Sunday 13 September 2015

The Ball and Chain is Going to Cause Much Pain!

Wil's exchange puzzle
They say that "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and it is true....but ONLY up to a point. The current "ball and chain" skipped up to Edinburgh to visit her parents and left me alone for a few days. Now normally this would be an excuse for me to veg out, play with my toys, drink loads and loads of red wine and gin (No! Not mixed together!) and generally be a slob. But unfortunately, I had had so much to drink the previous weekend at the gin festival and then the following few days as an organiser and attendee at a major medical conference (VASGBI annual scientific meeting) seemed to include a fair bit of booze too. So when Mrs S left, I decided I had better give my liver a rest - I really don't want to have to carry it around in a wheelbarrow! Luckily for me I had a series of deliveries whilst she was away that involved her least favourite of my toys - yes there were a good few disentanglement puzzles and you know that if I jingle I automatically earn a Whack! Ouch! Or a burn from the laser burning stare! So last night whilst sitting companionably together watching the last night of the proms on TV I started to make some annoying noises and the fondness that had accumulated immediately vanished and pain ensued! Sigh!

Bastard evil puzzle!
I would like to say that the "wife induced" pain is the main reason that I have singularly failed to solve Allard's evil puzzle but I can't really blame "her" entirely! I have sort of worked out what is required and my friend George Bell has confirmed my thoughts (remember to go and buy a copy of his exchange puzzle here if you missed it last week) but for the life of me I cannot seem to get the pieces into the correct position to allow the first critical move to be done! My eternal shame is compounded even more having just had an email from Shane showing his copy in pieces - he confesses that he is rubbish at these and so I (who am supposed to be moderately experienced) am feeling rather ashamed of myself! I will continue to blame Mrs S so as not to destroy my self image. Whack! Ouch! Ooh! Sorry dear!

At the top of this post is a recent purchase from the latest update courtesy of Wil Strijbos. As soon as I saw it I knew that I just HAD to have a copy. First it is a disentanglement, second it has multiple challenges and third it is just beautifully made and has a reset mechanism (which is just as well). It has the look of a Jean Claude Constantin production and was given away at the Ottawa IPP by Wil as his exchange puzzle. It comes with a leaflet displaying 10 possible challenges and says that more are possible:

Drool! Lots of puzzles in one!
The reset mechanism is by pulling the pin out of one of the balls and releasing the string. It arrived in the position for challenge 7 (which is the Ottawa exchange puzzle) but I decided to start at an easier one - namely number 1 (the top photo is actually that configuration). I have spent 3 days playing with this damned thing and have managed to dismantle it twice and still have absolutely no clue how I managed it! I have had to use the reset mechanism to put it back to the beginning each time because having taken it apart I couldn't even reverse the process. The actual shapes of the pieces are not complex and the string is not long so getting knotted up is not a problem. This puzzle should not be as hard as it is but I have found that (like Allard's puzzle) the crucial moves that I want to take are blocked by the narrowness of the metal U. Last night having received pain for Allard's puzzle, I quickly moved onto this one and even with wooden parts it still was noisy enough to earn me another Whack! Ouch! Lord! I'm covered in bruises! Can you imagine what state I will be in by the time I have solved Allard's puzzle AND all 10 challenges? I have to say that this is an absolutely BRILLIANT design - if disentanglements are your thing then get one NOW!

So having mentioned the "ball and chain" Whack! Ouch! No dear, I am referring to a puzzle! I must now mention a fantastic series of puzzles that have been made for me by an amazing puzzle designer and manufacturer from China, Mr Wang Yulong. He has an incredible brain on him - not only does he design thousands of different wire puzzles but he can solve them (even the most complex ones) in his head!!! I first found a ball and chain variant early on in my puzzle career and really enjoyed solving it.

Variants of the plain Ball and chain puzzle
The first of the puzzles was a cheap tavern puzzle called "All cuffed up" and I solved it pretty quickly. I actually thought that I had mastered the Ball and chain puzzle with it. I subsequently received the Livewire puzzle package and saw that there was another Ball and chain inside and thought that it would be trivially easy. I discovered at that time that the first version had a flaw - the ball/triangle could be fed through the closed loop and this made the solution trivial. In the Livewire version the ball was too wide and this effectively was the correct version as initially described by James Dalgety in 1971 which has become such a classic. In fact every time I go back to this design I struggle to solve it and have to work out the exact orientation of the pieces from scratch. It is so bad for me that in the enormous puzzle mess that is my study just now, I have the Livewire puzzle immediately to hand at all times! It has only been very recently when discussing this series of puzzles with a great friend from the Far East that I finally truly understand the puzzle! I am in his debt for this understanding as well as in many other ways. He knows who he is!

