Waking up on the Sunday morning, on approximately 4 hours sleep, I wasn’t feeling too bad – although the lack of hot water in the shower was irksome. At this point my approach to a lack of sleep had become akin to that of running a major economy. When in trouble throw lots of clever devices at the deficit and pay it all back much, much later. Although I’m still tying to work out what’s so clever about Red Bull during the day and drinking by night. I joined the rest of the team for a rushed breakfast. I was sorry to observe the continued lack of marmalade but on the other hand was grateful to get any sort of food. Even more thankfully, the coffee was good enough to knock down in one as we had to rush off sharpish.
The remaining rounds were not going to be in the Holiday Inn, but rather in the Hotel Slovakia. We were to be transferred there by bus – although the American team decided to chance their luck and enjoy a walk in the beautiful morning sunshine. Arriving at the hotel, the impression I got was not so much “hmm, well it’s a bit Eastern Bloc”, but rather “bloody hell, this is the Communist Party’s headquarters”. My sleep deprivation was beginning to kick in and so I wasn’t quite aware of the hubbub beginning to develop as people crowded round the lists of the top 36 performers who had made the semi-finals. It turned out that I was good enough to make them (having finished up 28th), along with David, whose qualification was never in doubt. Although it’s probably fair to say he’d had a bit of a shocking performance overall, he had had a pretty good round A, and again the weightings of things ensured that he had gotten through no problems, in around 18th. Top of the pops? Who else but Thomas Snyder. This was his moral victory. Near the top were other familiar contenders, such as Jakob Ondrousek, Jan Mrozowski, Peter Hudak, Michael Ley, Hideaki Jo and Yuhei Kusui. Missing out were a few surprise names, such as former world champion Jana Tylova, multiple world puzzle champion Wei-Hwa Huang and arguably the best kakuro solver on the planet, none other than Jason Zuffranieri.
I have since noted that without my usual compliment of dickhead errors, I’d have had a score fairly close to David’s. I was pretty happy to be a clear second in the UK team. However, the real mockery of the puzzler media qualification system (of which I’ve had strong words to say before) is that George and Michael were the next best performers. The two sponsored qualifiers were the worst performers on the team – although in fairness to Nina and Mike they were also the ones with the least recent WSC experience, and their journey over could also have had something to do with their performance. Nevertheless, adaptability is something that’ll need to be accounted for next year in Philadelphia. For all-round puzzling greatness I hope David is once again guaranteed a spot, and for outstanding team versatility, I’d like to see Michael go over too.
Anyhow, back to the narrative. The first round of the day was to be a team round:
This was apparently a strategy round – there were 10 puzzles to complete in two and a half hours but the catch was the team could only have one puzzle face up and available to be worked on at a time. Three people working on one puzzle does sound to be fairly contrived and awkward, but the combination of myself with George and Michael absolutely nailed 9 of the puzzles, getting them out of the way well within the first hour. The trouble was, the last puzzle was a dominos variant that resisted multiple angles of attack and was without any logical entry into the puzzle. We didn’t get it finished despite having lots of time on it. This situation was repeated by most of the other teams – although I suppose more through chance than anything else a couple of teams did manage to get out the dominos puzzle. Analysing this round, I had personally found it nice to be solving puzzles without having to guess – but from a competitive point of view the whole thing was a complete waste of time. For all intents and purposes it placed the UK B team in joint 6th – if you ignore the ridiculous bonus system which I’ll come to shortly.
Round M – Individual semi-finals
The time was now approaching midday and the semi-finals were to kick off shortly. The 36 qualifiers were lined up into four columns which represented four simultaneous heats. The winner from each heat was to go through, and then the next best four taken from any of the heats were to make it through to make up eight grand finalists. The format was 45 minutes to solve four puzzles. These were all pretty tough, and I wasted a good 15-20 minutes on a puzzle that I’d manage to break. In the end I had a bit of nightmare and only got one puzzle out. C’est la vie.
The real scandal here was who had actually been judged to have done best. Although noone had got all four puzzles out, numerous people had managed to get three out. Here, points scoring went out of the window to a certain extent, and the real qualifier was who had handed in early – thus “proving” they had done three puzzles quicker than anyone else.
Frankly, time differentiating should only come into things if all puzzles have been completed. If not, you get a situation when one of the best solvers on the planet nearly (but not quite) gets the fourth puzzle out, and is eliminated by tactical declarations by people who had barely managed to get three puzzles out. Like I said, finishing top of the pile of the individual standings was Thomas’s moral victory – and if he had declared early on completing the third puzzle there is little doubt in my mind he’d have had a third consecutive world title.
David would have had three puzzles out, but misread the rules and had not satisfied the full constraints of the puzzle. He was in a relatively weak heat and so if he had finished this puzzle would probably have made the grand final. Again, c’est la vie.
As it happened, only one of the provisional top eight had actually qualified for the grand final – and thus Jan Mrozowski of Poland was established as runway favourite for the final. And with that it was time to get some lunch.