Farewell, Alex.

For the last 18 months or so, puzzlers, trivia fans, and game show enthusiasts have followed the story of Alex Trebek, pop culture icon and long-time host of Jeopardy! after his diagnosis with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in March of last year.

Through ups and downs, updates and hopeful moments, and even a brief boom period for the show during the reign of James Holzhauer, the well-being of this beloved figure was first and foremost in the minds of many.

Sadly, Alex’s battle came to an end, as he passed away early Sunday morning.

During his treatment, Alex was honest and open with fans and well-wishers, sharing both his determination and his struggles. Heartbreakingly honest, at points. But his humor and spirit remained constant fixtures.

Back when he first announced his diagnosis, Trebek stated, “I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease,” then quipped, “I have to because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years.”

He leaves behind a lasting legacy of four decades of entertainment, grace, and class. His tenure on Jeopardy! began on September 10, 1984 with the debut episode, and in 2014, he was honored by the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the most episode of a game show, at that point reaching the 6,829 episode mark. He is a 7-time Daytime Emmy Award winner, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.

Of course, his reach extends far beyond that. He’s an instantly recognizable figure. He was parodied on Saturday Night Live, he joyfully lampooned himself after a recurring bit on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, and appeared on shows as varied as How I Met Your Mother, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and Orange is the New Black. He even has his own collectible Funko Pop! figures.

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[Image courtesy of IMDb.]

My personal favorite Trebek moment is when he showed up unexpectedly in an episode of The X-Files, playing one of the mysterious Men in Black. It’s unclear if he was playing himself, though. As Agent Scully states, “Mulder didn’t say it was Alex Trebek, it was just someone who looked incredibly like him.”

Of course, one cannot look back on the legacy of Alex Trebek without acknowledging his lifelong dedication to philanthropy and giving back. In addition to his work for organizations like World Vision Canada and the USO, he donated to land conservation efforts, homeless shelters, and the University of Ottawa. He also donated his time to educational efforts like the National Geographic Bee and the Great Canadian Geography Challenge.

Although we are saddened by his passing, we are grateful to have known him, to have welcomed him into our homes for decades, to have bragged to our friends about answering the Final Jeopardy! question, and, more often than not, to have dropped our jaws in bafflement at the mad trivia fiends he brought into the spotlight.

When it comes to figures in the world of puzzles and games, there are few as iconic as Alex Trebek.

Farewell, Alex. Thank you for everything.


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Farewell, FarmVille.

FarmVille is coming to an end.

Be honest with me. When’s the last time you even thought about it?

Well, you’re thinking about it now, and you’ve got a few more months to ponder its peculiar existence before it vanishes into the ether along with your abandoned garden plot.

But why are we talking about it here?

Yes, although this is not a puzzle game, there’s no denying a connection between FarmVille and the puzzle community. (And not just how puzzling it is that FarmVille ever became as popular as it did.)

There’s no refuting the metrics. In the Venn diagram of crossword/puzzle solvers and FarmVille users, there’s plenty of overlap. They scratch very different itches in terms of what someone gets out of engaging with them, but both did become a daily part of many people’s routines.

Of course with FarmVille, that was by design. Except for keeping track of your solving stats through puzzle apps, there’s no penalty for not solving crosswords every day the way there was with FarmVille. The puzzle crops will not wither and die in your absence. Though I have it on good authority that the puzzles will miss you.

Anyway, I can’t NOT write about the end of FarmVille. We cover games as well as puzzles here, and FarmVille was one of the biggest games in the world at one time. And it did so by engaging plenty of users that weren’t typical gamers.

FarmVille launched in 2009 as part of Facebook’s social gaming platform, and that year alone, Adweek reported that there were 73 MILLION monthly active users. (For comparison, that was a fifth of Facebook’s entire user base at the time.)

The company behind FarmVille, Zynga, has never published FarmVille-specific user stats. I haven’t been able to verify peak usership or where the usership stands now. The best I could find was a 2013 claim that the sequel, FarmVille 2, had 40 million active monthly users.

