Monday 28 November 2011

WPC '11 - update #7

Right, so we’re up to Saturday. I woke up feeling a little rough – perhaps the late nights at the bar were catching up with me, but I think at this stage I was also coming down with something. All I could manage for breakfast was a couple of bowls of tea. Yes bowls, not mugs. The mugs were definitely smaller and had only one handle!

The main attraction of the day was going to be the WPC play-offs, but before this was to begin there was one remaining team round to get through. The “wrong” puzzles! Basically, a set of 8 different puzzles, with a set of 8 4×4 repair patches to fix the broken puzzles. I was quite pleased to quickly get the fillomino sorted out, and then proceeded to struggle for a long time with the nurikabe, reasoning that as a constructor I could feel out which area of the puzzle was broken. I think Neil, David and Gareth each got another puzzle out – which obviously reduces the complexity of the round massively, but we couldn’t really make any further progress. We thought we had nailed down which patch should be used for each of the remaining puzzles, but as it turned out the piece I was trying to get the nurikabe to work with was the wrong one. I briefly had a go at the battleships and lighthouses, but to no avail. Gareth then whizzed through it towards the end, thinking he had it done, but having left something minor out. So not a particularly great end to the WPC for GBR-A – I think it turned out that GBR-B had managed to beat us for this one.

Afterwards, there was a bit of a scrum around the scores. From a British perspective, it was awesome to see that Neil had held onto 10th place, and would therefore be taking a place in the play-offs. A bit further down the list (past countless Germans!) was David, who had faded a little but was still solidly top 50 which is something that he maintained was a good finish. I was next on the list, unofficially 69th, but officially 59th, which I guess I am happy about despite flirting with a top 50 finish myself for a little while. Gareth, the next Brit down the list (not too far behind me), had also flirted with the possibility of finishing ahead of me.

So yeah, having spent lots of previous posts moaning about how mediocre my performance was, this should be tempered by a couple of things. Firstly, I was the 3rd best Brit, which was something that I had put some pressure on myself to make sure I achieved, and secondly, I was not too far off that benchmark of the top 50. It wasn’t a brilliant performance, but not bad either, and with any luck (if I manage to qualify for the team!!) something I can look to beat and build upon in future years. GBR-A had finished in 11th place, a record high, which I guess was mainly by virtue of Neil’s individual score. I don’t think we particularly distinguished ourselves during the team rounds, so hopefully this augers well for a top 10 finish in future years.

Byron felt a little down about his performances – I think he was looking to make the play-offs again – but his personal theory was he hadn’t had enough practice. Equally as inconsolable was Aga, who after what had turned out to be a difficult second afternoon, had just missed out on not finishing on the last page of the print-off. Nevertheless, it was hard to be inconsolable for too long at any of these events, so we dusted ourselves off, and headed into the competition hall for one last time.

Our choice of seating was hardly ideal, right below the big projector screen which had a list of the play-off contenders together with their time penalties based on score differences from the main rounds. A priori, this seemed like a three horse race between Ulrich Voigt – who’d finished top of the pile – together with the Americans Palmer Mebane (2nd) and Thomas Snyder (3rd). Hideaki Jo, Bram de Laat and Peter Hudak, whilst all being incredibly strong solvers, seemed to have too much to do to catch up with the big 3, and the line up was completed by Nikola Živanović, Ulrich’s brother Roland Voigt, Wei-Hwa Huang and of course darling of this blog, Neil Zussman. Michael Ley of Germany could count himself very unfortunate not to be taking part, having finished 7th overall but nevertheless ineligible for the play-offs, seeing as he was only the 5th best German qualifier and therefore not a part of their officially recognised A team.

I’m a little hazy on the details, but essentially the play-offs started off according to the form book, with Ulrich leading from the front, Palmer seemingly catching him and Thomas not far behind. Further down the field, Wei-Hwa was beginning to make up ground from his starting position of 9th (what was it with being in 9th?), but Neil seemed to have tripped up on the first puzzle. By the time the first cut was reached, again after the first puzzle, Neil had unfortunately fallen along with (I think – I’m sketchy on the details here) Roland and Nikola.

