by Brittany Cheng '13 and Ashley Yuen '13
Vibrant streamers weave their way across third floor halls. Hundreds of balloons, banners, and posters hang off the walls. A blown-up Buzz Lightyear doll finds its home inside Mr. Stein's classroom, teddy bears dance around outside Ms. Piper's room, and large tents are pitched in Mrs. Duval's room. About 260 upperclassmen mingle, some chanting "USA! USA!" while others holding up signs proclaiming, "We are the eight percent!" Don’t worry, this isn't a weird birthday party – no, this is a political rally…to "elect" the winner of Puzzlepalooza 2012.
“America’s premier high school puzzle tournament”
Puzzlepalooza is "America's premier high school puzzle tournament," according to its official website. The concept of the tournament is simple: students are split into even-numbered teams and compete to solve the most puzzles out of 15 in the fastest times. Finishing a puzzle earlier will award a team a higher number of points. After the four day period, the team with the highest point total is crowned Puzzlepalooza champion. Founded in spring 2009, Puzzlepalooza is a four day event that gives upperclassmen who have finished their High School Assessment (HSA) exams something to do while underclassmen are testing. "Before Puzzlepalooza, juniors and seniors in the magnet program would have no structured activities during HSA week," magnet coordinator Peter Ostrander says. "Since many of them rode buses to school, they would come to school at the normal starting time, but then just wander around for a few hours. We saw this as lost time." Magnet staff members, later dubbed "Puzzle Lords," Peter Ostrander, David Stein, James Schafer, and Peter Hammond, saw this as an opportunity to pitch a novel idea: a high school puzzle tournament. "[Schafer, Hammond, and I] really enjoyed doing puzzles and thought that students would also really enjoy working collaboratively to solve intricate and challenging tasks," Stein says. Hammond also believes that difficult puzzles serve as an effective method for translating skills that students need. "Puzzles are by their very nature well suited to get the puzzler to think in new ways, stretch their mental boundaries, and learn how to become an intuitive reasoner," he says. "These are skills a budding scientist and mathematician need."
Putting the pieces together
To turn Puzzlepalooza into reality, the Puzzle Lords needed to compile a strong and solvable puzzle set. During the event’s inaugural year, they modeled it after other popular competitions, incorporating purchased puzzles with self-designed ones. "Everything was new, so there was some apprehension as to whether it would work or not – we didn’t know if students would breeze right through the puzzles or give up after a day," Ostrander says. "Puzzlepalooza's first year was a little different in that we did not have as much time to plan…[so] some puzzles were borrowed and some were created by staff at Blair." In this year’s crop of puzzles, however, most had been written by magnet staff, though several puzzles were also donated by various professional puzzle writers, ECPI University professor Andrew Feist and magnet alumnus Erik Agard (‘11). After a list of puzzles is created, it undergoes several rounds of testing. “One might consider them in a ‘beta’ stage at this point,” Hammond explains. “We then have them tested by a group who have not seen the puzzles before and use that experience to weed out bad puzzles, balance the difficulty levels, and generally improve the packet.” Though this is soon completed, tournament preparation is far from over. According to Schafer, every year of Puzzlepalooza requires the Puzzle Lords to come up with a new theme or story arc. “Our first year’s theme was based on Wallops Island and some special snakes, the second year was about an invasion of Water-Bears,” Schafer says. For 2012, it was politics. “[Since 2012 is] an election year, we came up with an election theme. This in turn had us revamp our scoring for the year so that we could have a “delegate count,” Hammond says. Students created campaign slogans, party colors, and committees in order to elect their official into office. Candidates ranged from beloved presidents Abraham Lincoln (Vampire Hunter) and Theodore Roosevelt to communist leaders Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong Il to even Blair’s assistant principal Dr. Andrew Coleman.