Now, to be fair, it’s only going away as a Facebook-accessible program. You can still play it as a mobile app, along with FarmVille 2, FarmVille 2: Country Escape, FarmVille 2: Tropic Escape, and FarmVille 2: Revenge of the Neglected Turnips. (Okay, I made that last one up.)

There is also a FarmVille 3 on the horizon. For some reason.

Although the game officially closes by December 31, in-app purchases for the Facebook version of the game close November 17th, so if you’re feeling nostalgic and want one last chance to blow real-world money there (or to spend credits you still have in the game), better get to it.

So what do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Are you sad to see it go? How many hours did you leave behind in that farm? How many people did you consider unfriending just to stop their requests for FarmVille-related nonsense? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you.


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Farewell, Forrest.

For fans of Forrest Fenn’s “The Thrill of the Chase” treasure hunt, it’s been a strange and frustrating year.

In 2010, Forrest Fenn hid a treasure chest full of gold and diamonds, purported to be worth millions, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The only clues offered — nine, to be specific — were hidden in his poem, “The Thrill of the Chase.”

After a decade of dissecting his poem, searching across a half-dozen states, engaging in hundreds (if not thousands!) of hours of brainstorming, deliberating, planning, and exploring, no one had found a thing.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere during the pandemic, Fenn announced on his website on June 6th that the treasure has been found. The hunt was over.

But there were no details. No revelation of the treasure’s location, no hint as to the lucky treasure hunter’s identity, nothing. The best we got was that he was from “back East.”

As you might expect, many would-be treasure hunters were disappointed, and more than a few cried foul, believing that either the announcement was a hoax, or the entire hunt had been a hoax. Doubters couldn’t decide if the treasure was never buried at all, was buried and then recovered later, or if the finder was an accomplice.

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Weeks later, Fenn offered some photos — two of him examining the treasure and one of the treasure chest supposedly in situ, long exposed to the elements — which proved unconvincing to the doubters. If the photos of Fenn handling the treasure were taken after it was found, why did the finder bring the chest and treasure back to him?

It was all very confusing and more than a little suspicious.

Finally, more than a month after announcing that the treasure had been found, in response to many cries for him to reveal the solution and end the mystery for so many, Fenn revealed… the state in which the treasure had been found: Wyoming.

That answer satisfied some, particularly those whose solutions had pointed to other states, like New Mexico, Colorado, or Montana. But others remained upset. Understandably so. Wyoming is a pretty big state, after all.

Unfortunately, the hunt may truly be over, as Forrest Fenn passed away this week at the age of 90.

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Fenn leaves behind a complicated legacy. Five deaths have been attributed to the treasure hunt, as well as numerous costly search-and-rescue operations (including one in the Grand Canyon!), several court cases, and even a break-in at Fenn’s house.

Beyond the treasure hunt, Fenn was also associated with federal investigations regarding antiquities and artifacts. In 2009, his home was raided by federal agents and several items seized. Fenn escaped charges, however.

Regardless, many hunters and admirers are in mourning, sending heartfelt messages in celebration of the man who enriched their lives with this curious endeavor.

But, once again, solvers have been left without a definitive solution. In an interview, Fenn claimed there is a way to verify that the chest was found even after he’d gone, but he didn’t specify how.

And now, his passing has reignited the doubters, who find the timing of everything all the more suspect. Exactly ten years after it was first hidden, the treasure is found by an unidentified seeker, a virtual ghost. Then a few months later, Fenn passes away.

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[Image courtesy of The Santa Fe New Mexican.]

The idea that he wanted to end the hunt (or the hoax) before his passing does seem more plausible, given the timing. It’s especially notable given that he claimed on more than one occasion that his dream was to pass away BESIDE the treasure, and achieve immortality by being found with the treasure, as if we were an Egyptian pharaoh or something.