At various points during the proceedings, handouts of the puzzles were given out. The first was a quirky no 4 in a row, and the second a battleships puzzles. Against the trend of my puzzling form, I had both these puzzles out in 2 or 3 minutes and the rather misleading feeling that these play-offs couldn’t be so bad! Anyhow, by this middle stage Thomas had seemingly lost a little ground on Palmer and Ulrich. On puzzle 5, I think a borderless something or other, Hideaki pulled off a solve which seemed in the order of about 30 seconds, which left him best of the rest by the time of the second cut. Remarkably it was Wei-Hwa who took the 5th spot – continuing the trend of the 9th starter surging forward. This meant that it was good-bye for Peter and Bram.

With 3 puzzles to go Ulrich still had the lead, with Palmer hot on his heels. Thomas hadn’t managed to recover and with puzzles running it out it was becoming apparent that the three horse race was now a direct competition between Ulrich – still the favourite – and Palmer. Heading into the 8th puzzle, which was apparently a divide and conquer, Ulrich seemed to hit a mental block. They were now close enough to see exactly when they were applying rigorous use an eraser. Or so I thought! I saw Palmer erasing out of the corner of my eye, and whispered to Aga and Byron that he was struggling too – except that what I must have seen was in fact a quick checking gesture. As the rest of the room was gasping at the sight of Palmer handing in first, they were laughing and informing me that I was stripped of any commentating duties I had bestowed upon myself. More importantly, Palmer had now taken the lead with one puzzle to go!

There was to be no further twist in the tail – as Palmer says you simply can’t not solve a password path – and as he handed in the last puzzle and waited an agonising minute for everything to be okayed, he put his head in his hands. Ulrich retained his composure after his stall on the 8th puzzle to take 2nd, just in front of Thomas who had belated caught up a little ground. Wei-Hwa had managed to overhaul Hideaki to ensure there were three Americans in the top four, capping off a dominant US performance which had also see them claim the team title. It seems Will is left in the shade here, but there’s no doubting what a great solver he is too, and completes an American team every bit as stellar as the Germans.

It was interesting talking to Thomas afterwards – I rather got the impression that he didn’t feel he had much hope of winning beforehand given the 5 minutes he was conceding to Ulrich, but he didn’t seem too upset with 3rd. Given his general dominance in the online LMI tests, not to mention that clinical WSC performance, it seems a little crazy that he’s still waiting on a first WPC title – but I suppose he’s really going to need to earn it with Palmer and Ulrich in this kind of form. Palmer remained calm and emotionally level during the aftermath – it struck me that if I were in his shoes with a maiden world title to my name that I’d be a little excited, but Palmer was barely even cracking a smile. On the other hand perhaps it is this level-headedness that is exactly what makes him a great solver – not phased when he hits a sticking point in a puzzle, and not carried away as he blasts his way through another set. Anyhow, I tried to inject some jollity into affairs and stole a picture with the 1st place trophy. All this achieved was a near miss with the 3rd place trophy!

At lunch I wasn’t feeling particularly great, and I don’t think I made it much further than a bowl of soup. Affairs seemed so bad that I thought I was going to have to pass up on some cake, but eventually I was brought to my senses and managed to squeeze down one piece. By this time I was beginning to get excited about the afternoon programme, an organised game of football in a nearby sports hall. David had earlier mentioned that various people at previous championships take this very seriously, and especially the Eastern Europeans. I wasn’t so phased by this, reasoning that I’m a pretty handy player myself and not nicknamed “twinkletoes” for nothing. This definitely amused Jason when I mentioned it to him.

