Which puzzle should we not solve?

Put on the cross

Sometimes you have to get words wrong to understand what they really mean. »New opening«. A simple term, not a big secret. But what did CUS, the puzzle author of the SZ magazinewho never gives his full name when he recently wrote: "In between is the new opening"? What I was looking for was a word with seven letters. Thousands of readers stood on the hose. What will be opened? And why in between? Between two appointments? The result was the word "post". Still everyone on the line. Until at some point the penny dropped: you had to separate the word differently, meaning new opening. The opening that the FC Bayern goalkeeper is standing in front of - and that is between two posts.

Yes, you can get a bit of a headache there. But: finally figuring it out after a seemingly endless spiral of thoughts is a hurray experience for passionate puzzle solvers that can compete with a best time in the triathlon. Everyone else shakes their heads and puts the puzzle aside. Nobody has anything against the so-called Swedish puzzles, the very simple form ("capital of Italy", three letters), something you can always do, to pass the time on the beach or in the waiting room. But why do so many do the complicated version? Why are they tormenting themselves with ever new corners that they should somehow think around?

The crossword puzzle was invented a hundred years ago. To this day, puzzle solvers are a strange people. They spend half Sundays hunched over a strange lattice, spelling words in their minds, chewing on their pencils. Unworldly loners, freaks, on an endless treasure hunt in the Silbensee. It seems so. The reality is different. Puzzle authors like CUS or Will Shortz (New York Times) know from mountains of letters to the editor who they are looking at, and these are by no means just the proverbial retired senior students. But: students, taxi drivers, bank employees and schoolchildren. Women, men, children. Medium-sized companies, workers, professors. So: all of them. "Although I've made the experience that there are twice as many women as men," says Shortz.

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Will Shortz is something like the puzzle king of the world. For the puzzles at the New York Times he has been in charge for twenty years. The 61-year-old has authored a good hundred books and has a collection of more than 20,000 volumes and magazines on the subject, allegedly the largest collection of its kind. Shortz says: “What all puzzlers have in common is their love of language. You have to have a feeling for ambiguities, you have to be ready to accentuate words incorrectly, to pick up syllables. "

But why do people even solve puzzles? The psychology of the crossword puzzle is astonishingly unexplored. One of the few experts in Germany who has dealt with this is the personnel psychologist Rüdiger Hossiep from the University of Bochum. To explain it, he uses technical terms that are actually less helpful than their translation: »Puzzle solving is about intrapersonal and interpersonal comparison - in the first case I check what I know myself, how satisfied I am with my education, in the second case I look me, how well I do against others. "

In contrast to the school exam, puzzles also ask for knowledge that comes to us in the strangest ways. “Take words like sternum and pilum"Says Hossiep," you probably don't even know them if you had Latin in school. But then a surprising number of people come up with the solutions “sternum” and “spear” - because there is a famous Asterix dialogue in which they appear. This creates a sense of achievement when solving puzzles, but has nothing to do with traditional education. "

Other psychologists observe the so-called Zeigarnik effect when solving puzzles. In classical psychology, this means "that one remembers interrupted, unfinished tasks better than completed, completed tasks" (Wikipedia). Can also mean that you can't get rid of unfinished business - this is borne out by the many emails from desperate people SZ magazineReaders who ask CUS for a tip because after three days they still haven't got the answer 13 straight away.

But the mystery of guesswork may lie elsewhere: in its uselessness. The crossword puzzle takes effort, but it serves no purpose. It doesn't have to be anything. It shouldn't help, it shouldn't advance anything. It is a way of completely commitment-free thinking.

The resolution will be given next week, have a nice weekend.

Brooding without a purpose, how nice: After all, every person has to grapple with questions every day that he really needs answers to. He has to make decisions in his job, he has to find out why the child is coughing, he has to think about what to do with the broken car. Constantly must, must, must. A riddle, on the other hand, is always just a riddle. You can almost despair looking for the right word, you can go through lexicons, google, phone friends - but whoever enters a word in the grid does not make a decision that would have any implications. Total relief: the puzzler asks himself a question, but the answer has no consequences.

