Date: February 25, 2007
Byline: Julie Patel
Puzzle junkies compete at library fundraiser
Clues, riddles and games aren't just for kids — at least not at the inaugural Silicon Valley Puzzle Day in Morgan Hill on Saturday.
About 50 puzzle junkies — mostly middle-age South Bay residents — gathered to play crossword puzzles and Sudoku, the popular logic game. They bonded as they shared with one another their techniques, frustrations and most memorable puzzle clues. The event — a fundraiser for the Morgan Hill Library — also featured multi-round Sudoku and crossword puzzle competitions.
Many said it was the first time they had a chance to meet so many other puzzle enthusiasts in an atmosphere where knowledge of trivia is respected, even admired. Perhaps that's because the only well-known puzzle convention in the United States is the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn.
Pleasanton resident Paula Hewitson has gone to the Connecticut tournament five times and was delighted to hear there was a competition closer to home.
"I always wondered why we don't have one here. Surely there must be enough people interested," Hewitson said, as she looked over some new friends moving paper numbers around a Sudoku board.
"There I'm a small fish in a big pond," she said of the East Coast puzzle competition. "Maybe I can be a big fish here."
Puzzles are a natural fit for analytical types in Silicon Valley, said Byron Walden, a Santa Clara University professor who designs puzzles that appear in newspapers.
Walden told event participants that mathematicians appreciate crossword puzzles because they involve understanding the structure of words — the number of letters in them — as well as the challenge of recalling the root of a word.
"It's more of an algebraic thing, whereas a poet looks at a word for its evocativeness," he said. His profession and hobby interact in another way: Sometimes when he's frustrated solving a two-dimensional problem, he flips the sheet over to "print letters in the boxes instead," he said, joking.
Others in the crowd admitted their weaknesses.
"There are moments when I've Googled words," said 22-year-old Julie Sullivan, who got hooked on crossword puzzles while flipping through the Spartan Daily between classes at San Jose State University.
Someone asked whether anyone has ever paid for help on the Internet.
"No," said Sunnyvale resident Marion Rubinstein, partly joking. "That would be degrading."
Most agreed using a dictionary or encyclopedia is a good way to learn about literary references or the origin of words — but it's not something a serious puzzle player needs.
Between competitions, people gathered around a giant "Silicon Valley" crossword puzzle.
Rosanne Macek, a librarian, thought the answer to one clue — the inventor of hypertext — was U.S. engineer Vannevar Bush.
"It's Tim Berners-Lee," piped San Jose resident Dave Lloyd, who had just wandered over to the puzzle — almost completely filled in with blue, green and black marked scribbles.
"I thought he invented the Internet," Macek said. "But Berners-Lee fits the space."
(Berners-Lee is widely credited for inventing the World Wide Web while there's a debate over who — Bush, Douglas Engelbart or someone else — invented hypertext.)
If Morgan Hill's Puzzle Day was any indication, the East Coast better watch out.
"We're going to show them there's a strong crossword community on the West Coast too," Emily Reich Shem-Tov, an event volunteer, told a library full of puzzle fans.