26th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
Its probably also not my role as a competitor to suggest how to fix this problem aside from recommending a serious consideration of disqualification, but if the discussions reach the next step, I do not want my past results in similar events to lead to a de facto awarding of 2nd place to me without a consideration of a likely result in a fairly contested puzzle. I am not sure, in any sport, how a DNS and a DNF can be reranked in a fair way.
Mike Selinkerselinker on October 26th, 2009 04:47 pm (UTC)
The only example I could find of a similar case was the judo medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics. The silver medalist was disqualified for drug use. However, in this case, the IOC did nothing except strip the medal. They did not promote the bronze medalist and 4th place winner to silver and bronze respectively, presumably because neither faced the eventual gold medalist.

I'm curious what Magic: The Gathering does in such a case, which it probably has faced. Mark Gottlieb would know.
onigameonigame on October 26th, 2009 04:55 pm (UTC)
The Olympics do not use a format where there are three "heats" to choose three finalists, with one's showing in the heats seeding the finals. Usually in Olympic competitions there is a clear 4th place player.

This isn't the case here. Thomas is absolutely correct that, say, had Chris DeLeon made it to the finals instead of Eugene Varshavsky, and Thomas and Tammy both solved the same way they actually did, then Chris stood a very good chance of beating Thomas for second place.

Also, your statement that "he was third going in" is also not correct -- qualifying in the third heat is not the same as being in third place in aggregate results. (Note that both Thomas and Tammy won their specific rounds where they qualified, each beating the other.)
Mike Selinkerselinker on October 26th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
That might make it a bit more complicated, but I'll still default to my original position: There is no cheating result that could get me to take away money from a prize-winner who competed fairly.

I'll give you a somewhat analogous example that didn't involve cheating but did involve a prize. At the Gen Con puzzle hunt, we had a situation where we told a team something that changed their solving path on an optimization challenge. (What we told them was correct, but had an ambiguous interpretation which led to a plausible decision to delete a valid result.) When we got to the end and read the results, the team piped up that the winning team's solution contained the result that they had believed was declared invalid, and if that was allowed, then they might have actually beat the previously declared winners. So the judges huddled and gave them three minutes to reconfigure their results to prove they would. They found a valid winning solution. So we awarded both teams first place, and gave them both the prizes. Under no circumstances would we have made the decision to remove the prize from the team whom we declared the winner the first time.

In both cases, it was the responsibility of the administration to ensure a fair result. It is not ever the responsibility of the contestants to make up for failings in that responsibility.

motrismotris on October 26th, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
Its certainly not my responsibility, but this tournament gave me the impression that at moments I was the only adult in the room steering organizers to not do wacky things as if the event was running on cruise control. Consider the unclear finish in first the Beginner round (led to judge conference and no restart), then Intermediate - again no change, then again in Advanced. No one was taking the reins to run a fair tournament or to make clear enough to those on stage what was occuring. If a sudoku solver was the judge looking at Eugene's results on stage, knowing the puzzle, there would have been call for huge suspicion at the event itself. Proctors just holding a paper with numbers, can potentially mark a grid correct or not, but have much less of an ability to state - huh, this is weird, should we talk about this.

I wonder if the fact that no one raised a stink besides this smelling to high heavens is that the competitors aren't treated like individuals well at all throughout the day. Except for a "named" solver like me saying something, these suspicions were not voiced too much even if it was in everybody's heads. Well, something failed here and the curiousity of his grid was not seen by the judges when Will's first clear concern when I told him I had three errors is shouldn't we give Eugene ten more minutes. No, Will, you should see he is not even really solving the puzzle in front of him.

So, in two straight tournaments, Dr. Sudoku has gone from being a free-spirited recluse who can't mix up a sudoku solution to being a competitor who must fix everybody's errors. I only seem to enjoy the USPC and WPC these days (and other online things of the sort). Maybe I should retire from competing for awhile and make me own tournament standards, run my own events, and have a fan-friendly and community-building sudoku tournament. Puzzle Grandmaster Snyder has a nice ring to it.
Opportunity - tahoemanducat on October 28th, 2009 08:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
onigameonigame on October 26th, 2009 05:49 pm (UTC)
I think there are two issues that are being conflated here:

(1) Should the second-place finisher (Thomas) be awarded the full second-place prize, or something less?

