A math instructor at Washington State University’s Vancouver branch campus was part of the 40-member team that, in January, won one of the puzzle-solving world’s most prestigious prizes.
Imagine someone handing you a scrap of net from a basketball hoop, with knotted red cord attached to the netting, and telling you this bit of string is a clue in a puzzle.
How quickly — if ever — could you recognize this net was a map, the knots representing the Incas’ quipu numbering system, the numbers representing addresses of buildings that spelled out a word that would lead you to the next clue?
This is the kind of puzzle that delights Thomas Gazzola, a math instructor at Washington State University Vancouver, and one of the first that he and his team solved in January at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Mystery Hunt 2015, an annual puzzle quest considered to be the finest puzzle hunt of its kind in the world.
Even more puzzles
The MIT Mystery Hunt is free and open to anyone who wants to participate. For more information and to try previous years’ puzzles, go to www.mit.edu/~puzzle/
Thomas Gazzola’s favorite puzzle from the 2014 competition is “Let’s Meet in the Middle,” found here: www.mit.edu/~puzzle/2014/puzzle/lets_meet_in_the_middle/
For beginners, Gazzola recommends the Seattle DASH event, a global puzzle hunt that takes place in many different cities at the same time. http://playdash.org/
For 41 hours, fueled by little sleep and much adrenaline, Gazzola and his teammates pored over labyrinthine logic puzzles and brainteasers constructed of layer upon layer of interconnected clues.
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In the end, Gazzola and his teammates beat 56 other teams, submitting their answer to the final clue just 15 seconds ahead of the second-place group.
Along the way, they solved nearly 180 puzzles, starting with a padlocked box that contained the net-and-cord map. The challenges included crosswords, anagrams, cryptograms, number and multimedia puzzles, physical challenges, mystery trails and scavenger hunts. The puzzles come with “no rules, no instructions — you have to figure out what to do,” Gazzola said.
And although Gazzola modestly describes himself as “a dilettante — I can help with lots of different things,” he also likes to think that his contributions made at least 15 seconds worth of difference.
A former high-school teacher, Gazzola, 55, writes puzzles as well as solves them, and is working on a book of his creations. He has found his hobby to be a helpful mindset for many things in life — including his job as a math teacher.
“I’ve got 31 students in calculus, and I have to figure out how to engage 31 different modes of thought and 31 different personalities,” he said. “That’s a puzzle.”
He joined WSU Vancouver last year, after the school’s math program director at the time, Alexander Dimitrov, was intrigued by Gazzola’s résumé. He’s a full-time instructor, and recently took on the job of running the school’s math-resource lab.
Gazzola approaches math instruction “the way he approaches puzzles — looking for many pieces, different points of view, that would allow him to communicate mathematics to students who often do not see its beauty and applicability the way we, mathematicians, see it,” Dimitrov said via email.
‘I have found my tribe’
Gazzola has been a puzzle aficionado his whole life. But he didn’t enter the world of serious puzzle solvers until about 10 years ago, when he attended a crossword puzzle tournament in Portland.
Puzzle Contest — win a $50 restaurant card
Try your hand at two puzzles written by Thomas Gazzola, a WSU math instructor who is a member of this year’s winning team in the MIT Mystery Hunt.
To be eligible to win a $50 restaurant gift card, you can enter online or by mail.
If by mail, send your answers, postmarked by Feb. 7, 2015, to Seattle Times Contests, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98109.
To find the puzzles online and read our official contest rules, visit seati.ms/GazzolaPuzzles. Deadline for online submissions is 5 p.m. Feb. 7.
Answers will be published on Sunday, Feb. 8.
If there is more than one entrant with both correct answers, the winner will be randomly chosen.
There, he struck up a conversation with a member of The National Puzzlers’ League — a nonprofit club, founded in 1883, which organizes competitions. Gazzola soon joined league functions, and enjoyed every minute of it.
“I have found my tribe,” Gazzola said. “These are my people.”
As Gazzola honed his skills, his strengths brought him to the attention of a group of puzzle-solvers called Team Luck, which competes in the MIT puzzle hunt each year. He was invited to join.
Team Luck includes attorneys, teachers, engineers, computer programmers and crossword-puzzle champions. They hail from across the U.S. and as far away as Australia, Singapore and Taiwan. Gazzola attributes their success, in part, to team spirit, saying “with brilliance does not always come congeniality.”
He and one other member from Vancouver, B.C., are the only ones on Team Luck from the Pacific Northwest.
Gazzola joined in the MIT puzzle hunt, opened to anyone, for a second time this year. He was one of the 32 Team Luck members who participated in person; eight others contributed remotely.
The basketball-net puzzle was one of seven that came in a box at the start of the hunt. The box itself was padlocked with three locks, so the first challenge was to break into it.
The team solved some puzzles in minutes, but one took six hours.
During the competition, Team Luck raced along at a furious clip (“My feeling was were doing very, very well.”) for more than 30 hours — sometimes working in a room with the windows papered over to prevent spying, and other times dashing through MIT’s 168-acre campus to reach the next clue.
The most baffling puzzle, Gazzola said, consisted of two grids of 64 squares, in a distinctive pattern that somewhat resembled a spade from a deck of cards. One grid had letters on it, and the other had paths of different colors. While it seemed clear that answers from previous puzzles should fit the grid, it wasn’t clear how. And the team was also missing an answer to a previous puzzle.
“We hit this awful wall,” Gazzola recalled. “We were just looking at the same pieces of paper, the same pictures, the same words, and not seeing — in the absence of an ‘ah-ha,’ it’s just a ‘huh.’ ”
Six hours later, they figured out the answer, which led to the phrase “top of the tallest tower.” With that solution in hand, five members rushed to the top floor of the tallest building on campus for another puzzle, and eventually, to a room where they performed their final puzzle-solving feat.
As winners, Team Luck gets bragging rights and a big job: It must write the puzzles for the 2016 games.
And while Gazzola’s kids tease him about his nerdish hobby and his wife sometimes rolls her eyes over his obsession, he has just one regret: that he didn’t meet up with this puzzle-solving tribe until he was in his 40s.
“Oh, man, the years I missed,” he said.