And it doesn't immediately raise a lot of follow-up questions. In life there are so often answers that in the end don't explain anything. Neither the incomprehensible financial crisis stories nor your own tax return. You are constantly being offered models of understanding, by friends, by the media, by experts - and as soon as you have the feeling of looking through a little better, the next questions arise again. If I buy from Oxfam and do good, will I ruin the retail business? If I choose a vacation in Italy, won't I miss out on the wonderful Munich summer? One often hears from passionate puzzle solvers: It is so good to write down a clear answer and to know that there is nothing left to shake.

It's all exhausting enough out there. Somebody constantly wants us to optimize ourselves: So-called gurus recommend that we measure everything with smartphone apps, our fitness, our time management, our mental performance. Life in the 21st century is permeated by economic principles: being able to do more, use time better, be more successful - an entire industry lives from this. The crossword puzzle, on the other hand, is old school: Test yourself - but take it easy, you don't have to be the best here. Be happy if you manage to fill in all the boxes. And if not, the resolution will be given next week, have a nice weekend.

Some people see crossword puzzles as poetry. They rave about the perfect word grid. Or go crazy with enthusiasm - like that FAZ-Author who recently wrote on the centenary of the riddle: »The crossing of two words gives the common letter a double function, namely to make sense in two different contexts, just as a certain line in a picture puzzle alternately belongs to two different figures. Word and image are crossed: In the crossword puzzle, the words conquer the second dimension. "

Will Shortz has often seen that not only columnists, but also normal puzzle fans can be extremely passionate. “A woman from Long Island got in touch with us years ago. Her mother had just died, she loved our puzzles. The lady asked if we could finish the next issue's riddle earlier so she could put it in her mother's grave. We did her a favor. I suppose her mother was blessed for, uh, eternity. "

Puzzle authors communicate with their readers not only through letters to the editor. The riddle itself is part of a dialogue. In contrast to an essay or a report, it only becomes complete when the reader takes action himself and enters letters in the empty boxes. Many editorials can only dream of so much reading.

Sometimes, however, the puzzle author also has to do a little bit of his own effort. Years ago, CUS asked im SZ magazine after a "trainee in the butcher's trade", the solution word was "recruit". Maybe funny for conscientious objectors, for the raging major general a. D., who then called the editorial office, not a bit. Report from the Bundeswehrverband, the Munich public prosecutor intervened. The whole matter was just settled peacefully.

But things don't always get that wild. Most of the readers who write to the puzzle king Will Shortz are those with the corrections. “People are really happy when they catch me making mistakes. I understand that - puzzling is a bit of detective work, and then finding mistakes, too, makes you feel like Sherlock Holmes. "Shortz keeps a record:" Last year there were eight mistakes in the New York Times puzzle. With a total of over 32,000 questions, I think it's halfway okay. «He once asked about the title that U2 singer Bono has had since the Queen knighted him. The solution was "sir" - but nobility experts pointed out to Shortz that Bono, as an Irishman, was not allowed to bear the title. Learned something again.

The psychologist Rüdiger Hossiep says: »The role of puzzles is underestimated. They are more than just a pastime, they promote spiritual agility, they ensure the stabilization of neural chains. We have an education debate in this country, so we should be happy for everything that helps people. Because those who keep themselves mentally fit learn new things more easily. "

If you believe Will Shortz, puzzle solvers have a lot of excellent qualities anyway: “Anyone who is good at puzzles shows that a) they have a good vocabulary, b) they have a good general education, c) they are interested in many things, d) they are capable of spontaneous changes of perspective ... I could go on forever! ”Sometimes others want to make use of these skills: Shortz says that in 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, an English newspaper held a puzzle competition - later it turned out that behind it was a department of the British secret service, which was looking for people who thought twisted enough to be able to crack codes.

And that's exactly the nice thing about the crossword puzzle, whether you like it or not: When thinking around the corner, we humans have an advantage over machines. Whenever a person tries to crack a code, there will always be a residue of irrationality, no matter how soberly they proceed. On the other hand, no computer could solve the crossword puzzles of CUS or Will Shortz. Because he doesn't understand nuances, can't interpret puns, because he can't judge whether a typo is a clue. The computer does not understand that a new opening can mean a new opening. It is not for nothing that developers of artificial intelligence consider teaching computers to think outside the box as the ultimate challenge. Google has just bought DeepMind from child prodigy Demis Hassabis for half a billion dollars, which is trying to do just that. Who knows, maybe one day Hassabis ’computers will come up with the answer word“ post ”when“ reopening ”. But that can still take a while.