Sunday 21 June 2020

Thoughts on my place in the puzzling community

This post is going to be a bit of an outpouring, in lieu of my withdrawal from the puzzling community for as long as it takes to get my mojo back.

Once upon a time the puzzling community represented a place I could go to be myself, a place that boosted my self-esteem and, as I grew in confidence, a place that I felt able to contribute towards in a meaningful way.  More recently it seems to be a place that represents personal frustration, conflict with others, a sense of being unappreciated and a feeling that I have to constantly explain myself, self-censor and reign myself in.  It's a place that I've realised is causing me a lot of personal trauma, and a place from which I would be better off taking an indefinite break from.

I have a number of wonderful friends from the puzzling community who I will, of course, stay in touch with, and for whose support I am very grateful for.  In that sense, great friends are great friends, regardless of them being half way around the world or of them also being part of the puzzling community.

The purpose of this post is not to point fingers or apportion any blame.  Indeed, I am aware that I am at fault in any number of way, and that also a lot of this is all in my head - the point is that none of that seems to be of any comfort to me.  The reason why I am writing this is to try and arrive at a place of peace with myself, by laying out some of my experiences as I see them, and to try to "show" my current state of mind rather than to "tell" or explain it.

Doing this in a public way may not seem like the best of ideas, but the way I see it is there is a certain comfort in propagating my thoughts out into the great ether, not knowing exactly who will see it, but perhaps being surprised by how people might react it to, be that in a positive or a negative way.  So I'm going to crack on regardless, with no other agenda, and if people are still offended then I'm done with caring about that - they don't get to dictate my interpretation of my experiences any more.

One of the things that greatly appeals to me about solving puzzles is a definite sense of being right and wrong.  I think the best way I've seen it described comes courtesy of a wonderfully written report of the 2006 World Puzzle Championships by Oliver Burkeman.  The extract I like is:
Nobody seems quite able to explain why puzzles have snowballed so fast so recently. But the general appeal, Shortz argues, is essentially the same whether you're an amateur doing sudoku on the bus or a brainiac competing in the championship: "The point is that it's a challenge that has completion. Closure. When you've done it, you've done it." "Life's other problems don't seem so easy," says David McNeill.
2006 takes me back to my own first interactions with the puzzling community.  It was the year I first entered the Times "Su Doku" championship, which happened as part of the literary festival in Cheltenham.  I had read in the newspaper about the first championship they had run in the latter part of 2005 whilst in my second year at university, and remember jokingly commenting that I might have won had they bothered to invite me.

I kept an eye out for any kind of qualifying the following year, and was happy to catch the qualifying.  Sudoku had first appeared in The Times in November 2004, my first year at university, and I had built up a bit of a reputation for getting through this solitary puzzle quickly alongside its more communally minded sibling, the quick crossword.  Part of my motivation was a certain selfishness on my part - I wanted to get the next number before someone over my shoulder annoyingly suggested it to me instead.  Putting my abilities to the test in the 2006 competition, I breezed through the preliminary session, only to meet my match in the aforementioned David McNeill.  On a particularly challenging puzzle he managed to bifurcate one way, come to contradiction, erase, and correctly fill out the other fork of the bifurcation - all before I could more directly reason my way through the puzzle.  Not that I should have felt particularly bad about that - as a result of that competition I ended up going to the second World Sudoku Championship in Prague the following spring, as did David.  Whilst I was pleased to scrape into the top 50, David finished as the 4th best solver in the world, a record best finish for any UK solver that stands to this day.

These formative experiences in the puzzling world added a couple of other things that appealed to me about puzzles: firstly that I was good at them to a national and even international standard; and secondly that I really enjoyed the company of other puzzle solvers.  One of the great joys of the Prague championships was meeting a trio of completely fascinating LiveJournal-ers (LiveJournalists?): Simon Anthony, Jason Zuffranieri and Thomas Snyder.  Reading and interacting with their thoughts online was a great way to prolong the fleeting bubble of the the World Championships.  It is probably the reason that this blog exists (albeit on what was a University of Warwick blogging platform) now, and certainly the reason I got into things like  Nikoli was absolutely amazing, and became embedded into my daily routine.  It was to be followed up with other gems such as croco puzzle and fed sudoku.

One of the corollaries of puzzle solving being black and white is that it can be tempting to see the rest of the world in those terms as well.  In those days I was more fearless and tended to put out my views from the heart, trying to add at least a veneer of cool rationality to them as best as I could.  Some of the things that annoyed me in those days involved whether people bifurcating somehow cheapened a competition, and some others involved the way competitions and play-offs were run (Zilina, 2009) and the way way Puzzler Media ran qualification for an amazing trip to Philadelphia in 2010.

One of the things I was equally as sure about was that I could make a contribution, by setting out what my words and opinions might mean in practice.  To that end, I started doing an awful lot of things within the puzzle community.  I began putting out Friday Puzzles on my blog, I had a go at setting puzzles for online competitions and I got involved in the fledgling UK Puzzle Association.  It is somewhat gratifying to see solvers that have turned out to have much greater ability than I have ever had emerge out of this work.

