Sunday, 6 May 2012

When is a puzzle truly solved? - Gordian Knot

Gordian Knot
When is a puzzle truly solved?

Many of my friends who are not hardcore puzzlers often are delighted when I give them a new puzzle to play with especially when the premise seems easy (like wire puzzles) or the puzzle seems really pretty. They wander off muttering to themselves that it can’t be that difficult and jingle away. Many of them come back with broad grins on their faces saying:
I’ve solved it, and it only took me x minutes! See I must be a master puzzler like you!”.

They then proceed to hand me the pieces of the puzzle and look upset when I say that they haven’t solved it yet - they now have to put it back to the initial state and then do it again.

But I solved it”, they say, “you can see that!!

So when is a puzzle truly solved?

My response to them all has been the same thing for over a year of torturing now:
"A puzzle is only truly solved when you can open/disassemble it and then put it back together again… And then, you have to do it a second time quicker than the first! This proves to me that the puzzle hasn’t just been opened by blind luck - it has been understood and truly mastered!"
(My exception to this would be jigsaws, where the time limit can be physically finding the pieces and dexterity puzzles where luck does play a significant part - but I NEVER play with those sorts of puzzle).

So what has this got to do with the Gordian Knot wire puzzle from Puzzle Master? I think that this puzzle may well be the first puzzle that is the exception to the rule. Here I will discuss this and decide whether this is a bad thing or not.

Continuing my recent batch of wire puzzles from the Puzzle Master collection, I couldn’t resist one that looked rather like a “Cat’s cradle” - this is the Gordian Knot (not to be confused with the plastic board burr puzzle holding the same name). I chose it because it looked oddly complex yet, having just a single loop of string also looked weirdly simple. BUT, note that this has been rated as a 9 out of 10 (Gruelling) on the Puzzle Master difficulty scale and hence must be a real challenge! Plus it was designed by Alan Stein himself, one of the brothers who own and run Puzzle Master and my previous experience of one of his puzzles was astonishingly good.

This puzzle arrived in the usual clamshell box with the simple instructions just to remove the loop of string. It consists of 4 loops of wire and a single strand connected together into a complex mesh with a string looped through the centre - it is 15 x 6.6 x 2.5cm in size and is fairly pricey for a wire puzzle at $20. Quality is great and the loop of string has been heat sealed and doesn’t fray with use. No solution is provided and you may well need one - if so it can be downloaded from here. More about that later!

Now usually I am frightened of string puzzles, which is really why I had left it aside for so long (I received this last batch in february!) but eventually I could stand it’s lonely cries no longer and I put it in my bag one day and have been playing with it for the last month!! For three weeks of intermittent fiddling I failed dismally! It is not due to fear of getting it too tangled up - this is one of the few string puzzles that doesn’t really get knotted too much without it becoming really obvious and it is easy to undo. I kept trying and trying and either reached so far before accidentally back-tracking or not being able to see what else was possible.

Finally when it seemed like I would have to get the solution out, I downloaded it and studied it carefully. The first step - no problem! I had managed it perfectly myself! After that the solution was completely undecipherable!! I could not understand what on earth I was being directed to do. So I seemed to have been stymied at the 2nd out of 9 moves in the sequence. OMG!!! So I put the instructions away and was resigned to the fact that this might be the 2nd wire puzzle I might have to give a really negative review (the other was the coathanger puzzle from Livewire puzzles). But this wasn’t as bad as that one - at least I didn’t have to take it to pieces to reset it and start again! In fact it was doing what it should do - I was stumped by it and by now I think I am pretty good at wire puzzles!!!

I kept it with me for the next few days and played with it at every opportunity and without realising what I had done, I had 2 pieces in my hands!

