Way-oh, we’re going to Sofia!
This week’s highlight is the World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships. After last year’s triumph in Croydon here in the UK, the 24th World Puzzle Championship and 10th World Sudoku Championship are being held in the capital of Bulgaria. The sudoku championships as such are held on Monday and Tuesday; the puzzle championship starts on Thursday and crowns its champion on Saturday. As ever, the puzzle writing is likely to be of the highest quality, but it has a tremendous way to go to live up to that of last year; you can see what sorts of puzzles will be featured in each one in the sudoku instruction booklet and puzzle instruction booklet. The actual puzzles themselves will need to be solved quickly enough to pose a challenge to befit the best solvers in the world; most mere mortals (hello!) would struggle to solve many of them given a whole day.
It’s a fascinating championship and doesn’t receive a great deal of coverage as the global sporting event that it is. Exit Games UK covered last year’s championship intensely, being a home championship that will surely not be repeated for years, though all the signs point to the UK having done as good a job as any first-time host. This year’s event might not get quite the same extent of coverage as last year’s, but it’s far too much fun not to cover at all. The preview article is arguably the most fun of all to write – compare to last year’s! – though almost the most uncomfortable in the knowledge that you’re writing about real people and just possibly they might read what you say. For the avoidance of doubt, this coverage concerns the puzzle championship rather than the sudoku championship.
As ever, one starting-point for treating the World Puzzle Championship as the sport that it is, is the Wikipedia article, but the motherlode is Tim Peeters’ site. You can get the results from the four most recent championships within the World Puzzle Federation‘s newsletters for 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, each with the results from the previous year’s championships. This year’s participants list points to there being representation from 30 nations in the puzzle championships; it looks like there will be (subject to confirmation) 23 full national teams of four solvers, plus another dozen or so “B” teams, possibly a couple of “C” teams and some number of transnational “United Nations” teams made up of assemblages of national teams that happen to be smaller than the full complement of four. It’s no secret that it’s cheaper to attend an event in Bulgaria than it is to attend one in the UK, and that has evidently made a difference.
The 23 years of the World Puzzle Championship have only seen four different national teams win. The Japanese team won one, the Czech team won three, the German team have won five and the team from the United States of America have won the remaining fourteen. The US team has a 23/23 record at finishing in the top three places, though last year was probably about as close as it has ever been, the German team have finished on the podium 13 times in the last 15 years and the Japanese team’s unbroken run on the podium stretches back ten years. The Czech team were on the podium seven times in the first ten years; the Hungarian team have made four podium appearances and the Dutch team three, including two second places. Other teams on the podium have included Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Poland and Turkey.
At this point, it’s worth pointing out that these championships surely represent an amazing sponsorship opportunity for an exit game brand who wanted to present themselves as the global leader and attract attention from a great number of puzzling communities at a single stroke. All eight G8 countries are represented at the WPC, so is India, so is China, so are all manner of other exciting and relevant nations. The Escape Room Directory points to eleven exit games in Sofia, reportedly one practically across the road from the hotel. One can imagine that most of the games in town will be played in a wide variety of languages over the course of the coming week and word will get round as to which are the best.
Let’s take a look at the top contenders, in descending order of last year’s finish.
Germany won last year, though it was closer than the scoreboard might suggest because Japan entirely reasonably went for a go-for-broke strategy in the final team round. On the other hand, the German line-up have real strength in depth, with the German B team scoring enough to beat all the A-teams outside the top three, and the four German B team members all outscored the fourth-place German A team solver! This year’s A-team is starred by Ulrich Voigt, looking to add an eleventh world championship and to be the first ever to win four in a row. He is more than ably supported by Florian Kirch who finished third last time, Philipp Weiß (unofficial 27th last time, though unofficial 17th two years previously) and Robert Vollmert (unofficial 18th two years running). Michael Ley has a real chance at being the best B-team solver for a third time. If you can make it through the super-stacked German trials, you’re definitely good enough to be a play-off contender. A hugely strong line-up.
