Geniuses At Work

At the intersection of game-show geekery and puzzle nerddom is a group of very happy people: The Genius is back!

If you’re not familiar with The Genius… well, why would you be? The game show has never aired in the United States or in any English-speaking country. It originated in South Korea, where it ran for four seasons — the last of these concluding in 2015. The revived show, which debuted three weeks ago, is airing on a network based in The Netherlands. We freely admit that for most Americans, this show is on the obscure side.

But it is well worth the effort to find the subtitled episodes: The game is unlike anything else. There’s no trivia. There are no feats of physical endurance. There is only a room, and in that room are nine contestants — at least to start. In each episode, the rules of a game are announced. The rules are usually fairly simple to understand: In a recent Dutch episode, players were given cards with numbers from 1 to 3. All they had to do was find an opponent, and lay down the cards one at a time. If you lay down the higher number, you earn a point. The contestant who earns the most points wins.

Simple, right? It’s basically the children’s card game “War!” But the genius of The Genius is how even the simplest of games develop unexpected levels of depth as the contestants — an assortment of smart, successful people from the worlds of business and entertainment — try to finesse a win by thinking outside the box. Alliances are formed, plots hatched, and usually (but not always) the person who comes out on top is the one who has grasped subtleties that the others missed.

The Genius is one of those shows you want to watch with somebody else, or discuss online afterwards, so you can figure out together what on earth happened, and why so-and-so took this action instead of that action — what did that contestant notice that you, sitting at home, did not?? For fans of cerebral television, it’s exhilarating stuff.

The first three subtitled episodes of the Dutch Genius can be found here. The original South Korean episodes are harder to find, but there is a group on Reddit where links come and go — pop in there if you, like others in a small but passionate group of North Americans, fall in love with the show.

Hollywood’s Puzzle Guys

It’s important for screenwriters and filmmakers to look like they know what they’re talking about, and so many movies and TV shows hire consultants — medical consultants for the hospital drama, police consultants for the crime show, and so on.

And every so often, a movie or a TV show needs a puzzle. For that, the creative types are likely to turn to Dave Shukan and David Kwong. In real life, Shukan is a copyright and trademark attorney, and Kwong is a professional magician. Both are puzzle experts. David Kwong even infuses his magic with puzzles — his show “The Enigmatist” has had long runs in New York City and Los Angeles (with a pre-show in the lobby featuring puzzles by Dave Shukan).

Before throwing himself into magic full time, Kwong worked for a number of Hollywood studios, including Dreamworks Animation, where he helped look for properties that might make good movies. “But I was sneaking out of the office all the time,” he says, “to work with writers on every magic-related project out there.” There were many of these, and one finally escaped the morass of development and became a movie: 2013’s Now You See Me, for which he is credited as head magic consultant.

A year or so later a new call came in, from a television producer named Martin Gero. He was developing a show called Blindspot, which would feature a protagonist who has no memory but a wide assortment of mysterious tattoos. Gero wanted these tattoos to be puzzling in nature. Kwong at that point had gone full-time with his puzzle/magic hybrid act and seemed like just the guy to help out. By season 2, Kwong brought Shukan on board as well, and together they helped infuse puzzles not only in the show’s tattoos, but also in the episode titles.

The episode titles? Yep. Take this list of Blindspot titles from season 3. There is a very tricky message hidden within them. Can you find it?


Answer at the bottom of this blog post, but here’s a hint: Look for a letter pattern common through all the titles.

Kwong and Shukan have since gone on to lend assistance to other well-known projects, including a sliding-block puzzle that was featured in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Their most recent project has also been their most puzzle-intensive: Apple TV’s The Afterparty, a murder-mystery series from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the latter of whom encountered Shukan and Kwong at a puzzle party, and knew they were the right team to help infuse the show he was working on with devilish clues for the home audience to decipher.

This Shukan and Kwong most certainly did. Every episode contains a puzzle — often only shown on screen for a flash of time — that, when solved, eliminates one of the suspects. A Reddit forum was quickly established to take on the challenges, and puzzles that the creative team thought might pass everyone by were in fact solved in an hour or so. Here’s one such puzzle, in the form of a briefly seen T-shirt:

Can you figure out the secret message? Once again, the solution will be at the end of this post.

Hopefully more TV and movie folks will realize that puzzles are a great way to bring fan communities together — Shukan and Kwong stand ready to assist. The pair recently finished creating the puzzles for the second season of The Afterparty. You can help crack the case in 2023.


Each episode title contains exactly one three-letter string in the form of XYX. For example, in the final title, the word MEMORY starts with the letters MEM. (Sometimes this three-letter string breaks across words — in the first episode, the three letters are TOT, as seen in the words …TO THE…)

If you take the center letter of this trigram, you will spell out the message ONE OF US WILL GIVE OUR LIFE.