We don’t know if this is truly the end for “The Thrill of the Chase” and all those treasure hunters over the last decade.

What we do know is that an inventive and captivating figure brought his love of nature, the outdoors, and adventure to thousands of strangers through his treasure hunt. And whether it was real or fake, the magic of that puzzle, and the good times they had trying to solve it, can never be taken away from them.

Farewell, Forrest. Thank you for the mystery.


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Celebrating the Puzzly Legacy of John Horton Conway

The worlds of puzzles and mathematics overlap more than you might think. I’m not just talking about word problems or mathy brain teasers like the Birthday Puzzle or the jugs of water trap from Die Hard with a Vengeance.

For twenty-five years, Martin Gardner penned a column in Scientific American called Mathematical Games, adding a marvelous sense of puzzly spirit and whimsy to the field of mathematics, exploring everything from the works of M.C. Escher to visual puzzles like the mobius strip and tangrams. He was also a champion of recreational math, the concept that there are inherently fun and entertaining ways to do math, not just homework, analysis, and number crunching.

And on more than one occasion, Gardner turned to the genius and innovative thinking of John Horton Conway for inspiration.

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[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Conway was best known as a mathematician, but that one word fails to encapsulate either his creativity or the depth of his devotion to the field. Conway was a pioneer, contributing to some mathematical fields (geometry and number theory among them), vastly expanding what could be accomplished in other fields (particularly game theory), and even creating new fields (like cellular automata).

Professor of Mathematics, Emeritus, Simon Kochen said, “He was like a butterfly going from one thing to another, always with magical qualities to the results.” The Guardian described him in equally glowing terms as “a cross between Archimedes, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí.”

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[Image courtesy of Cornell.edu.]

His most famous creation is The Game of Life, a model that not only visually details how algorithms work, but explores how cells and biological forms evolve and interact.

Essentially, imagine a sheet of graph paper. In The Game of Life, you choose a starting scenario, then watch the game proceed according to certain rules:

  • Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if by underpopulation.
  • Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.
  • Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation.
  • Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

The process plays out from your starting point completely without your intervention, spiraling and expanding outward.

It’s the ultimate if-then sequence that can proceed unhindered for generations. It is a literal launchpad for various potential futures based on a single choice. It’s mind-bending and simple all at once. (And you can try it yourself here!)

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[Image courtesy of Sign-Up.To.]

But that’s far from Conway’s only contribution to the world of puzzles.

Not only did he analyze and explore puzzles like the Soma cube and Peg Solitaire, but he created or had a hand in creating numerous other puzzles that expanded upon mathematical concepts.

I could delve into creations like Hackenbush, the Angel Problem, Phutball/Philosopher’s Football, Conway’s Soldiers, and more — and perhaps I will in the future — but I’d like to focus on one of his most charming contributions: Sprouts.

Sprouts is a pencil-and-paper strategy game where players try to keep the game going by drawing a line between two dots on the paper and adding a new dot somewhere along that line.

The rules are simple, but the gameplay can quickly become tricky:

  • The line may be straight or curved, but must not touch or cross itself or any other line.
  • The new spot cannot be placed on top of one of the endpoints of the new line. Thus the new spot splits the line into two shorter lines.
  • No spot may have more than three lines attached to it.

Check out this sample game:

sprouts

[Image courtesy of Fun Mines.]

It’s a perfect example of the playfulness Conway brought to the mathematical field and teaching. The game is strategic, easy to learn, difficult to master, and encourages repeated engagement.

In a piece about Conway, Princeton professor Manjul Bhargava said, “I learned very quickly that playing games and working on mathematics were closely intertwined activities for him, if not actually the same activity.”

He would carry all sorts of bits and bobs that would assist him in explaining different concepts. Dice, ropes, decks of cards, a Slinky… any number of random objects were mentioned as potential teaching tools.

