TITLE: Brains, Patterns, and Persistence AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 24, 2009 8:13 AM DESC: ----- BODY: I like to solve the Celebrity Cipher in my daily paper. Each puzzle is a mixed alphabet substitution cipher on a quote by someone -- a "celebrity", loosely considered -- followed by the speaker's name, sometimes prefixed with a title or short description. Lately I've been challenging myself to solve the puzzle in my head, without writing any letters down, even once I'm sure of them. Crazy, I know, but this makes the easier puzzles more challenging now that I have gotten pretty good at solving them with pen in hand. (Spoiler alert... If you like to do this puzzle, too, and have not yet solved the June 22 cipher, turn away now. I am about to give the the answer away!) Yesterday I was working on a puzzle, and this was the speaker phrase:
I had looked at the quote itself for a couple of minutes and so was operating on an initial hypothesis that YWH was the word the. I stared at the speaker for a while... IWHNN would be IheNN. Double letters to end the third word, which is probably the first name. N could be s, or maybe l. s... That would be the first letter of the first name. And then I saw it, in whole cloth:
Chess grandmaster Savielly Tartakower
Please don't think less of me. I'm not a freak. Really. a picture of Savielly Tartakower How very strange. I have no special mental powers. I do have some experience solving these puzzles, of course, but this phrase is unusual both in the prefix phrase and in the obscurity of the speaker. Yes, I once played a lot of chess and did know of Tartakower, a French-Polish player of the early 20th century. But how did I see this answer? The human brain amazes me almost every day with its ability to find, recognize, and impose patterns on the world. Practice and exposure to lots and lots of data is one of the ways it learns these patterns. That is part of how I am able to solve these ciphers most days -- experience makes patterns appear to me, unbidden by conscious thought. There may be other paths to mastery, but I know of no other reliable substitute for practice. What about the rest of the puzzle? From the letter pairs in the speaker phrase, I was able to reconstruct the quote itself with little effort:
Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake.
Ah, an old familiar line. If we follow this quote to its logical conclusion, it offers good advice for much of life. You never know which mistake will be the next-to-last, or the last. Keep playing to win. If you learn from your mistakes, you'll start to make fewer, which increases the probability that your opponent will make the last mistake of the game. Even when in non-adversarial situations, or situations in which there is no obvious single adversary, this is a good mindset to have. People who embrace failure persist. They get better, but perhaps more importantly they simply survive. You have to be in the game when your opportunity comes -- or when your opponent makes the ultimate mistake. Like so many great lines, Tartakower's is not 100% accurate in all cases. As an accomplished chessplayer, he certainly knew that the best players can lose without ever making an obvious mistake. Some of my favorite games of all time are analyzed in My Sixty Memorable Games, by Bobby Fischer himself. It includes games in which the conquered player never made the move that lost. Instead, the loser accreted small disadvantages, or drifted off theme, and suddenly the position was unfavorable. But looking back, Fischer could find no obvious improvement. Growing up, this fascinated me -- the loser had to make a mistake, right? The winner had make a killer move... Perhaps not. Even still, the spirit of Tartakower's advice holds. Play in this moment. You never know which mistake will be the next-to-last, or the last. Keep playing. At this time of year, when I look back over the past twelve months of performing tasks that do not come naturally to me, and looking ahead to next year's vision and duties, this advice gives me comfort. -----