CONFESSIONS OF A PUZZLE MASTER

Chris Maslanka has been listening to his listeners
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FOR THE last 15 years my radio work has mostly involved manic puzzle phone-ins in which one of the chief indicators of success was how exhausted the phone operative was after the programme. If he wasn't worn out answering calls, I'd done my job badly. If I did it well, listeners raced to solve such puzzles as:

Q1) What do 1, 2, 6 and 10 have in common with each other and with no other numbers? Or:

Q2) Replace each asterisk in C*U*B*E by a letter to make a word.

Clearly callers were attracted by a direct challenge. As a producer once confided to me somewhat undiplomatically: "They obviously believe that, if an ordinary person like you can do such clever things, then, perhaps, they can, too."

Radio 4's Puzzle Panel was quite different. It was a daring, pioneering, ground-breaking programme - in other words, untried and untested. The format put a number of people around a table cracking each other's conundrums. Where was the listener participation in that? I needn't have worried. Letters, e-mails and faxes flooded into room 7058.

For some the pleasure remained purely passive - "Hearing impossible puzzles being solved by such clever people," as one listener remarked, but for most, the first level of participation was in trying to keep abreast of the panel or even beat them to the answer.

Many listeners wrote in gleefully to say that they had beaten the panel to the answer and to describe in minute detail exactly how they'd gone about it. This was not mere showing off, nor competitiveness, but genuine delight at scoring an intellectual success.

Nor did they take the panel's learned pronouncements lying down. Quibbles abounded. It became clear that listeners were following every word that was said in a critical way, recording it and replaying it again and again or staying up late for the repeat on Sunday night.

Then there was the listener's puzzle, set each week in the form of a puzzle story. When the World Service asked me to broadcast puzzles to the hostages in the Gulf Crisis, it was puzzle stories they asked for. From the dark tales of wolves and the dark forests of Eastern Poland told to me as a child by my babushka grew my interest in natural magic, puzzles and the extraordinary possibilities of the everyday - the land of "What if?" just at our elbows. This is no bad place to visit, for creativity is powered by "What ifs?" and not "Because that's how things are!"

This story-telling has its uses, too. "Fear of Failure" - as psychologists call it - can outweigh "Need for Achievement", especially for those with an over-pessimistic view of their own mental abilities. A good story - and humour - can lower this threshold and remove the threat. And even if the account fails to charm the listener into attempting the puzzle, he still enjoys a good story.

But what profusion and diverse creativity these puzzles evoked. Some solvers sent pages of computer programming, closely reasoned logical accounts, algebraical versions and reams of intelligently directed trial and error, all filled out with personal anecdotes and ideas for further puzzles.

Schoolchildren wrote in in their best handwriting carefully detailing the steps by which they reached their conclusions. I remember how hard it was as a teacher to train pupils into the habit of monitoring thought processes and stating on the paper what you are doing; and here were 12- year-olds doing it naturally. But the most original way in which Puzzle Panel encouraged active participation was in inviting the creation of panel beaters: puzzles devised by the listeners with the specific aim of stumping the experts.

I expected the contributions sent by Don Manley, one of this country's most skilled verbal engineers, to be good, and they were:

Q3) Get down? I've got down! (4)

And he almost got one over the panel with this one:

Q4) One is one of one (10)

But what surprised me most was the quality of the "ordinary" listeners' puzzle creations. It was of a quality and simplicity to make all of us on Puzzle Panel look to our enigmatological laurels.

Q5) Nothing squared = a cube

That enigma, submitted by IM Berry, of Coventry, had us all barking our shins up the wrong tree.

And the following contribution from Arthur Hall, of Goring-by-Sea, was of the highest order, producing a particularly pleasing answer:

Q6) Turn this year upside down and you get 8661, which is 6,663 years hence. Inverting next year gives 6661, which is 4,662 years away. Which year in history takes longest to be overturned?

The undiplomatic producer I mentioned above was perhaps right, though for the wrong reason. When it comes to creativity, there are no ordinary people: we are all extraordinary.

SOLUTIONS

1. The only four whole numbers with three-letter names.

2. CRUMBLE

3. DUCK

4. RECIPROCAL

5. OXO

6. 1066

Comments