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7 Captivating facts about puzzles

What’s your favorite way to puzzle? Maybe you like assembling giant jigsaws with your family, filling out the daily crossword in pen, or playing brain-teaser apps on your phone. Between real-life escape rooms and video game dungeons, today’s puzzle options are nearly infinite. But how much do you really know about them? From the origins of Sudoku to the distracting power of Minesweeper, these seven facts about puzzles will make you think about your favorite pastimes in a whole new way.

An “Enigmatologist” Is Someone Who Studies Puzzles

You probably already know the word “enigma,”meaning something that’s mysterious, hard to understand, or, well, puzzling. Combine that with “ology,” indicating a field of study, and it makes sense that “enigmatologist” would mean one who studies puzzles. The word is a relative newcomer to the lexicon, and is typically attributed to New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, who graduated from Indiana University with a self-designed Enigmatology degree in 1974.

While the term hasn’t made it into all the major dictionaries, Merriam Webster does list “enigmatology” alongside the more generic definition of “the investigation or analysis of enigmas.”

Crossword enthusiasts get their own word, “cruciverbalist,” coined in the early 1980s. Speaking of which…

First modern crossword puzzle published in 1913

The first modern crossword puzzle was published in the New York World’s “Fun” section on December 21, 1913, although simpler ancestors appeared in kids’ puzzle books in 19th-century Britain. Unlike the format we’re used to in today’s papers, the puzzle’s clues weren’t organized into “across” and “down”; instead, two numbers indicated a start and end point within the diamond-shaped grid.

Just a decade later, crossword puzzles were a standard offering in major U.S. papers, and serious cruciverbalists still observe December 21 as Crossword Puzzle Day. But while the New York Times puzzle is among the most iconic crosswords today, the Gray Lady was notoriously slow to adopt the practice. The paper finally relented soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor: “We ought to proceed with the puzzle, especially in view of the fact it is possible there will now be bleak blackout hours,” wrote the Sunday editor at the time in a memo to the publisher, “or if not that then certainly a need for relaxation of some kind or other.” Their first puzzle finally appeared on February 15, 1942 and, despite its stated goal of helping to calm nerves during wartime, includes several clues about the then-current events of World War II.

There Are 43 Quintillion Possible Rubik’s Cube Arrangements

Each Rubik’s Cube shows nine different colorful squares on each face; to solve it, you need to twist rows of smaller cubes both horizontally and vertically until each face of the cube is the same color. Some people are really, really good at solving it, regularly finishing expertly-scrambled cubes in less than five seconds.

This is a pretty incredible feat, considering that there are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different configurations, but solving it is less complicated than it might appear. A team of scientists borrowed Google’s computers to find the quickest solution to each configuration, and it turns out each can be solved in 20 moves or less. Since people are not computers, this knowledge doesn’t exactly spell out each solution for a human being, but “speedcubers,” as they’re called, memorize hundreds of algorithms to help them attack each new configuration.

The first jigsaw puzzles were geography learning tools

The first commercial jigsaw puzzles originated in 18th-century England, when cartographer John Spilsbury started pasting maps to thin wood and slicing out individual countries with a scroll saw. He called them “dissected maps,”and while they were originally teaching aids, their popularity spread throughout Britain in the mid-1700s. By the mid-1800s, these puzzles featured other popular images from things like zoology and fairy tales.

Interlocking puzzles — the kind you’re likely used to today — started with Parker Brothers in the early 20th century. Homemade versions took off during the Great Depression as both a low-cost way to entertain yourself and, for anybody with a jigsaw, a way to make some extra cash by selling them or renting them out.

Tetris is a blend of Tetra and Tennis

Tetris” is so ubiquitous now that it’s entered everyday speech outside of the game. (Maybe you used it the last time you packed a moving truck!) But the game has only been around for 40 years or so, and the etymology of its name is a little surprising.

One part is obvious: “Tetra” is a Greek numeral prefix, meaning “four.” Each Tetris piece is made up of four smaller squares. The “is” on the end isn’t just for style, but it’s not particularly relevant to the gameplay, either: Creator Alexey Pajitnov just really, really liked tennis, and included the suffix in the name.

Bill Gates was addicted to Minesweeper

Those who were around to experience the early years of Windows probably know two games a little too well: Solitaire and the much more stressful Minesweeper.

Solitaire was standard on Windows 3.0 as a friendly, familiar feature to help users feel less intimidated by the operating system, and as a handy exercise in using a computer mouse. Minesweeper, which used to be an add-on with the Microsoft Entertainment Pack, came standard in 3.1.

The reasoning? It was the staff favorite, and many in the Microsoft offices — especially founder Bill Gates — couldn’t keep their hands off it.

In 1994, the Washington Post reported that Gates had become so distracted that he took it off his personal machine. This did not prevent him from playing it, however: He’d just hop over to then-Microsoft-president Mike Hallman’s office to play instead. (Supposedly, his solving record was five seconds.)

Sudoku dates to 1700’s in Switzerland

Contrary to popular belief, Sudoku did not originate in Japan, although it did come of age there. One of its earliest forms — although it’s possible that its origins go back even earlier, to 8th or 9th century China — was a variation on magic squares developed by Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, who called it “Latin Squares.” It was a slightly simpler version of the game we know today: In modern Sudoku, solvers need to place a series of numbers so they only appear once in their corresponding row, column, and sub-grid, while Latin Squares used only rows and columns. A more complicated version popped up in French newspapers in the late 19th century, with both the smaller grids and a couple of diagonals thrown in.

The modern Sudoku puzzle emerged in the 1970s as “Number Place,” published in Dell Puzzle Magazines and sometimes credited to a retired architect in Indiana. A Japanese puzzle enthusiast named Maki Kaji “fell in love” with the game, renamed it Sudoku, and started printing puzzles through his game publishing company Nikoli. (The name is short for sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru, which means "the numerals must remain single" — that is, the digits must occur only once.) The idea spread quickly in Japan; unlike a crossword, you don’t need an alphabet to solve it, which is ideal when your written language doesn’t have an equivalent to the ABCs. Sudoku started spreading back out to Hong Kong, Britain, and eventually the United States in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s.

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