This year also brought changes in Puzzlepalooza’s structure. The Puzzle Lords needed to make some adjustments since the Maryland Board of Education removed the National, State, and Local Government exam from HSA graduation requirements. Instead of cutting off one day of puzzling, they came up with an alternate plan to hold a field trip at Bohrer Park in Gaithersburg, MD, for a “Puzzle Party Convention.” "We couldn't see cutting the competition, so the idea to take the competition to another site came about," Ostrander says.
Since the field trip would allow more time for students to solve puzzles, the Puzzle Lords decided to adjust the scoring process. Instead of assigning the same amount of weight to each puzzle, a set of five new puzzles would be introduced on the final day and would weigh more in order to encourage students who ranked low from the first three days to fight on. They also agreed that the final day's festivities would feature several physical activities, including cup-stacking, four-legged races, and the ever popular game of "Schafer says." The better a team places in these “physical challenges,” the longer the time bonus it receives as a head start on a certain puzzle.
After all of these adjustments were decided and agreed upon by Puzzle Lords, it was time for the festivities to begin.
Different routes, same destination
Many students eagerly participate in Puzzlepalooza, in hopes of winning one of the five coveted awards: Iron Puzzler, Dark Horse, Spirit, Best Campaign Video, and Puzzlepalooza Champions. In turn, this prompts teams to come up with different strategies in order to come in first. Some teams work in large groups to solve one or two puzzle at a time. Other groups have teammates partner up or work individually to tackle all fifteen at once. The committee to elect Lord Voldemort, which includes Clara Benjamin, Craig Blumenfeld, Hannah Buchek, Tranelle Dodson, Eli Griff-McMahon, Rebecca He, Enoch Hsiao, Eric Huang, Emily Lathrop, Lisha Ruan, Audrey Shi, Langston Taylor, Jared Wang, and Libby Wei, opted to try to spend the least Puzzlepalooza cash, which gives teams hints on how to approach puzzles. In the end, this strategy paid off. Although they didn’t come in first place in terms of delegate counts, they won the Iron Puzzler Award. On the other hand, the committee to elect Herman Cain, composed of Jacob Buchholz, Robert Chen, Michelle Dagne, Daniel Hafner, Erin Hedlund, Evan Khan, Justin Kung, Soyoung Kwak, Bob Ma, Srividya Murthy, Adrian Nelson, Elizabeth Sciannella, and Claire Sleigh, worried less about spending Puzzlepalooza cash and more about not coming in last place. After the first three days, Team Hermain Cain had only 61 points, just edging out last place Nick Jonas by a single point and falling 62 points shy of first. However, on the final day in Bohrer Park, they kicked things off with a bang, solving the first puzzle of the day before any other team. They continued to perform and eventually finished in fourth place, winning the Dark Horse Award as the most improved team. “I wouldn't say we aimed for the Dark Horse at the beginning, as we were hoping to win. But as the days rolled on, and we realized we were falling behind, the Dark Horse was definitely something we could look forward to,” magnet senior Robert Chen says.
But it all comes down to spirit
Puzzlepalooza would not be as successful without the spirit and enthusiasm of participating puzzlers. Telltale signs of a puzzler include cow suits, capes, glitter, face paint, hair color spray, streamers, wigs, flags, balloons, vuvuzelas, silly hats, and dancing to team theme songs such as One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” If you hear loud whooping, hollering, or chanting on the third floor, chances are you have come across a group of puzzlers.
