Professional Puzzler: Wei-Hwa Huang

by Xinyi Zhou '10

Wei-Hwa Huang ’93 is a professional puzzler: he’s played a ton of puzzles, including as part of the US Team for the World Puzzle Federation (featured in Time Magazine). After Blair, he went to Caltech and then worked in the software industry for several years, including a stint at Google, where he was responsible for creating the Da Vinci Code Quest. Google his name now, and you'll find a Wikipedia entry and a profile of him from CNN Money. We chatted with Huang a few weeks ago about his life as a professional puzzler and how he got there. He also shares a challenging puzzle for our readers below.

What's it like being a professional puzzler -- could you describe a typical week?

There's no such thing as a typical week for me. Generally I have about 20 different projects to work on, with about 3 of them being my focus. Which project I focus on are usually based on urgency and not importance. For example, last week my focus was on: (1) writing out documents for rules and interface design for, a game company that I'm investing in; (2) preparing for the MIT Mystery Hunt, one of the world's largest puzzle-solving events; and (3) proofreading/puzzle-checking a book for Puzzlewright Press. This week, (2) is over and I expect (3) to be finished soon, so I'll move the focus to some other tasks. Right now, responding to this interview request is at the top of the "urgency" list. I expect that next week I'll be discussing graphic design for a dice-rolling game I designed called "Roll for the Galaxy", as well as starting up talks with an on-line puzzle offering from Thinkfun (that I can't mention the name in public yet), and I need to finish up a bunch of question submissions for a TV game show I write for, "Only Connect."How do you come up with new puzzles?In some sense, I've never come up with a new puzzle. Every single creation of mine can probably be traced back to the combinations of other puzzles or concepts that have come up before. It's a bit like cooking -- a "new" dish is just a combination of ingredients and instructions. Most random combinations of ingredients and instructions lead to failure. A good chef has a good intuition for what combinations will fail and has more successes.How much of the whole puzzle/game package are you involved in; do you also do graphics/coding/etc when that's relevant?

A lot of this has to do with the intended audience. I am an okay graphic designer, a pretty decent coder, and a better-than-average researcher. In the realm of puzzle-designing, there are very people that are good at all of those, so if I'm making something that's for a small audience or private event, or something that's just for the puzzle-solving community, I generally can make the whole package myself. Something that is public-facing intended for commercial consumption requires a higher degree of efficiency and professionalism than I can do by myself, so I'll generally have to work with a team where I just have to make sure that the graphic design and coding doesn't interfere with the puzzle/game-related aspects of the project.

Was this always your dream job, or did you ever have a different career path in mind?

I don't think I ever had a good vision of what my long-term career path was going to be. A lot of people's vision of their lives are like the Underpants Gnomes: "1. Do something you want to do; 2. ???; 3. Profit!" I ignored step 1 and managed to luck into a career where step 3 happened earlier. So now I'm going back to step 1.

Do you make a significant amount of money from competitions?

I believe that it is impossible to make a living from puzzle-solving. There's the occasional competition or game show, but the producers have to make money from publicity, and puzzle-solving has never been natural spectator sport.

A Puzzle from Wei-Hwa Huang

Do you have a puzzle for our readers?

Use the numbers 3, 3, 8, 8 to make an expression that equals 24. This is not a "trick question"; there's a straightforward way to do it -- the fine details are below:

You must use all four numbers once each (and no others), and you can use any of the standard four arithmetic operations, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. You can apply the operations in any order, and you may use any operation more than once, once, or not at all.

You will not need to use any other operations, such as negation, square roots, integer division, exponentiation, concatenation, decimal point concatenation (such as turning 3 into .3), or pre-defined functions such as factorials or Stirling numbers. The numbers are exactly what you think they are (base-ten integers in real-number space), and not in some uncommon notation or uncommon calculation space (such as modulo arithmetic).

There are two assumptions I'm making in that paragraph, though.The first is that I'm making a distinction between "puzzle" and "problem." To me, a "problem" is any task that requires intelligence, creativity, and persistence to solve. A problem may or may not have a solution, and when you do have a solution, you may not be able to tell if it's the best solution. A "puzzle" is an artificially-created problem, one that was created to have a specific "intended solution". The quality of a puzzle can be inferred from how much the intended solution stands out from other potential solutions (i.e., do you know you have the right answer when you've found it?) and how understandable the best process to getting to the solution is (i.e., is there a reasonable way of getting to the solution that is better than all other ways of solving it?) The best puzzles excel at one of the two tasks, or possibly both.There are plenty of people who make a living from solving problems – one could argue that almost all jobs require some level of problem-solving, and the most well-paid jobs are those that require solving important (not necessarily tough) problems.One sort of problem-solving that I find particularly interesting, is the problem of "how do you make good puzzles?" This is a problem, not a puzzle -- there's no clearly-best puzzle that is better than all other puzzles, and there's not a simple process that will let you make a good puzzle. It's possible to make a living from solving this problem -- I call those people "puzzle creators". It's not a high-paying job, because "creating puzzles" is not an important problem to solve, at least not compared to "what's the best way to manage a company?" or "how does one make a profit from investing?"I do a lot of puzzle-creating. It turns out (unsurprisingly) that being good at puzzle-solving tends to translate into good puzzle-creating skills.It seems like you travel a lot for competitions. Good things/bad things? Are the types of puzzles you get different?I get exposed to a lot of cultures and languages. Not as much as I would compared to, say, people who actually spend vacation time in the country, but I do think I'm much more worldly than the average person. Every culture has their own different bent on puzzles. Unfortunately, since the most common puzzle ingredient is words and languages, there are many puzzles that don't translate well. For example, here's a puzzle I encountered in the kids' section of a Croatian newspaper: "In the sequence P, O, ??, N, M, what does the ?? represent?" This puzzle is pretty easy for a Croat but rather challenging for an American.

You just put out a puzzle book with Will Shortz! How did you meet him?

I've known Will since 1993, when I was a senior at Blair. I had qualified for a spot on the U.S. Puzzle Team through a fax-based puzzle contest, and he was the team and event organizer. He was pretty excited about his new job, crossword editor at the New York Times.Tell us a little about your time at Blair.I took every CS elective there was, but was mostly unexcited about research -- there's almost certainly a correlation between that and not going to graduate school, which I would consider the ultimate place if you like solving hard and challenging problems (not puzzles). I visited Blair a few years ago and there were a few of my teachers still there and I met most of them: Lola Piper, Eric Walstein, and Judith Smith. All but Dr. Smith remembered who I was -- but we ended up having one of the most illuminating discussions about Shakespeare during that visit, so I'm not sure what to make of that. I ran into Susan Ragan but she wasn't teaching any more. I didn't get to meet John Kaluta that visit; I took some classes from him but he wasn't a Magnet teacher when I was a student!I was a member of the Math Team, Physics Team, Computer Science Team, Chess Club. I tried the It's Academic team but didn't really have enough talent to sustain it. Looking back on it I guess all my extracurriculars were competitive in nature -- in some sense, those did funnel into a puzzle career. If you think about it, math and CS competitions, even though they are arguably there to teach students about problem-solving, they are actually all about puzzle-solving; every single question is actually a problem for which the solution and solution method is known, and that makes them puzzles. Most talented students start with puzzles and then move on to solving problems. I guess I never wanted to move on.