Palmer Mebane HM ’12 was named the 2011 U.S. Puzzle Champion Aug. 30 after recording the second-ever perfect score in the nine-year-old competition. Mebane’s record score gave him the edge over five-time defending champion Thomas Snyder, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, who is also a two-time Sudoku World Champion and a competitor for the U.S. team at the World Puzzle Championships.
Last year, Mebane finished third in the U.S. Championship but trailed Snyder by over 100 points. Mebane said he trained hard for this year’s competition.
“I learned to stop making errors,” he said. “When you’re doing the puzzles, you have to figure out what’s slowing you down—how you can stop it from slowing you down.”
While the puzzles given to contestants in the U.S. and World Championships represent a wide variety of logic problems, Mebane admitted that his downfall in previous competitions came from the dreaded Sudoku.
“They were a huge weakness of mine,” he said. “One of my big things this year was trying to clean up my act on Sudoku.”
After attempts at self-training, Mebane realized that the best way to improve his scores would be to consult the master himself.
“I went ahead and e-mailed Snyder asking for some tips,” Mebane explained.
Snyder, a teammate of Mebane’s at the 2010 World Puzzle Championship, pointed him in the right direction, but Mebane initially had a difficult time adjusting his strategies.
“When you try to change styles, things get a little worse and you have to work through it,” he said.
While Mebane admitted he is no Sudoku World Champion, he confessed that Snyder’s advice gave him an edge at the U.S. Championship.
Looking ahead, Mebane said he plans to maintain his blog where he post puzzles of his own design. The site gets a substantial amount of traffic for a logic puzzle blog, according to Mebane, with roughly 200 to 250 hits daily.
Mebane said he is also looking forward to the 2011 World Puzzle Championship, which will take place in Hungary this November. Representing the U.S. alongside Mebane and Snyder will be William Blatt and Wei-Hwa Huang. Mebane said his personal goal is to improve his ranking of 19 from last year to somewhere in the top five percent.
Although Mebane has been completing puzzles since before he can remember, he says he still pushes himself by practicing regularly. Although success in competitive puzzle solving depends not just on individual performance but also the performance of others, Mebane said he gauges his personal success on whether or not he performs to the best of his abilities.
Mebane lightly throws around the names of international superstars like Ulrich Voight (seven time World Champion), Taro Arimatsu, and Hideaki Jo (Japan’s rising rookie phenom), but at the end of the day, his true competition is only himself.
“My goal is to go in, prepare the best, do my best,” he said. “If I can deliver a performance that represents the best of my abilities at the World Puzzle Championship, I’ll be happy with that.”