The intense spirit puzzlers show off each year is a huge part of Puzzlepalooza’s popularity, according to the Puzzle Lords. The word on Puzzlepalooza continues to spread as Blazers notice the crazy outfits and costumes puzzlers flaunt to school during the four day competition, attracting new participants. “Spirit has never been an afterthought or an add-on…the idea of students getting into the event is in the forefront of our minds,” Hammond says. As an added incentive, one of the major awards at the end of the tournament is the coveted “Spirit Award,” which is known to have particularly good prizes, according to the Puzzle Lords and previous winners. The committee to elect Vermin Supreme mimicked his wardrobe by wearing tall, pointed blue hats with stars on them, while the committee to elect Teddy Roosevelt decked in all out red, white, and blue to showcase their patriotism. They also wore flag capes, straw hats, and even held baseball bats to signify our classic national pastime. Several puzzlers went all out, even if their teams were not as forthcoming. Senior Billy Kimmel dressed up as a crossword puzzle, sporting a large white box with a custom-made crossword puzzle on the top face. Senior Ittai Baum sported a top hat, a blue-yellow cape, and a sock puppet that happened to be his candidate, “Rifai,” as part of his team’s mission to “elect-rifai” or “electrify.” One particular spirited puzzler from the committee to elect Herman Cain, Robert Chen, shocked Blazers and puzzlers alike with his outstanding array of costumes. Honoring his team colors purple and black, Chen arrived at school on the second day of the event with his face painted entirely black, bright purple hair, a team headband, and to stand out even more, a large balloon stuffed under his purple shirt. The biggest surprise, however, came on the last day when he came to school dressed up in a full cow costume, spray-painted purple. “...On the last day, I wanted to do something big, but I realized I lacked the resources. But, I did have a lot of spare purple hair spray...I found an old Halloween costume...so I just mixed what I had and went for it,” Chen comments.
This year’s Spirit Award, however, went to a team who built their campaign around Dr. Coleman, one of Blair’s Assistant Principals, and parodied the Occupy Movement. The committee to elect Dr. Coleman brought in tents and created cardboard signs and pickets that read, “#Iwillweight” and “We are the 8 percent.” One particularly amusing sign that read “I’d rather wait 8 seconds than 4 years #Coleman2012” pays homage to Coleman’s infamous announcements that always begin with, “Staff, students, may I have your attention please. I will wait 8 seconds.”
According to Ostrander, the amount of enthusiasm that students displayed this year was unprecedented. “Spirit took a whole new level this year. It was the first year we had videos, so a new prize category was created to acknowledge the work of the students,” Ostrander comments. Stein agrees with his colleague, but also predicts an upward trend from here. “[We] are sure [the spirit] will grow and grow in the coming years,” Stein says.
Then the winner is…?
Dressed in bright neon pink T-shirts and adorned with other hot pink accessories stand the grand champions of Puzzlepalooza 2012. The Pink Panther team, also known as “The committee to elect Inspector Clueso,” is a mixture of Magnet and CAP students, which include Sally Barth, Lorenzo Choudary-Smith, Maya Davis, Becca Ederer, Thomas Gaddy, Andrew Hu, Emmy Johnson, Freddie Koehler, Belinda Li, Alice Mukora, Anwesha Naskar, Ian Ozeroff, Janvi Raichura, Shayna Solomon, and Zoe-Rose Waldrop. “We all knew that we were a really good team, but we didn't exactly think about winning until the last day when it became a possibility. We were more about solving the puzzles than winning,” magnet junior Janvi Raichura says. Like many other teams, persistence was the key to their victory. The Pink Panthers kept working on a puzzle and rotating team members for fresh perspectives, until they got the correct answer. In the end, Team Clueso out-puzzled the competition, beating second place Kim Possible and third place Rifai by almost 200 points. The grand champions not only received huge prizes, but also the honor of having their team colors, pink and black, on next year’s Puzzlepalooza shirt.Plans for next year Any plans or changes for Puzzlepalooza next year have yet to be released, but for now, they are “highly confidential,” according to the Puzzle Lords. Ostrander hints that the Puzzle Lords are “re-thinking the scoring from this past year.” The only thing that we can be sure of for Puzzlepalooza 2013 is that the puzzles will be more awesome and the prizes will be bigger than ever before.
Interested in helping Puzzlepalooza?
Any alumni interested in writing puzzles or donating prizes or money to Puzzlepalooza should contact David Stein at David_O_Stein@mcpsmd.org.