CONFESSIONS OF A PUZZLE MASTER

Chris Maslanka is still perplexed by football, philosophy and frogs
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The Independent Culture
TRAVELLING ON the up escalator the other day, I was jerked out of my reverie by a remark uttered by someone passing close by on the down escalator. "What," the Sartresque voice asked (a trifle pretentiously, I thought) "is this hollow at the centre of my existence?"

With the benefit of hindsight and a certain esprit d'escalier, I should have replied that anyone would feel hollow after six weeks' overdosing on world class soccer followed by an abrupt cessation of supply: cold turkey until 2002!

Still, all things, not just escalators, pass. Gone now is the World Cup, apart from the occasional echo such as the sacking of the entire Brazilian team for not winning.

What a lot of tea, coffee, wine, and beer - and conversation - we got through during all those matches. And what a harvest of puzzle ideas hastily scribbled down, mostly indecipherably, and deposited higgledy-piggledy on my floor. Here is a trio I decoded earlier:

1. A ball is made of six identical patches, each either black or white. How many such distinguishable balls are there?

2. Every spot on a ball is equidistant from every other spot on it. How many spots are there at most?

3. Replace each * by a letter to make a word:

P*O*P*E*, S*O*F*A*, D*O*S*E*, F*R*O*G, B*R*A*I*N.

The Cup wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but what arguments it stirred up! Stimulant and catalyst, it provided a focal point for debating a wide range of subjects: religion, violence, fairness. And not all of them sense. If soccer is a religion, posited a tipsy sofa-losopher, why not make the Pope referee?

Better (i.e. worse) still, get God to ref. Ubiquitous and - unlike the FIFA appointees - all-seeing. Also, being omniscient, He'd know the score before the match began (Yes, I know: the score before the match begins is 0-0, that's not what I mean). But if he blurted it out, it would ruin everything. Which, come to think of it, is a good argument against predestination. And what if He were tempted once again to take a personal hand in a match?

Soccer talk facilitates conversations that otherwise might no more have got off the ground than a dead frog. "Bad refereeing breeds fouls, just as inconsistent parenting produces brats," a stranger said to me, striking up a conversation in a filling station after the Beckham incident. From soccer to intermittent reinforcement and behavioural theory in one bound. What next? Anger management? No, conspiracy theory: a BBC listener rang to point out that if you wrote down the first 9 letters of the alphabet and then crossed out E for England (symbolic, that bit) you got ABCDFGHI: the initials of the countries in the quarter finals. Was this mere coincidence or evidence of match rigging?

Such extravagant talk needs the excuse of social occasion, and something for it to be a time-out from. The ancient Greeks knew this well. Their word for `concentrate', apobkepeim, also means `look away': for focusing on one thing means ignoring another. The ritualistic riddles set at mediaeval funerals were presumably homoeopathic problemettes to distract from grave issues such as "Why do we die?". The World Cup provided just such a socially unifying escape from dull reality, naturally stimulating the human propensity for philosophising and puzzling.

Indeed several of the puzzles on Radio 4's Puzzle Panel were inspired in this way including this offering of Rob Eastaway's, conceived during the pre-match ritual of France versus Paraguay.

4. What rule determines the next letter in the sequence:

RRRURURUD*?

The Mayans may have felt their Ball Game had cosmic significance: they executed the losing team after the match. But we don't (though the practice did seem close to revival last World Cup) and if some people kicking a ball around turns others into windbags, so much the worse for them.

This is the sort of free association Tony Buzan encouraged when he challenged this week's Puzzle Panel to list similarities between a frog and a spaceship. (Both are green, except for the spaceship? Both leap out of swamps? Both are launched from pads?) To be creative, do as they don't in brainstorming: encourage absurdity; don't filter; don't judge. Analyse - and agonise - later. There is no definitive answer, unlike:

5. Why is a banana like a jumper?

Small talk can lead to big talk just as Einstein's childish fantasy of chasing light beams led to relativity. Why, then is a frog like a spaceship? If the paludicolous can lead to the slime, then the ridiculous can lead to the sublime.

SOLUTIONS:

1. Four arranged on the corners of a tetrahedron.

2. 10.

3. PROMPTER, SCOFFLAW, DOORSTEP, FURLONG, BARBARIAN.

4. It is the Marseillaise in a notation allowing the musically unsophisticated to follow a tune: D stands for Down, U for Up and R for Repeat (except, where it stands, paradoxically, for the first note).

5.They're both easy to slip on.

Chris Maslanka presents "Puzzle Panel" on Radio 4, Thursday, 1.30pm, repeated Sunday, 11pm

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