The Origin of the Mystery Puzzle
Author: Tyson Mao
I remember when we first started doing Mystery Puzzles. With the crowd cheering on the stage of the Exploratorium, it was really quite an experience. At the US National Championships 2006, I believe we had 500+ spectators at one point. But how did it all start?
The Sunday Contest
To learn the origin of the Mystery Puzzle, we have to go back a long time ago, back to 2003. Sadly, we now have competitors born after 2003. And that makes me feel a bit old. So back then, we used to use this timer made by Jess Bonde. Jess, of course, set the 3×3 WR single solve of 16.53 at the 2003 World Championship. He had written an online cube timer that provided 25-move scrambles and would calculate an average of 12. This was already the home standard then.
Before my time, there was a Sunday contest run by some French guy. (I think… and I’m not actually sure I remember. So if someone remembers who was running the Sunday contest back then, please let me know.) The idea was that people would do an average of 12 with the posted scrambles, and the results would be posted every Sunday and there would be a winner. This competition had died, but in 2004, I learned an interesting skill: I learned how to access web server spaces on astro.caltech.edu/~tmao and its.caltech.edu/~tmao, and I realized that I could make web pages in MS Word by saving files as HTML and uploading this. So I decided to revive and host the Sunday contest. Results were all e-mailed to me, and I manually edited my MS Word document and uploaded it every week. I did this for a bit, and then Jon Morris offered to take over the process. I figured he was more technologically inclined than I was, so I was more than happy to hand it off.
Caltech Cube Club, Dan Lo, and Ball-in-Cup
In the spring of 2005, a prospective student came to visit Caltech. His name was Daniel Lo, and he was interested in the cube. He was visiting Caltech one week early because he had an orchestra trip during the actual admit weekend at Caltech. I saw Daniel Lo and immediately determined, because I was a junior, soon to be senior in college, that he would be my successor and run cubing at Caltech for the next 3 to 4 years. I invited him along to WC 2005 in Orlando, Florida, and sure enough, I did get a good 3 to 4 years out of him before Caltech was handed off to Ambie Valdés. Dan Lo had started running a bunch of competitions for me, and we were sitting around in my dorm room when I started musing that it would be funny to have a Sunday contest that featured some random puzzle every week, instead of the standard 3x3x3 speedsolve. We could do a 3x3x3 blindfolded Sunday contest, a one-handed Sunday contest…and then the ideas started to get more ridiculous. Beating your roommate with a pillow, running a mile and solving a cube–we were throwing out every crazy idea. Dan Lo then made the comment that the Rubik’s Magic was a silly puzzle, and was in fact not a puzzle at all and had the same complexity of putting a ball in a cup. After all, putting a ball in a cup is the same physical motion every time. We liked the idea, so we found a ping pong ball and started practicing, and I think I got my time to around 0.38 second. The technique, of course, was to throw the ball in the air, stop the timer, and hope that it lands in the cup. This method was terrible for averages but good if you were aiming for the best single.
Ball-in-cup has since spread to other North American competitions. Here’s a video from Toronto Summer Open 2009:
The First Mystery Puzzles
The mystery puzzle idea also started up around US Nationals 2006. The Cubefreak documentary was being filmed at that time, and the producers had made trading cards of us. We all had our own trading card, and it was pretty cool. We eventually started trading with each other (I think I needed an Adam Zamora to complete the collection) and the idea of Pokemon was thrown out. That I could play my Adam Zamora against your Chris Hardwick, and that not only could we play this card game in the back at the competition organization tables, but we could make these battles happen in real life on the stage. So after the first day of the championships, I split our organizers into three teams, and they drafted players. And we started coming up with different events for these players to compete in. Sometimes, I would tell the team captains exactly what the event would be. Other times, they only had a vague idea of what the event would be. Chris Dzoan, at that time, was one of the top one-handed solvers, and I remember his combination with Bob blowing away the entire rest of the field. My brother played his Chris Hardwick and Ryan Patricio card, but they argued over how to approach the team solve (two solvers alternating a single move). It turns out the Chris Dzoan’s strategy of “I do everything and Bob, you do what I tell you to do” was especially quick given that Chris was one-handed solving the cube.
Here are some other memorable mystery puzzles that have been captured on tape.
Caltech Winter 2007 (Exploratorium, SF) Lightning Reaction Extreme
Caltech Fall 2007 Mystery Puzzle
Name that Dzoan
I’ll end with some Dzoan stories. Name That Dzoan was probably one of the dumber Mystery Puzzles that I came up with. Though I would implore the public to give me a break. I’m allowed to come up with one dumb idea every now and then, right?
How I first met Dan Dzoan is a pretty funny story in itself. It must have been Caltech Winter 2006. This new crew of cubers from Berkeley had come, but I hadn’t really met any of them. Winning Moves USA had sent me a crate full of puzzles, so when it came time for awards, I started giving out random prizes. I proceeded to announce the prize for the fastest person who did not make the finals. In other words, you’re the number one loser. Well, you could argue that the number one loser is second place, but okay, roll with me. And coming in 17th place…Dan Dzoan! And out of the audience I heard someone shout, “I KNEW IT!” Dan jumped up, came up on stage, accepted his Rubik’s Snake, and that’s the first time I ever met Dan Dzoan. From there, Dan expressed interest in getting UC Berkeley involved with the WCA, and I expressed interest in expanding the WCA’s activities to other schools.
This picture here captures the first moment I met Dan Dzoan. It’s a beautiful moment.
But now, onto Name That Dzoan. Dan has two siblings, Chris and Brittany, both also cubers. They lived in Fremont, which wasn’t far from me in San Mateo, so when I was home we would get together and hang out. Since there were three of them, and we decided that everyone should know their Dzoans, the Name That Dzoan Mystery Puzzle was born. It was one of those things that was hilarious in my mind, but in actual practice, quite stupid.
The Dzoan stories live on, and when Shotaro Makisumi finally wins that big math prize, I think the world will get to see more Dzoan. There are obviously stories to be told here, but most of them transcend the Mystery Puzzle realm.