Professor Joseph Kohn shared a story about Conway’s enthusiasm for teaching and impressive span of knowledge. Apparently, Conway was on his way to a large public lecture. En route, he asked his companions what topic he should cover. Imagine promising to do a lecture with no preparation at all, and deciding on the way what it would be about.

Naturally, after choosing a topic in the car, the lecture went off without a hitch. He improvised the entire thing.

Of course, you would expect nothing less from a man who could recite pi from memory to more than 1100 digits? Or who, at a moment’s notice, could calculate the day of the week for any given date (employing a technique he called his Doomsday algorithm).


Conway unfortunately passed away earlier this month, due to complications from COVID-19, at the age of 82.

His contributions to the worlds of mathematics and puzzles, not to mention his tireless support of recreational math, cannot be overstated. His work and his play will not soon be forgotten.

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[Image courtesy of Macleans.]

If you’d like to learn more about Conway, be sure to check out Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts.

[My many thanks to friend of the blog Andrew Haynes for suggesting today’s subject and contributing notes and sources.]


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Farewell, Keith.

The puzzle world is a relatively small one, and sadly, it grew smaller last week, as friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough passed away.

On more than a few occasions, I’ve asked my fellow constructors and cruciverbalists for their help on blog posts, whether the topic was advice for solving crosswords, constructing puzzles, or writing dynamic clues. Keith was often the first person I would turn to for help.

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A long-time member of the Penny Dell Puzzles family, Keith specialized in crossword/variety magazines, blending a knack for charming and clever cluing with eclectic themes for the many variety puzzles he crafted and edited. His varied interests ensured that he never ran out of ideas for interesting themes or intriguing twists on worn-out crossword tropes.

Keith was equally at home in a classroom, in an orchestra, and in a crossword tournament, a true lover of both the arts and the sciences. His affection for music was well-known — many bands, including The Optics and The Gene Gnomes, can attest to his skill playing the tuba — and yet, he could unravel a deduction problem or a fiendish math puzzle as easily as he could read the notes on sheet music.

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Having worked together for more than a decade, I struggle to recall all of the topics we covered in conversation together. We talked Nobel Prize nominees and quantum physics one week, then Looney Tunes cartoons and silent comedy film shorts the next.

We would dissect the minutiae of Breaking Bad and Twin Peaks, share stories about our dogs (I prefer labs and retrievers, Keith loved his poodles), or recount entire George Carlin routines from memory. When he found out I was a wrestling fan, he laughed and told me about the time he met Mighty Igor outside a sandwich shop. (He grew up in North Carolina, a hotbed for wrestling in decades past.)

And, of course, we talked about puzzles. Keith was a pro at whipping up new clues for crosswords, and they were often as immensely clever as they were completely inappropriate for a family-friendly audience. Several of the funniest clues that I’ve featured in previous blog posts were his — and he was always striving to find new ways to clue tiresome words or to push the boundaries of humdrum constructing and “appropriate entries”. (Just last week, he had to re-edit a puzzle of one-word film titles because he tried to sneak “Caligula” past the censors. *laughs*)

One time, while trying to fix a submitted crossword, he turned to me and asked with a smile, “I know this is a long shot, but is there a non-offensive way to clue ‘witch hunt’?” (The best we could come up with was “pressing engagement.” And no, that would never ever make the cut.)

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I’ll miss his humor, his wit, and his friendship. And I know that I’m far from the only one who feels that way.

Kind words have been pouring in for days now, as people share photos and memories of Keith. The Winston-Salem Symphony dedicated a concert in his memory a few nights ago. (I pilfered several of the photos in this post from those I’ve seen shared.)

It was my privilege to work with Keith for over a decade, and I’ll miss him very much. I’ll miss the fascinating, weird, unexpected bits of trivia he’d throw my way. I’ll miss the music references he would gamely try to explain to me. I’ll miss the way he was always a half-step faster than me on brain teasers and word puzzles. I’ll miss the sly ways he pushed the creative envelope. I’ll miss him a different way every day.

Farewell, my friend. Farewell, Keith.


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