I still don't really know how I did it!
I had an awful sinking sensation that not knowing what I had done, I wouldn’t be able to put it together again, let alone fulfil my criteria for truly solving a puzzle. I kept it apart until I had taken the photo and then tried to reverse the process. Again I could not keep track of what I had done but after about 30 minutes it had been reset. I then gave it to a whole lot of friends and colleagues all of whom failed dismally! Over the last week I have solved and reset this puzzle at least 15 times. It always takes me about the same amount of time (15 minutes) and I can never remember what moves need to be done at what time. This is because every move is very similar to every other move and the amazing symmetry of this construct makes it very hard to orientate oneself well enough to remember one position from another!

So my criteria for solving a puzzle have NOT been reached! Yet I can solve this puzzle every single time - I can’t explain to anyone how I do it and my time varies each attempt! Does this mean that I don’t rate it highly? Absolutely not! The puzzle creator should be very proud - he created a difficult puzzle which kept me going for over a month and which is effectively a new puzzle for me every time I attempt it. I hope that one day I will be able to make a set of photos showing the sequence more clearly than the solution file.

Should you buy this one? Absolutely yes!! It is pretty tough but not impossible and has more repeatability than most. It’s resistance to tangling means that it can be handed to friends without fear. This has become one of my favourites and I intend to keep it with me to torture my friends and colleagues for some considerable time! The $20 asking price is very reasonable!


  1. Hi, I agree with you about dexterity puzzles. For me they are still a gray zone between puzzle and toy.

  2. I do not think solving a disassembly puzzle requires one to assemble it. For the Gordian Knot for example, don't the instructions say something like "Goal: remove the loop". Therefore, once this is accomplished, the puzzle is solved. It is true that resetting the puzzle requires one to put the loop back on, but in my mind this is not part of solving the puzzle. Reassembly may be even harder, but this task falls ultimately to the puzzle owner. ;-)

    1. I always imagined that reassembly was intrinsic to the challenge! I think I'll refrain from telling my friends that. They are not allowed to do anything else until they have put it back together!! They get my instructions not those on the box!

    2. Aha, very clever. Of course if you set the goal, you can require reassembly! The polite puzzler, of course, always returns the puzzle in the same condition it started in. Easier said than done, though.

    3. Very few of my friends are polite!!!

  3. Instead of "truly solved" in your blog post, how about using the word "mastered"? When your friends come back, you can nod wisely and recite: "Ah ... Grasshopper, I see that you have solved the puzzle, but you have not mastered it. Please try again."

  4. I like it, George! It also likens puzzling to Kung fu!


    I am a master!

  5. Indeed ... puzzling and Kung Fu seem to have similarities. I remember once I was completely stumped on a burr puzzle and asked Brian Pletcher for a hint. He said "You have to do something to it before you begin." In retrospect this statement appears completely useless and circular. The funny thing is that a light bulb went off and I went back to the puzzle and solved it in about 20 seconds! The hint was perfect, but undecipherable to those not "in the know".

    1. I guess you had to hit it!!!

    2. Very good ... you have earned the puzzling black belt!

    3. Only 1st dan. One day I'll be a 7th or 8th dan

  6. Puzzle solution is independent of puzzle understanding. To truly solve a puzzle, you need to solve it. Period.
    To truly understand a puzzle...that involves complete mastery. Get the terms straight, and you're good

    1. I guess it is just semantics but as a puzzler hoping to achieve true professional status, I always would wish to achieve true mastery!

    2. I received this puzzle (by a different manufacturer to the one reviewed) as a surprise gift from a thoughtful relative for Christmas. The first thing I did was check here and after reading Kevin's excellent (as always) review I couldn't wait to get cracking. After fiddling with it on-and-off during the last week, plus at least the same amount of time thinking about it, I manged to free the loop and re-set it this evening. Unfortunately, as Kevin says in his review, its method is still as clear as mud and I'm still baffled by it - there was no "lightbulb moment" and I can still find myself stumped while fiddling with it. I'm determined to understand it though and will continue fiddling until eureka dawns. Thanks again for another fantastic review.

    3. Keep at it Geraint! I had to do it quite a few times. There was never a lightbulb moment with this one but more of a progressive understanding - it's as good a feeling as the aha moment but slower!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...