Puzzle(r)s in Pop Culture: Superhuman

Superhuman is a television show on FOX that combines elements of game shows and talent shows, wherein people with exceptional mental abilities are tested on the air, competing for a $50,000 grand prize.

The show has featured exhibitions of memorization, visual acuity, math and puzzling skills, and more, offering people the rare opportunity to show off the mind’s amazing capabilities. (It also bucks the trend of modern reality competition shows by not having the contestants judged by a smug British man.)

Actor Kal Penn hosts the show, and the three panelists who comment on performances and help choose the winner are boxer Mike Tyson, singer Christina Milian, and neuroscientist Dr. Rahul Jandial.

And on last week’s episode, “All Parts Extraordinary,” a face familiar to puzzlers and crossword fans appeared on the show: Tyler Hinman.

The former 5-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion was pitted against four other contestants with impressive mental abilities.

Chris Authement, a math whiz, was tasked with adding up all the pips on giant dominoes as they fell, correctly counting 535 pips in the time allotted.

Tatiana Marquardt, a mother of three with impressive memory recall, was tasked with memorizing five days of scheduling for three different kids. Each day had four activities. The judges then randomly chose a child and a day of the week, and she had to pack their backpacks for each day’s agenda. And she nailed all three days.

Dave Farrow, a computer scientist with a focus on robots, memorized a grid of 108 blue and red balloons (laid out in an 18×6 grid). Then, based on the judge’s choices, he was asked to recall the color of a particular balloon, the pattern of a particular column of balloons, and finally, a particular row of balloons. Recited backwards. And he did so.

Luke Salava, a lawyer with a knack for facial recognition, had to learn the faces of 100 members of the studio audience. Then, three of those people were removed, and that entire section of the audience was reshuffled. His task was to identify the three new people in the crowd. And he did so with ease.

When it was Tyler’s turn to show off his puzzly skills, he had a serious challenge ahead of him.

This grid of crisscrossing 5-letter words can only be completed with the letters in a 9-letter word provided alongside the grid. But Tyler had five of these grids to solve, and he wasn’t told which of the five 9-letter words went with which grid.

Oh, and he only had 3 minutes and 30 seconds in which to solve all five grids.

He went right up to the wire, but solved all five grids, showing off not only his deductive reasoning, but his vast vocabulary and his speed-solving technique, honed by years of crossword solving and tournament competition.

After all five competitors had their time to shine, the judges narrowed the field to three: Chris, Dave, and Tatiana. And the audience voted electronically for the winner: Dave Farrow, master of balloons.

Honestly, I thought both the judges and the audience picked wrong. Tyler was the only one who really had to work out his technique in front of the crowd, showing missteps and false paths that he corrected on the fly.

He actually talked through the process as he solved, which to me was more engaging and interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, the acts of memorization were very impressive, but only Tyler and math whiz Chris were really under a time limit. (Tyler’s was literal, while Chris’s was kinetic, since the dominoes were toppling.)

Also, I can’t believe that Luke didn’t at least make the top three, let alone win. 100 faces to memorize and reshuffle in your head? That’s mind-boggling to me.

Alas, such is the flying fickle finger of fate. Still, it was a strong showing for a world-class puzzler, an exhibition of puzzly talent that did not fail to impress.

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Hell’s Kitchen

Puzzles in Pop Culture is all about chronicling those moments in TV, film, literature, art, and elsewhere in which puzzles play a key role. In previous installments, we’ve tackled everything from The West Wing, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H to MacGyver, Gilmore Girls, and various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.

And in today’s edition, we look at a puzzle that popped up in a most unexpected place: a reality cooking show.

Hell’s Kitchen is in its sixteenth season, so clearly I’m not the only one who enjoys Gordon Ramsay’s drill sergeant-esque haranguing of nervous up-and-coming chefs.

For the uninitiated, Hell’s Kitchen is a competition reality show where chefs cook in Ramsay’s eponymous restaurant, engaging in ridiculous team games and devious cooking challenges, all judged by the highly demanding and critical Michelin star-winning Ramsey.

[Devin, one of the male contestants, trying to spell ONION. It wasn’t pretty.]

The male contestants are placed on the Blue Team and the female contestants on the Red Team, and each week, one chef is cut until the finale, when the top two chefs compete for the top prize, a head chef position at a prestigious restaurant.

In Friday’s episode, the team game that awaited the Blue and Red Teams was the Ingredient Crossword Challenge.

A member of each team had to spell out ingredients with letters on books from “the Hell’s Kitchen library,” placing them into squares on a giant crossword-like grid.

Any ingredients placed in the grid had to share a letter with one of the established words, just like in a crossword or Scrabble game.

[Here, the placement of the word BACON violates the rules of the puzzle and is disallowed.]

The Red Team started at a disadvantage, since the first player on their team placed CHICKEN in the center of the board, leaving some difficult letters to work with. (Placing it along the left-hand edge might have given them better options going forward.)

This caused the team problems later when they tried to get creative, playing SNAP and then PEA in the lower-right corner, so they could add snap peas to their list of ingredients.

Chef Ramsey rejected that gambit, however.

Once their five minutes of ingredient spelling and placement were up, the contestants then had 45 minutes to cook a stunning entree with those ingredients, which would then be judged by Chef Ramsay on a scale of 1 point (for a terrible dish) to 5 points (for an outstanding dish).

The Red Team’s bad luck with the game would continue with the scoring portion of the challenge, as they lost by a single point to the Blue Team.

Sadly, puzzle skills couldn’t save either team from a fairly disastrous dinner service, leaving both teams in the cross-hairs of an irate Chef Ramsay.

It’s always a treat to see puzzles find their way into the team challenges on reality shows. It’s too bad combining the ingredients in a tasty dish isn’t as easy as making them cross in a grid.

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