Math Madness

By Bill Gerdes

Posted March 15, 2012 in Feature Story

He might be reclusive, he might be introverted, but Harvey Mudd’s Palmer Mebane is the world’s top puzzle-solving badass

Palmer Mebane is solving a logic puzzle called Nurikabe that he tells me is a simple binary determination puzzle, but he’s moving quickly, crossing out squares and drawing lines on the little schemata, and I’d be a liar if I said I had a clue what he is doing. He’s about 32 seconds into the puzzle; he pauses a bit, seemingly well, puzzled.

“Sometimes in competitions you have to guess,” he says. “But I don’t like to guess,” and as he’s speaking Mebane’s eyes indicate that he has figured it out. With a few more swipes of a pen the puzzle’s been solved. It’s taken him less than a minute to solve what is for him a relatively banal logic problem. At times it is rather easy to feel a bit thick in his presence.

In Love With Puzzle

When most of us think of puzzles we’re thinking of word puzzles: Scrabble, crosswords, Words with Friends. They even make films about these sorts of lexicon-based challenges. Think Akeelah and the Bee or the documentaries Spellbound and Wordplay. In Spellbound we learn that many parents along with their children are super-freaked out about spelling bees. In Wordplay we learn that many people (including Jon Stewart) are really freaked out about The New York Times crossword. Whether it’s grandpa doing the Times puzzle on the couch or the younger set playing Words on their iPhones, we’re seemingly still a society in love with playing with the English language; despite Cassandra-like warnings that we are becoming less literate every year.

Mebane, though, is a math guy. He is not a fan of word puzzles. It’s not that he hates them, but he claims he’s “not very good with the puzzle-y aspects of the English language.”

Another aspect of word puzzles that bugs Mebane is the use of trivia. As he explains it, “external knowledge allows the creator to play stupid tricks on you.”

It’s this sense of playfulness and lack of certainty that bugs him about crossword puzzles. Because when it comes to puzzles, Mebane is not playing around. He even dislikes Sudoku, claiming that the format of the puzzles is played out and tired. In many ways Mebane is like a “record nerd” of the ’80s. He was into that band—or rather that puzzle—way before you.

He is also the current World Puzzle champion.

“The Most Fun I’d Had”

I meet Mebane at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont where he’s a senior majoring in, well, math, of course. My first impression is that he seems shy almost to the point of being anti-social. He avoids eye contact with me, but shoots looks across the study hall. Whether this is due to embarrassment, irritation or boredom is never quite clear. We decide to do the interview outside on the benches, where the sun is shining and we won’t bother anyone. At times Mebane seems annoyed by the whole process. For example, when I ask him if students at Harvey Mudd know who he is and what’s he’s done, he dismisses the question saying that only his friends do and that the “last thing I’d want to be in life is a celebrity—mostly because I’m extremely introverted.”

I find this comment refreshing. In 2012, I assumed everyone wanted to be a celebrity—isn’t that what Twitter is for? I begin to warm to Mebane, a 22-year-old-math genius who lives in part to solve problems.

For Mebane has pretty much always been into puzzles. He started doing logic puzzle books in elementary school, but it was a fairly recent Christmas gift from his parents that turned the hobby into something more. Describing the book, he says, “Christmas of 2006 I got yet another puzzle book; the first one that had the kinds of puzzles you see at world puzzle championships.”

He was hooked.

“That was the most fun I’d had with a puzzle book by far.”

Not only was it fun for Palmer, but he realized he was excellent at solving the logic problems as well. At this point he entertained thoughts of entering the U.S. Puzzle Championship.

It would be three years until Palmer actually entered his first.

First, Not Second

The United States Puzzle Championship is an annual online competition. Championship officials send out the puzzles via encrypted code. The competitors alone the access code to decrypt them. Competitors print out the puzzles and have two-and-a-half hours to finish them and send them back. Finishing early can earn a competitor extra points; however, trying to finish quickly can lead a competitor to make mistakes. For several years Thomas Snyder, a Californian like Mebane, has dominated. He was the U.S. Puzzle Champion from 2006 to 2010. Snyder was the U.S. Sudoku Champion in 2007 and the World Sudoku Champion in 2007, 2008 and 2011.

