I was corrupted at an early age. My physicist mom loved mind games of every kind. She fed me math riddles as if they were vitamins for the brain. She could finish a Rubik’s cube in the time it took me to do one side. Mind-(and material-)bending doodads littered the kitchen counter like so many odd, inviting garnishes. One contraption had wooden rings on a tether. Another required a series of transformations to extricate a small grooved hunk of steel from a larger hollow one.
Growing up, I never gave much thought to what I liked about puzzles or why it was so hard to set one down â€” even if it took hours or days to complete. Why agonize over problems that contribute no social good, financial reward or (to the best of anyone’s knowledge) health benefit? Torturing oneself for hours for a chance at fleeting pleasure seemed a sick form of entertainment.
In high school, my big brother, Ben, steered me toward chess, whose beauty lies in its mind-boggling complexity. It is estimated that the number of possible variations in a game exceeds the number of atoms in the observable universe. Chess books are filled with diagrammed puzzles that teach players to look for surprising combinations of moves that sometimes sacrifice pieces for a positional advantage. A good player surveying a position is instantly aware of the pressure points, the range of motion of each piece and all the other pieces it can engage, as though the diagonal squares for a bishop and the ends of a knight’s L-shaped canter flashed hot pink.
The most elegant chess problems often look the simplest, like the famous one Richard Reti published in 1921 with just two kings and two pawns. Or try checkmating someone using just a bishop and a knight in under 50 moves (to avoid a forced draw).
Similarly, I was drawn to tennis. Since I was never the fastest, strongest or tallest player on the school team, I made it a kind of chess puzzle â€” dissecting opponents’ weaknesses and then constructing points to exploit them using the depth and angles of the entire court. In his autobiography, â€œOpen,â€ Andre Agassi speaks of the game’s â€œperfect balance of power and strategyâ€ and says his father was attracted to it because â€œgeometry and mathematics are as close to perfection as human beings can get, he says, and tennis is all about angles and numbers.â€
During my junior year, our chess team was one of the two best in Oregon. Ben, a senior, played Board 1, and I was Board 2. At the state high school championships, we defeated team after team until we met our archrivals from Wilson High School in Portland. Of the five boards, they won three, earning a trip to nationals. We returned to Corvallis, heartbroken. We felt cheated â€” and as it turned out, we were. Wilson had stacked their boards, putting their top three players on Boards 1, 3 and 5 in violation of tournament rules, not to mention unwritten codes of ethics and sportsmanship. Chess puzzles, at least, were safe from human guile.
Maybe what I liked about puzzles was their relative simplicity. As perplexing as they can be, all have a discrete and finite solution. Life, on the other hand, presents challenges far too complex to quantify or even define, much less solve. Why are we here? What’s the key to happiness? What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? Puzzles were an escape when I was growing up, a way to replace real-world problems with manufactured ones for which answers existed.
Now, between producing online content at The New York Times and teaching at CUNY’s graduate journalism school, I am trying to manage the profound complexities of married life and raising an 11-month-old son in Manhattan. Time to dust off that Rubik’s cube.