(2) Should the promoted third-place finisher (say, for example, Chris) be awarded nothing, the third-place prize, or something more?

Thomas's suggestion is (1) half-way between second and third; (2) half-way between second and third.

Your suggestion is (1) second-place prize; (2) third-place prize.

I think (1) is a tricky debate, so I'll defer that to a later paragraph. But I disagree with you pretty strongly on (2). If Chris had competed, there's a good chance, better than average, that he would've gotten second-place. To say "hey, someone cheated you out of a good chance to get second-place, but the cheater only managed to get third-place, so here's the third-place that he won and we'll give it to you" is rather lame.

And I'm also willing to debate with you some more on your basic tenet for (1): "There is no cheating result that could get me to take away money from a prize-winner who competed fairly." Here's a hypothetical scenario. I'm seeded, say, 10th in a tournament. A cheater decides to sabotage as many of the other top players as possible, but I get lucky and he misses me. As a result, I win first place, the cheater wins second place, and all nine other seeds don't get to compete. Do you really believe that my first-place win is deserved? I can see that viewpoint, but I don't agree with it.
(no subject) - selinker on October 26th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - motris on October 26th, 2009 07:35 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on November 17th, 2009 04:20 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - thedan on October 26th, 2009 07:17 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - selinker on October 26th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
rebeccamorley on October 26th, 2009 10:38 pm (UTC)
Statement from the Philadelphia Inquirer National Championship:

Championship officials for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sudoku National Championship, held on Saturday, October 24, 2009, are conducting an investigation of a contestant in the advanced category regarding a possible violation of the championship rules. The investigation stems from suspicions raised by the Championship Director and Head of Judging for the competition. The integrity of this championship which is the largest puzzle competition in the U.S. is our highest priority and we will take every step to ensure that it is maintained. Championship officials expect to complete their investigation in the next few days.
serendipity_npl on November 17th, 2009 09:05 am (UTC)
Unringing the bell
Fascinating discussion. Let me throw another idea into the hat - fly the three people who should have been in the final to Philadelphia (on the Inquirer's dime) and recreate the final. Throw all the prize money back in the pot and award it based on the results of the new final. Failing that, it's impossible to know what the finish order would have been. Isn't it possible that the third person could have beaten Tammy and placed first? If so, then it's not fair to that person to award him/her third place, or second/third split evenly between him/her and Thomas.

I get the impression that even if someone wins an earlier round and secures a place in the final, (s)he still participates in subsequent rounds and is ranked, but the highest ranking person who has yet to win a round is awarded a finalist spot. BTW, does anybody know the name of the person who would have been the third finalist? I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere (BTW I didn't read every blog post here, just most of them, so forgive me if I'm asking something that has been answered, or suggesting something that has been suggested already).
serendipity_npl on November 17th, 2009 09:16 am (UTC)
Googling "Eugene Varshavsky" brings up a story about the 2006 chess championship in which EV is said to be from Israel. Originally, or living there then, wasn't clear.
(Anonymous) on September 7th, 2010 08:29 pm (UTC)
Re: Varshavsky
The Eugene Varshavsky you're looking for lived recently around Manalapan or Old Bridge.
motrismotris on November 17th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Unringing the bell
I'm pretty certain the relevant party is Chris Narrikkattu, who won the intermediate final in 2008, and then finished second to me in round 1 this year, and second to "Eugene" in round 3. However, they do not post the intermediate results or even try to rank so I do not know for sure.

If it is Chris, he certainly would have both the on-stage solving experience, and demonstrated paper-solving speed, to have competed with Tammy for 1st after I made my error. He certainly would have a legitimate claim to second place as 20 minutes on that puzzle would have been plenty of time to get in with less than three errors.