The world championships are a different matter; they’re live and bring out a whole new set of challenges for competitors. There’s travel for one. Some puzzles don’t react well to it. Snyder for one seems to find jet lag debilitating to his performance, often losing energy progressively throughout the contests. In 2009, the championship was held in Antalya, Turkey; in Paprotnia, Poland, in 2010; and last year in Egar, Hungary. For some U.S. contestants who aren’t jet-setting around the globe, this extended travel can be stressful.

Similar to the U.S. Puzzle Championship, contestants must solve a variety of puzzles like Sudoku, Kakuro and Battleship, the latter being based on the children’s board game. Since the inception of the World championships, the United States has won the most times while Ulrich Voigt of Germany has won the world title seven times. Most of the top competitors are from Germany, Japan or the United States. Mebane has no idea why these three countries tend to dominate.

Initially, Mebane just wanted to compete and see how he would do, yet he dawdled and wound up not actually entering until college. As he puts it he, “never found the time to do so until a few years ago.”

He became an instant success on the puzzle circuit. Okay, so there’s not a puzzle circuit really, but Palmer did finish pretty well the first time he competed in the U.S. Puzzle Championships and that both encouraged him and let him know where he needed to improve. The next year he finished second behind Snyder. It wasn’t exactly a close second though. As Palmer puts it, Snyder, “crushed everyone.” For 2011, his real goal was to make Snyder earn his victory, to make him sweat.

“I was fairly confident I could get second place,” he says.

Instead of second, though, Mebane, at an age when many college students are perfecting their keg stands, won the U.S. Puzzle Championship.

Then he won the World Puzzle Championship.

The Next Victory?

This victory was so surprising for Mebane that it left him a little nonplussed. He had originally hoped to break into the top three or four in the world. One training technique that helped him get over the hump was designing his own puzzles. Having to come up with your own puzzles “makes you get faster,” according to Mebane, a skill he needed if he was to move into the elite level. He’d also have to get faster and better at the puzzles he didn’t love, but would need to do well at to win. Like Sudoku.

“I sat down and worked through a lot of them,” Mebane says of Sudoku, going on to mention that by no means is he an elite Sudoku solver, but only that they no longer mar his overall score too much. Ultimately, a bit of luck played a part in his victory. Mebane had placed second in the preliminary rounds, leaving him in striking distance of Voigt, the seven-time champ. Voigt messed up one puzzle in the final round and that opened the door for Mebane to become the World Puzzle champion.

Still, he’s not entirely satisfied with his victory.

“In some sense I feel like my win was not completely legitimate,” Mebane says.

Next year, one of his goals is to finish first in the preliminary rounds and then finish first overall, leaving not a trace of doubt as to who rules the puzzle world these days—although Mebane is much too humble to ever put it in these terms.

The question of just where to go next and what to do when he gets there doesn’t seem to trouble Mebane all that much. He’s set a goal to grab the No. 1 rating on an online series of puzzle contests but admits it will take some time; he’s assuredly if quietly confident he will get this done.

He would like to repeat as U.S. and World champ, though there is no apparent Kobe-level passion to do so. There’s his puzzle blog, Melon’s Puzzles, which he updates weekly with new puzzles and advice. Again though, he gives no impression that he obsesses about it.

It’s a Zen-esque, not-the-destination-but-the-journey type vibe Mebane gives off when discussing his goals.

As far as a career is concerned, he’s also relaxed. Graduate school turns him off from what he’s seen: too much drudgery and lack of freedom. There have been several job offers, one from an educational software company that he is considering. He’s not worried about his prospects, though. If the rich are different than you and me as Fitzgerald either said or had misattributed to him by a malicious Hemingway, than perhaps math geniuses are different than you and me as well. If life’s just a puzzle after all, well Palmer Mebane has a feeling he’ll be okay.


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