You might notice that all of the cities and arenas share their names with US presidents — the first nine US presidents, in fact. Put these presidents in order, keeping the May date next to each one:


Then simply take the letter of alphabet represented by that number — so, 1=A, 2=B, and so on. This spells out the answer to the puzzle, NOT MAD DOG, eliminating from suspicion the character with that nickname.

These Crosswords Are Nifty, And Also NFTy

Crossword puzzles, once solely the domain of pencil and paper, are shouldering their way further and further into the Internet age. Many solvers forgo pencils entirely — they solve strictly on their computer or via an app, the better to maintain their beloved daily streak. “Crossword Twitter” is a fast-moving conversation between hundreds of people comparing their times on the daily New York Times puzzle and chiming in enthusiastically whenever there is any crossword-related controversy. And are there any crossword tournaments now that don’t have an online component?

It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before someone thought to combine crossword puzzles with NFTs.

NFTs are “non-fungible tokens” — they are theoretically a way for people to purchase and uniquely own digital creations, though there seem to be some legal questions about whether owning a string of letters and numbers is the same thing as owning the photo or song or work of art that string represents.

A lot of people have swarmed into various NFT projects, buying things like cartoons or the digital equivalent of sports trading cards. And then there are also a lot of people who have noticed that NFT projects seem to attract a lot of scam-artist types, who try to hype their digital projects to jaw-dropping valuations. Some cartoons have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, to the complete mystification of many.

There is also the problem that NFTs are inevitably purchased with cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum, which have a bad reputation due to their impact on the environment. New cryptocurrency is brought into existence only through the use of a lot of raw computing power, which eats up a lot of resources. China banned the mining of cryptocurrency for exactly this reason — though this simply moved the online mining industry to other parts of the world. (Ethereum, to its credit, recently changed its technological approach so as to substantially lessen its environmental impact.)

Between the Ponzi scheme shadiness in certain corners of NFT-land and the ongoing environmental questions, it was perhaps no surprise that there was more alarm than excitement when Planet Crossword launched a few weeks ago. A new site from a group called Hovercats (itself a subsidiary of a company called Hovercast, which isn’t confusing at all), Planet Crossword offers a new mini puzzle or 15×15 grid each weekday from top constructors, edited by Stella Zawistowski and Brooke Husic. What’s new here is that these puzzles aren’t just designed to be played online — they are designed to be co-solved online, collaboratively with an unlimited number of friends or colleagues. Create a room, send your friends the code, and boom — you all see the same grid, and you can work together to complete it. (Or race to see who can fill in the most answers.) With a little technical know-how, you can easily stream your solve on Twitch or Zoom or Discord.

And then — here’s where things get interesting, or in the eyes of some, “bad” — you can also bid to own each day’s puzzle as an NFT. Why would you want to do that? Well, some people might be buying the puzzles as a dubious investment, just as others have purchased cartoon apes or whatever — there are the beginnings of a secondary market on OpenSea, an NFT marketplace. Others may be buying the puzzles simply to support a fun new site — a form of patronage. Puzzles have sold for $20 and they have also sold for over $200. It is hard to understand why different puzzles attract different values; there is an air of experimentation to the whole thing.

Enough people are allergic to NFTs that any association with them is sufficient to cause controversy. But Planet Crossword seems like far less of a hype-filled techno-scam than other NFT projects: It is simply how Hovercats hopes to earn a little money for its efforts, rather than through advertising or through subscriptions. It remains to be seen whether this will prove to be a sustainable business model. If the digital rights more often sell on the $20 side of the scale, it’s hard to see how this works out in the long run.

A few people have wondered if the constructors are being paid in cryptocurrency: No, they’re being paid in actual US dollars — plus they earn 10% of the purchase price of the NFT.

Hovercats isn’t about to cleanse the reputation of NFTs by attaching them to crosswords, but Planet Crossword really does seem like a relatively benign application of this new technology. And it would be a shame if the project’s associations with cryptocurrency overwhelmed the more appealing parts of what Hovercats is offering — a new addition to the few ways one can collaborate online with friends on brand-new, well-made crossword puzzles. Whether or not the NFT thing works out, here’s hoping the fun, co-solving aspect can stick around for a while.

Last Call For Boswords

Boswords, the crossword competition that started in Boston but is now held online four times a year, is back with its Fall Themeless League! If you want a great themeless crossword every week, and furthermore want to see how you stack up against other crossword lovers, jump over to the Boswords site and sign up quick — the first puzzle of the weekly tournament will be released this coming Monday, October 3. (You don’t have to solve the puzzle that very day; just find time to sit with at some point during the week.)

