HMC Student Wins World Puzzle Championship

On Nov. 12, Palmer Mebane HM ’12 earned first place in the 2011 World Puzzle Championship (WPC) in Eger, Hungary, becoming the first American to claim the individual title in 12 years and defeating seven-time champion Ulrich Voigt of Germany.

Logic puzzles have fascinated Mebane his entire life, but they have only become competitive for him in the last year and a half. Although he had previously finished 19th at the 2010 WPC, he knew in the months leading up to this year’s competition that he would be facing veteran competitors like Voigt. Even before the WPC, qualifying competitions that took place online required countless hours of practice. Mebane emphasized, however, that, as is the case with any other skill, success at puzzle-solving requires more than rote repetition.

“In addition to [repetition], there’s also a component where you have to look back at how you solved it, what steps took you a really long time, and then figure out how you can improve that… if you’re not effectively doing that, you can keep doing puzzles without ever really improving,” Mebane said.

Although Mebane estimates having completed “tens of thousands of puzzles in the last few months alone,” he says his academics are still a top priority.

“I think I still apply myself to my coursework about as much as I used to,” he said.

Besides a trophy, the appeal of a WPC victory does not only lie in any large prize, monetary or otherwise. For Mebane, the culmination of a lifelong passion was a reward in itself.

“Most of it was just sort of the pride that all of the work I put into it actually got me that far,” he said. “It was more winning for the sake of winning.”

Mebane entered the playoffs in second place with a 2.5-minute disadvantage to Voigt, but he managed to erase that gap thanks to a strong performance on a single puzzle that proved particularly challenging for the reigning champion.

Although Mebane won the title by a large margin, he believes that the importance of a single puzzle cheapened his victory.

“Officially, I won the world championship by finishing the playoff puzzles first, and by a substantial margin at that,” he wrote on his blog. “What I do not believe is that I was the best solver at the 2011 WPC this year.”

He hopes to defend his title next year as well as earn first place showings in both the preliminary and the playoffs.

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