The word-puzzle focus group went down last summer under the fluorescent lights of a conference room at the Colchester Hampton Inn. Jim Rader was at the helm, soliciting feedback from friends and fellow puzzlers on the mind bender he invented four decades ago.
All those years, Rader had kept the puzzles primarily to himself. Sure, his wife, Meg Pond, had tried her hand at them. And he’d often surprise friends with puzzles embedded in birthday messages. But it wasn’t until this past summer, with a series of focus groups, that Rader finally put his puzzles to the test.
The puzzle solvers at the Hampton Inn included Bill Gottesman, a self-described math hobbyist; Bill Dorsch, who does KENKENs twice a week; and Fred Pond, who admitted he’s not much of a puzzle guy but once bought a sudoku book to get him through a long flight to New Zealand. There was much talk of font, instructions and hints. There were cookies and coffee, and pencils for safe guessing.
Everybody agreed that the puzzles were hard. “The purpose of a puzzle is that people can solve it,” said Dorsch.
So with the help of the focus-group puzzlers and computer programmer Jan Schultz, Rader made some improvements and beefed up the tips and instructions. Now he’s finally publishing his puzzles in a book, Never Play Leapfrog with a Unicorn: The Quip-Find Puzzle Book of Advice. They’re still pretty tough, but if you’re a puzzle lover, they may just become a new obsession.
Rader, 72, who served as Burlington city clerk from 1982 to 1993, followed by 11 years as a constituent advocate in Bernie Sanders’ congressional office, was an undergrad at the University of Vermont when the idea came to him. He had just solved a Soma Cube — a 3-by-3-by-3-unit cube made by assembling seven different pieces — and was struck by the elegant cluster of 27 little cubes. Only, one cube was hidden inside, he noticed, leaving 26 — the number of letters in the alphabet — visible.
He realized that if he arranged the cubes just so, he could spell out whole sentences in one continuous thread of letters that were linked either side to side or corner to corner. And he could do the same in a two-dimensional puzzle, with only three sides of the cube showing.
Early on, Rader got two patents for the puzzle and accompanying 3-D game, but he had trouble drumming up interest. “I just accepted that it wasn’t going to be a great commercial success,” he says. Still, he never gave up. At his Grand Isle home, Rader’s file cabinets are filled with thousands of puzzles he’s sketched out over the years.
Rader acknowledges that his creation — the puzzle is now called Quip-Find; the 3-D game, Quipto — isn’t going to make him rich or famous. He just wants to finish something he started a long time ago. And, he says, “If I hadn’t done it, someday, eventually, somebody else would.”
Rader had all but given up on publishing the puzzles when he met Schultz, a 69-year-old semiretired computer programmer looking to take on another project. Schultz came to Burlington in 1969 to create early electronic medical records for the UVM medical school. He was on the Burlington Electric Department commission in the ’80s and is currently the chief technology officer of Front Porch Forum.
The two men have worked together for more than three years from Schultz’s home office, which is adorned with an autographed photo of Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Kathryn Janeway on “Star Trek: Voyager” (“My hero,” Schultz says with a smile), and a handwritten poem by Allen Ginsberg called “Burlington Snow.”
Schultz isn’t a word-puzzle guy, but the challenge of creating a program that could produce the Quip-Find puzzles appealed to him. “I love analyzing complex things,” he says. The Quip-Finds are indeed complex. With only three sides of the cube exposed, 19 small “cubicles” are visible, each with its own unique letter. The number of potential combinations, explains Schultz, is 25 digits long. To work with numbers so huge, he had to buy a bigger computer.
Rader used to do it all with pen and paper. And he still can. He asks a recent visitor to suggest a phrase and immediately begins sketching out the letters in a diamond shape, drawing paths between them. Rader says it usually takes him about 15 minutes to determine if any given phrase can be hidden in a Quip-Find puzzle.
In addition to his own puzzles, Rader does a sudoku and a Jumble almost every day. He likens the activity to physical exercise. “You do it to stretch a part of your mind,” he says.
Rader dedicated an earlier version of the puzzle book to his father, with whom he used to solve the newspaper’s daily cryptogram each morning as a child. “I associate my love for word puzzles with my father,” he says. At 96, Rader’s dad still does the Jumble every day.
He’s sent his father a copy of the new book, but hasn’t pressed him on what he thinks of it. Puzzle people, especially at that age, can be hard to convert. “He knows what he likes,” says Rader.
"Never Play Leapfrog with a Unicorn: The Quip-Find Puzzle Book of Advice," by Jim Rader with Jan Schultz. Available from Amazon CreateSpace. $5.95. Rader will sell and sign his books inside the Church Street entrance to Burlington Town Center on Saturday, December 10, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, December 11, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Answer to the puzzle:
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.