Q+A with Puzzle Master FLEB

Interview with Puzzle Master FLEB

“The puzzle world is actually a lot bigger than you probably thought it was.”

This is what Paul Hlebowitsh first tells me when we speak on the phone. Paul is a puzzle master; he started competing in puzzle hunt competitions back in high school, and began writing his own puzzles soon after. Since then, he’s graduated MIT, been ranked as a top 10 finisher in the US Puzzle Championship, and created and solved puzzles for international competitions. To top it off, a year ago he founded FLEB – a puzzle consultancy complete with a puzzle-solving Youtube channel. (Since you’re wondering: he adapted the name from his username at MIT – PHleb – pronounced “Fleb.”)

Asymmetrical thinking is comprised of the ability to solve the complexities of a project by looking at it in a new way. But if one was to look at the world as if it were a puzzle, with the understanding that all puzzles have solutions, would they find that solving any problem could have a streamlined, logical approach?

We sat down with Paul to learn more about puzzles, and the type of thinking that it takes to be a world class puzzle solver and creator.

Glossary of Puzzles:

Logic puzzle: Word and number puzzles. Examples: Soduku, word scramble

Mechanical puzzle: Puzzles solved by manipulating an object. Examples: Rubik’s cube, the peg game, interlocking nails puzzle – the puzzle in the video below

Puzzle hunt: A series of logic puzzles connected by a meta-puzzle, typically solved in a team. Sometimes has a mechanical aspect. Answer is always an English word or phrase

Watch Paul solve the 2012 Puzzle of the Year:

UNFILTERED: You’ve been developing puzzles as a consultant for about a year. How does puzzle consulting work?

PAUL: There are lots and lots of events that need puzzles as part of them. For example, video games – someone has an idea for a video game, but they can’t design the puzzles for it. They don’t have the skills necessary, but they really want to make the game. Books oftentimes use puzzles, as do TV shows. There’s a lot of advertising and marketing that uses puzzles and things like ARGs, alternate reality games, and things like that. There’s a lot of private events, things like birthdays, proposals, weddings. People might know that their significant other is a puzzle solver, really likes puzzles, wants to make a custom set based around them, but doesn’t really know how to do it.

UNFILTERED: It can be hard for people to access or approach puzzles. How are you trying to make puzzles, and puzzle solving, more accessible for everyone?

PAUL: There’s a couple of things that inaccessible means for puzzles. First, is that if you look at something like a puzzle hunt or a mechanical puzzle, there’s just a huge learning curve. There are all these different skills you have to learn to even have a chance at solving some of these things. One of the problems that I find very interesting is: How do you create things that people can get into as an intro, that are still interesting, but will lead them to be able to solve these more difficult puzzles?

People sometimes feel like they can’t do puzzles and they won’t even try because they know they won’t be able to do it. I get a lot of comments on the YouTube channel that say something like, “I really want to get into puzzles, but I’m just not smart enough for it. How’d you get so smart?” Or something like that. What I always respond is, “It’s not about being smart, it’s about having the experience. It’s learning and discovering, just like anything else in life.” I’m hoping that people won’t have that attitude, that I can somehow change that, and people will be sort of interested in puzzles as their own thing.

The other part that’s really inaccessible is the cost. If you’re looking at a very nice mechanical puzzle, they’ll cost $60, $70 per puzzle, which is just completely unaffordable for the average person. I’m hoping to bring in puzzles at a lower price point, so that more people have access to them. Part of my YouTube channel is actually some DIY stuff, some wire puzzles that you can make in your home, for example.

UNFILTERED: Do you think that people can apply the intelligences that they have, whether that be mathematical, interpersonal, linguistic, etc, to puzzle solving?

PAUL: Absolutely. There’s a certain amount of logic that’s inherent to puzzle solving, but beyond that it’s mostly creative. There’s a big effort within the puzzle community to get more diverse viewpoints. We want to see a lot more international designers. We want to see minority designers, and things like this. Those new viewpoints will create different puzzles, and it will be very interesting to see what they look like.

UNFILTERED: Can you share a trade secret? What’s the best way to create a puzzle?

PAUL: It really depends on the puzzle. Usually for a puzzle hunt puzzle, you’ll start with the answer. One feature about puzzle hunt puzzles, which is what I mostly design, is that they’re usually used in rounds, and their answers usually form a puzzle themselves. That meta-puzzle is usually the final puzzle of the set of puzzles. You’re often tasked with having an answer, and then finding a puzzle that fits that answer. You’re often inspired by what the answer is.

With something like a Sudoku or another logic puzzle, you often start with a given shape of givens. Given the numbers that you start with in the grid, you often start with a certain shape in mind, or a certain set of logic that you want to plug in. For a mechanical puzzle, it helps to know the way things interlock.

UNFILTERED: Do you think that being a puzzle solver helps you in other aspects of your life?

PAUL: Puzzles are one of the few entertainment options that really require focus in our distraction-riddled world. I think that’s important. The fact that, to answer your earlier question, this is why I founded the business. One of the things that I really believe, is that puzzles are for everyone. They’re not just a nerd thing. They’re something that can make us smarter, that can help us to focus, and entertain us at the same time.

Naomi Barnett


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Q+A with Puzzle Master FLEB