Japan also has remarkable strength in depth; looking at the Grand Prix results, with seven of the top eighteen finishers over the course of the series (to Germany’s four!), arguably even more so. Yet there were questions over the Japan Puzzle Championship that settled the Japan line-up; when the dust settled, this is how the chips fell. Ken Endo (who wrote that article) was second going into last year’s play-off and finished handily ahead of the pack in the Grand Prix, so is clearly a very serious contender for the individual championship. Kota Morinshi has finished ninth two years running and has also been excellent in the Grand Prix. Ko Okamoto finished fourth in 2007 and 2010 and almost matched Ken Endo as a guest two years ago. Maho Yokota finished 12th four years ago and 17th two years ago. This is again exceptionally powerful, though it’s tempting to wonder how much they might miss Hideaki Jo.
The US team are powerhouses once again. Palmer Mebane has a four-year streak on the podium and was the last person to beat Ulrich Voigt, in 2011. Wei-Hwa Huang has won it all four times. William Blatt has finished in the top ten for the last two years, and the fourth member this time is Roger Barkan, who has three podium places to his credit. All four have shown that they know what it takes and there is nothing like a weak link here; this bodes very well for the team rounds.
At this point, time to speed up and concentrate principally on the highlights of some of the other teams. Peter Hudak has earned three playoff places in the last four years for Slovakia and they’ll miss him badly this year, though Matej Uher, Matúš Demiger and Štefan Gašpár are all reliable top-30 solvers. From the Czech Republic, Jan Novotný and Jana Vodičková have had years where they’ve been well in the top fifteen; Hungary have three-quarters of their 2013 line-up who finished fourth, featuring 2007 world champion Pál Madarassy, five-time top-ten finisher Zoltán Horváth and Zoltán Gyimesi. Bram de Laat has a four-year top-ten streak for the Netherlands and is backed up with experience.
What of the United Kingdom team? Exit Games UK is bullish. There’s something of a running theme above; nations with strong line-ups where it’s easy to think of one or two very strong solvers who would add considerably. On the other hand, this is the UK line-up that this site has long hoped for, as discussed; for this site’s money, it’s the strongest UK team yet. Neil Zussman and James McGowan have been top-15 solvers for the last two years, with this year’s Grand Prix form guide putting them on par with some very strong names. Tom Collyer has been improving year on year and being instrumental in hosting last year’s championships surely being a great way to get involved. David McNeill has five WPC appearances and has been top among the UK team for four of them. If you want a form guide that’s less than a month old, the team’s performances at LMI’s Puzzle Ramayan again hints at people being there or thereabouts.
Apologies to the Polish, Turkish, Canadian, Chinese, Indian and other teams who do have strong solvers, but you have to draw the line somewhere. It would be a delight for any of them to take this as inspiration to prove this preview wrong, especially if that sentence has swept them aside into just the “and other teams”! Part of the fascination is looking for breakout stars who come from nowhere. It’s always thrilling.
How well can the UK team do? At the start of the year, this site predicted a 35% chance that the UK team might beat its previous best performance of sixth place. Knowing the participant lists now, 35% may be a shade too slim. Four finishes in or around the top quarter, particularly with a couple close to the play-offs, would probably be good for fourth or fifth place, if the team round performances match up to the individual performances. It’s going to be very exciting to follow the team’s progress in Bulgaria!
Coming in to writing this preview, the presumption going in was that Germany were going to be strong favourites. On reflection, Germany might have the strongest top half of the line-up and Japan may have the strongest bottom half. If the US perform close to their strongest throughout, they would surely be very hard to stop as well. For the sake of punditry, the call is going to be Japan, but it’s got to be really close!
For the purposes of entertainment only, here are the Exit Games UK odds:
United Kingdom 50/1 (or 14/1 against a top-3 finish, or 5/4 against a top-5 finish)
Czech Republic 66/1
Any other named country 100/1