As a big crowd gathered by the hotel lobby at 3pm, I was beginning to eye up who might be the danger men but not really coming to any conclusions. I was perhaps a little more apprehensive about the team I might end up, but no matter. We walked on over to the hall, and then various organisational chaos broke out in trying to form everyone into teams. This seemed easier for contingents like the Turks or the Poles, but it seemed that an Anglophone team was beginning to break out. And by anglophone, I mean me (GBR), Byron (CAN), Dave (CAN), Julian (CAN – although admittedly living in GBR) and Jason (USA) – which was I’m afraid to say a little disheartening as I get the impression soccerball isn’t such a huge deal on the other side of the Atlantic. Our team was completed by a Romanian guy whose name I didn’t catch, and Tatsuya, a member of the Japanese puzzle A team. I was especially pleased to have him on board because he was kitted out as goalkeeper and therefore resolved the tricky issue of deciding who amongst the rest of us was best qualified to go in goal (or as is usually the case with these things, the least qualified to be out on pitch). Our remaining team members included Martin (CAN), equipped with a camera in the stands, and I think I’ll claim Vasso (GRE) for moral support as well. Yes, I did say stands by the way – there was a fairly sizeable pitch, and on the sides there were maybe 10 rows of tiered seats for spectators. What a great idea!

A total of 6 teams roughly emerged, including a team made up of the Hungarian organisers, who got the fun and games going against a mixed team. The standard wasn’t particularly impressive, and I suppose this is where I started breaking out into a commentary in the stands, which swiftly became a lesson in tactics from Sports Coach Collyer to Team Anglophone as I pointed out where (in my humble opinion) the simple mistakes were to be avoided. The first of my utterly invaluable nuggets came as I noticed that various efforts on goal were very comfortable for the keeper, and therefore that the thing to do was to always keep your shots on goal low and on the ground. This definitely impressed Dave, who mentioned that similar wisdom also applied in hockey.

The second match involved the Poles and someone else – and the Poles were quite impressive. Jan M looked very composed in goal, and both Tomasz’s looked very composed on the ball. They strolled to an easy win in their 15 minutes, by which time I was positively itching to get out of the stands and on to the pitch. Our game would be versus a rather young and energetic looking Turkish team, and I vaguely set out a 3-3 formation, with Jason and Byron staying further back alongside our rather cultured – not to mention impressively moustached – Romanian sweeper, and myself, Julian and Dave pushing further forward. I am naturally a bit of a goal poacher by trade, but I also recognised that I was probably going to have the edge on fitness on the team so I thought it’d be best for me to perform a sort of manic role in the middle whereby I’d also try to make myself an option for a pass when our team were in possession.

Miraculously this seemed to hold to a plan as our defence held up reasonably solidly as the more assured Turkish team had the best of the initial play. When we had the ball as well, I was pleasantly surprised to see that rather than hold onto the ball too long and get caught in possession – another common mistake that Sports Coach Collyer had warned against – we were actually passing it quite nicely, albeit without too much quality in the final pass. And then!? On one such foray forward, the ball broke loose but I had managed to anticipate where it was heading. After cutting inside one defender I found myself with an opportunity to have a low snapshot with my left foot, and to my immense satisfaction I made a clean contact, putting the ball beyond the keepers left hand. Against all the odds team anglophone had the lead!

Naturally the Turks began to press forward more, but our defence was still looking quite comfortable and there was more space up the field to exploit. Twice we hit the frame of the goal as firstly I was sent through, and slid the ball past the keeper agonisingly onto the post, and secondly as Dave hit a ball that bounced up onto the crossbar (keep it low!! Although this one in fairness was nigh on impossible to do so). As we gained in confidence we over-stretched and let the Turks in, and via a couple of unfortunate deflections they had an equaliser.

At about 10 minutes, whatever it was that was keeping me under the weather was beginning to take its toll, and breathing became markedly difficult, and my mad running around the pitch stopped as instead I tried to recover by resuming my role as a goal poacher. The Turks perhaps looked the more likely winners as the 15 minutes drew out, but in the end we held on for a rather creditable draw. I was definitely pleased with how everyone had played, and rather than be exceptionally tense and competitive I was feeling remarkably chilled out. Or at least struggling for breath.

I should perhaps say at this point that I normally get immensely wound up for one reason or another whilst playing football (at least this is usually the case playing with the rather inept Maths mailing list – I can safely say puzzlers make for far better footballers than mathematicians) but the closest I came to spilling over was the rather short sighted decision to permute the first two games of the next round of matches between the four teams who had played the first two games in the first round of matches – leaving us to presumably play the Turks for a second time.