Paper Clip puzzle - major flaw but still a great design
The next variant that came up (again, a long time ago) was the Paper Clip puzzle which I reviewed last in my batch of Livewire puzzles - this has a pretty complex solution but if you look closely you will see that it is actually a variant of the classic Ball and chain puzzle. It requires quite a bit more than the basic version because of the double loop through the central ring but is a very similar process. Recently my friend again informed me of a fascinating issue with this. This particular puzzle has a MAJOR flaw - just like the All cuffed up puzzle, the ball can be fed through the central ring and whilst this doesn't make the puzzle trivial, it certainly does make it MUCH easier than the intended solution. If the guys at Livewire are reading this then the problem can be solved by changing the design and replacing the circular ring with a narrow oval which the ball cannot pass through.

Mr Wang also had seen some other variants which he had found in China in 2014 at the house of a great collector Mr Weizhong Zhou. One of these had been attributed to Lambert Bright as the "Lambert elf ring" from the IPP in Los Angeles in 2000 but I have no documentation of this. Apparently it took Zhou 3 months to solve it! Mr Wang could not resist reproducing these puzzles and I am the proud owner of them now - he has claimed that he solved them in his head in about an hour. Aaaargh! If such an amazing collector and solver as Weizhong Zhou took such a long time to solve it then I may never actually manage it - at least it looks like I can undo the string if it gets too knotted up during the process:

2 layer ball and chain
3 layer ball and chain
I have not yet managed to solve them - a short attempt last night ended with another Whack! Ouch! and I had to stop to preserve the few square centimeters of skin that is not black and blue!

Another variant of the Ball and chain which I find absolutely fearsome and have not solved yet was made for me by my wonderful friend. He cannot solder the wire so used wood and glue instead. This makes for a very unique puzzle which I have never seen before:

Another difficult variant of Ball and chain!
Wang Yulong and Mr Zhou have produced a catalogue of disentanglements which I have managed to get copies of in pdf form. They gave me permission to make them available - he has asked me to take them off line now as I think they may be made commercially. There are hundreds of ideas here for someone resourceful with wire to make. If anyone does make anything from them then please let me know and I will feed it back to them and if possible I would love to have any spare copies that you make for my own collection! Pretty please! I promise (ahem!) not to upset Mrs S with them! Whack! Ouch! Whimper!

There might have been another arrival from my friend which I think might be safe for me to play with! It IS a disentanglement and is made of wire but there is no way it will be noisy. It consists of one wire structure and a long loop of string. It is a higher level version of one of my most favourite wire puzzles. I wrote about Puzzle Master's Gordian knot here - it was one of the first puzzles that made me realise that there was a lot more to puzzling than merely solving them. In order to say that you have truly solved and understood a puzzle it is important to be able to do it repeatedly and the Gordian knot really brought that home to me. I have recently been assisting quite a few people with Wil's Butterfly lock box in my rôle as his troubleshooter and I have come to realise that quite a lot of people seem to solve something just once and don't truly understand how a puzzle works. I solved the Gordian knot puzzle quite a few times before I truly felt that I understood it - imagine my utter horror or delight when I heard that my good friend was sending me a higher level version:

Original - 4 loops of wire
New - 6 loops of wire!
This might well give me a bit of a headache!

Finally I received another puzzle from Mr. Wu Jianjiang that had everyone at the Taiwanese Puzzle Party quite stumped. It is a 2 ended version of the traditional 9 ring Chinese rings puzzle but there are extra pieces in it that have caused everyone who has played with it (including my good friend) to be completely stumped.

How beautiful is that?
If you look carefully behind each of the vertical wires you will see that there is a horizontal crosslink. None of us suspected that this might make life difficult but it would appear that it takes the standard N-ary puzzle to a whole new level - it seems that these crosslinks need to be systematically manipulated back and forth during the standard rings solve and this gets very confusing indeed! I have played briefly before Mrs S got home and got very blocked up extremely quickly - I suspect that even Goetz (who is the greatest of the N-ary puzzlers) might find this one challenging! The small balls at the bottom of each vertical rod is a tiny brass bell! Can you imagine what Mrs S will do to me when she hears me playing with this one? I might need to wait until she is back up in Scotland before I risk it - this wouldn't just cause a Whack! Ouch! I would be murdered in my chair! You would find the jingly thing way WAY up where the sun don't shine! Ouch!

I hope you enjoyed this detailed look at a very famous group of puzzles which should be a huge challenge.

Have a quick look at my New additions page for something extra which also arrived from the Taiwan Puzzle Party - it is awesome!


  1. Ooooh -- so many disentanglement puzzles! For me it's all "entanglement" most of the time. I am not good at solving them and tend to entangle them a bit more in the process -- unless it is a variant of the left-right-chinese rings or the Gordian's knot, or other puzzles from
    However, it seems that someone made the left-right-chinese rings above more complicated by adding those additional pieces. Fascinating!

    1. I thought you would be intrigued by the extra features of that one! You of all people would recognise the connotations of the extra cross links.

  2. Thanks for sharing this nice collection. This puzzles always looks so easy and when you get them into your own hand they are fucking up your mind :D