Around 2012 and 2013 really stepped up that contribution as I became involved with other sudoku bloggers in the daily league, I was invited to join GM Puzzles, I made suggestions to improve the benchmarked scoring for the "around the world" at the WPC in Beijing, I designed and ran the first WPF Sudoku GP play-offs, and I even managed to design the WPF flag.  

I suppose the culmination of all that came in 2014 where I ran the WSC as competition director.  I think generally it's gone down as one of the better received competitions in the memory, and I can certainly see the influence that it's had on later competitions.  2015 was a bit of a break, but after that I then also volunteered to be the competition director for all the entirety of the 2016 WPF Sudoku GP.  After all that perhaps I became a became a bit complacent about what my level of contribution actually signified, but also a bit jaded by the whole experience.  2016 was a year of personal change for me as well; at the end of the year I left my old job in Milton Keynes and started a new life in London.  From a puzzling point of view, the 2016 world championships, just before I moved, marked the peak of my enjoyment.

Since then I'm not sure exactly where it all went wrong.  I'm guilty of becoming a bit of a back-seat driver as far as the the Sudoku GP is concerned since Nikola took over.  I was sad to see Hana step down as the WPF's sole employee - which has the misleading title "Director" - and sad as well to see Gareth Moore voted off the WPF Board.  I have increasingly formed quite a negative view of the WPF.  I think this is in no small part due to Hana's successor as director, Prasanna, who continually manages to rub me up the wrong way, perhaps through no fault of his own.

In parallel to this I was also sad to see relations with Logic Masters India break down.  In my opinion, in those early days it was a wonderful hub for the international community and I was very pleased to have made a small contribution to their organisation.  Since then, the old LMI crowd is given way to the new, and the focus has become very much national rather than international.  That's fair enough and entirely their prerogative, but it seemed personally regrettable that that old spirit had left.  The nadir of this came with a particularly unpleasant exchange with a character called Kishore, someone I don't think I've ever met or spoken to, who became particularly spiteful and abusive in an exchange.  The way LMI handled that episode left a very bad taste in my mouth and I don't think my opinion of them has recovered.  Where once my advice and comments were gratefully received, increasingly it seemed to me that my comments and advice were met with indifference, defensiveness and generally as if I'd come in very bad faith to undermine and to be needlessly critical.  I am pretty sure this is still how I am viewed by the new LMI crowd - so whilst it seems to be such a hostile and unwelcoming place to me, I don't think it is unreasonable to go out of my way to have nothing further to do with them

The whole thing is hugely regrettable, because I don't think there's been anyone who's done more for the puzzling community than Deb - meeting him briefly in 2014 was one of the real highlights for me - and Rishi remains one of my great friends to this day.

In a similar vein I became involved with the polarising "What is a Sudoku?" debate.  I still view the 2016 championships as being the best ever, but these were followed up with championships I was finding more reason to fault with those in 2017 (again the LMI connection) and to a lesser extent 2018 as well.  Part of my own frustrations I found I was able to describe with ideas that would later shape the "What is a Sudoku?" report.  Unfortunately this sense of every argument I was trying to make was again met with that same sense of indifference, defensiveness and bad faith.  

In case this needed saying this was neither my intention towards LMI, nor to anyone else who held differing "What is a Sudoku?" views.  Above all it comes from a sense of really caring and of both wanting to make things better, but also to avoid obvious mistakes!

This links back to my continued disillusionment with the WPF.  The WPF - who presumably had every interest in me finishing the report given it was they who asked for it to be written - instead seemed completely uninterested and it felt like they abandoned me and left me without any kind of support whilst writing the report (although doubtlessly Prasanna will spin you a completely different story).  Finishing it felt more like an immense weight coming off my shoulders rather than the sense of pride and achievement that it should have done.  The pleasant and collaborative experiences I had working with Hana earlier could not be put in to starker contrast. 

And that leaves me where I am now.  I have further frustrations with my own competitive performances, with GM Puzzles and also with the UK Puzzle Association which haven't helped things.  There are also others within the community beyond LMI who seem to be needlessly antagonistic towards me as well.  It's not a good place to be in.  I don't want to spend my free time in a constant argument and fight, but this is increasingly what it seems to be coming to.

I come back to what I wrote at the start of this post - perhaps some of this is all in my head and not really reflective of a wider reality.  What I can say is that it is certainly reflective of my reality, and it's reached a breaking point.  Maybe I have an overinflated sense of a level of respect I'm entitled to from the community, but I don't think that's the whole story.  Even if it was I don't think it's something you could argue I've not earned at least a little bit, given what I have given over the last decade or so.  I'm also sure I'm not blameless and there are those I've hurt that I need to apologise to.

I hope very much that this feeling will pass, but I have an idea that it won't in a hurry.  For the time being, no more competitions, no more forums, no more discord, no more GM Puzzles, no more WPF, no more UKPA, and no more antagonising individuals.  Certainly no more attempts to entertain any kind of leadership or seniority within the puzzling community.  I will solve puzzles for the enjoyment of solving puzzles, and I will enjoy the company of the friends all over the world that I have built up over the years.  This isn't life and death, this is supposed to be what I do for fun.

Who knows, dearest reader, I might even start posting some puzzles on this blog again!

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