As with previous iterations of the league, when you register, you choose which of three difficulty levels is best for you — Smooth, Choppy, or Stormy. (Boston is a port town.) The answers in the grids are the same for each puzzle, but the clues are not: Smooth means you’ll face a Tuesday level of difficulty, according to the New York Times difficulty scale. Choppy means Friday-level clues. And Stormy is “harder than a Saturday,” so yikes. (If you discover partway through the tournament that you have mis-ranked yourself, you can switch difficulty levels; just ask.)

Furthermore, you don’t have to go it alone: Boswords embraces a trend seen at other independent tournaments — Pairs solving! If you think you’ll need help with those Stormy-level clues, grab your friend, spouse, or significant other and discover the joys of co-solving.

All the puzzles are solved via your computer and timed automatically, and the ongoing scores are updated weekly. In the final week, there is a Championship puzzle, and the winner is thereby crowned. But even if you have no hope of coming out on top, it’s fun to see how far up the ladder you can climb — and then see if you can top that next time.

To emphasize: If this all sounds like fun, there are only a few days left to register before the first puzzle is released, so get moving!

The Hardest Puzzle Ever (by far)

As part of his exploration of the world of puzzles for his excellent book The Puzzler, author A.J. Jacobs set out on a rather quirky mission: He wanted to commission the world’s most challenging puzzle. The job ultimately went to puzzle constructing legend Oskar van Deventer, and the result is a device called the Jacobs’ Ladder.

How difficult is this puzzle? Let’s back up a moment.

Did you ever download a puzzle app for your phone or tablet, and find that you are encouraged not only to solve each level but to do so in a minimum number of moves? Yes, you can slide the doohickey into the whatever, avoiding all the traps along the way, but can you do it in six moves or less? The 6 sits in the upper corner of the screen, mocking you. You solved the level in eight moves. Do you move on? If you are me: Heck, no. You reset the level and try to find an improved solution.

Similarly, there are classic puzzle games like the Tower of Hanoi, where you have to move all of the discs from one peg to another, always keeping smaller discs on top of larger ones. These games have been the subject of much mathematical analysis — it is reasonably well-known that a three-disc version of Tower of Hanoi can be solved in seven moves. A four-disc game can be solved in fifteen moves. If you have five discs, you’ll need 31 moves. That’s if you take the most direct route, of course. Make a wrong turn and the puzzle might take you far longer.

You might suppose that a Rubik’s Cube would take longer to solve than a five-disc Tower of Hanoi, but you would be wrong. Back in 2010, computer scientists figured out that no matter how scrambled your cube is to start, you can get it to a solved position in a minimum of 20 moves.

The very hardest puzzles, of course, have a much higher number of minimum moves. Before the Jacobs’ Ladder was created, the acknowledged contender for the record was a Chinese ring puzzle with 65 rings, owned by collector Jerry Slocum: Solving it perfectly will take you a full 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 moves. As Slocum notes in this New York Times article, at one move per second, that would take about 56 billion years. But, you know. By moving faster maybe you could cut that time in half.

So Slocum’s puzzle takes longer to solve than the age of the universe, but Jacobs’ Ladder beats it somehow? Indeed it does. The goal of Jacobs’ Ladder is to get a corkscrew-type thingie from the bottom of the device all the way to the top, traversing a number of pegs along the way. This will require you (if you take the shortest possible route) to make 1,298,074,214,633,706,907,132,624,082,305,023 moves. That’s over a decillion moves, and needless to say it leaves Slocum’s 18 quintillion moves in the dust. I can’t improve on Oskar van Deventer’s own description of just how long this is, so let’s break out the quote box, from this article by A.J. Jacobs in the Atlantic:

Oskar did some delightfully nerdy calculations on just how long it would take to solve this puzzle. If you were to twist one peg per second, he explained, the puzzle would take about 40 septillion years. By the time you solved it, the sun would have long ago destroyed the Earth and burned out. In fact, all light in the universe would have been extinguished. Only black holes would remain. Moreover, Oskar said, if only one atom were to rub off due to friction for each move, it would erode before you could solve it.

You might wonder what the point is of a puzzle that, at the end of the day, can’t really be solved. Well, in the above-linked article, Jacobs points to the enjoyable meditative aspect of sitting and turning the pegs, embarking on a slow, slow journey down the solving path. Fair enough. The puzzle is also a physical encapsulation of how hard it is for humans to envision enormous numbers. You can hold it in your hands and try to get your brain around the concept of 40 septillion years.

But for sheer solving pleasure, I think I’m going to stick to this app on my phone. Surely this time I’ll figure out how to beat this level in a mere six moves.