Anyhow, we eventually got on for a second time (after letting the Turks play someone else first), playing a team featuring some of the Croatians. We seemed to be holding up quite well, but conceded a few unfortunate goals continuously. Unfortunate, as in our team stopping play as a door opened at the side of the pitch whilst the opposition played on. It was all a little bit disappointing after our heroic efforts in the first game, but I got a consolation goal right at the end where I picked the ball in a fairly advanced position, shuffled about a little with my feet making room for an opportunistic pot-shot that caught the keeper off guard. I think the match ended 3-1 or 4-1 or something.

People were beginning to filter out by this stage – as I imagine some of my less committed but certainly no less dear readers have begun to at this stage of this monster post – and those who were left standing essentially kept going. By this stage legs were getting tired, but I had caught my breath back and was now able to exploit the state of affairs. Jason was to comment that he now saw why they call me twinkletoes!

We headed back to the hotel, bruised and grazed as you morally should be after playing a decent game, and it was by now completely dark. I headed up for a quick shower, before agreeing to meet Dave in the bar for a restorative beer or two before the closing dinner and the evening entertainment. We were joined at a table on the first floor (yes via more shocks from the hand rail) by some of the British team. Shortly after the second Restorative Beer we were called in to the competition hall for the dinner.

I think I shall cut short description of the evening entertainment, as I’m beginning to lose a little steam now with this point. Suffice to say there was plenty of wine, lots of applause for the winners of all the various competitions, and a few posing for photos – a lot of which you can see in my relevant facebook album. After the dinner there was a sort of Hungarian country and western band playing, one of Gyorgi’s favourites apparently. More importantly I had reunited with the Poles, who were wondering if I could really drink like they apparently could.

Part of this challenge involved Michael L’s prize for being the top unofficial scorer – he was given one of those 5 litre kegs of Bitburger that he wasn’t going to get on the plane back to Germany. I think it’s safe to say that he got the biggest cheer of all as he went up to receive the prize, and it was really nice to see his “unofficial” achievements (I think I might have created an extra space in the play-offs for him anyway if I were running things) recognised and to have the beer shared out amongst so many puzzling friends. After all, the wine was beginning to run out! The night was concluded firstly by a trip to the bar again, where we were treated to another rendition of Byron’s sudoku song, along with the wonderful experience of having been bought a beer by the legendary Tetsuya Nishio. I was perhaps more than a little merry at this stage, but had one last set of photos with the Poles before they headed off on their 3am shuttle to the airport. Will and Nick were also on this shuttle so it was nice to also see them off.

The last memories of the WPC involved karaoke to the not so small hours of the morning. I’m sure bleary eyed spectators must have been slightly entertained to see me go through a rendition of Karma Police – a surprise thrust upon me by Jason – but there I was in front of a screen with the words “detuned radio” forming my backdrop. Bram tried to get this with a photo, but was a little late, which is probably understandable. As the karaoke also wound down, I was left with Bram discussing the finer points of writing puzzles. I didn’t have my pad with me, but he did and it was fascinating to see some of his ideas and thought processes. If you haven’t seen his blog – it’s linked there I guess somewhere way up to the top left by now – then you should definitely check out his puzzles, they are great! And that was it, the last lingering memories of a really wonderful set of championships. It seemed fitting to see things out by talking puzzles until the cleaners came to chuck us out for their morning shift, all the while ignoring silly little urges like wanting to sleep!

If you’ve made it this far, dearest reader, then I can only say I am most impressed by your stamina, and I’ll begin the round of thanks by saying I appreciate your interest. Since being in Eger, I’ve noticed a massive upturn in traffic to this blog and I can only hope that you’ll stick around for a puzzle or two on future Fridays. I’d like to offer my personal thanks to the organisers for being responsible for certainly one of the best weeks that I’ve had in the last few years. It’s also very sad to have had to have said goodbye to so many good friends from literally all over the world. I guess we will all keep in touch via the magic of blogs and facebook and so on, but seeing everyone once a year is something that I’ve grown to love more and more as I’ve done these championships. Here’s hoping my streak at these things continues, and I get to see everyone for many years to come!

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