What happened with The Great American History Puzzle?
Up until the last day, The Great American History Puzzle, the Ken Jennings-penned race through the vaults of the Smithsonian, was a masterful piece of puzzlemaking. Each puzzle was exquisitely crafted, most of them deserving the highest of accolades for the medium: they were elegant. The kind of puzzle that, after you crack it, causes a slow smirk and head shake in awe of its creator. Jennings managed to come up with a variety of clever puzzle types, many of them involving mechanics reflected in the puzzle’s final answer. (I’m intentionally avoiding specifics since people are still working on it, and they haven’t revealed the answers yet.)
I participated in the hunt, and appreciated the puzzles not only as a crafter, but also as a solver. And I had a lot of luck solving them. As the hunt was nearing its final stages, I sniffed around on Twitter to get sense of what kind of competition I was in. It seemed to be pretty sizable. Then Jennings posted a blog post saying fewer than two dozen people had solved all the puzzles so far. I had a chance to win it. So, I took a look at what clues were exposed about the final answer, and I realized the thing might be crackable. I cleared out an evening and spent an exhilarating four hours scratching my way through the final, half-hidden acrostic. I finally got it — and couldn’t really believe it.
Turns out I wasn’t alone — a handful of other folks figured out the same back door I did. But all we overambitious solvers had a weird problem — the rules stated we couldn’t submit our answers until 2 PM EDT on Monday, October 22nd. It appeared the contest was going to come down to a race for who could fire off an email fastest (the final answers had to be delivered to a then-secret email address) instead of puzzle aptitude. So we all clung to one hope: a proviso in the rules that said a tiebreaker would be issues for responses that arrived at the same time. But what would constitute the same time? Same second? Same minute?
We don’t know, because Smithsonian choose not to invoke the rule. I asked them why not, and they said, “While we would have loved to have the drama of a tie-breaker, we had a clear winner.” To them, that was Jeff Davidson, whose email arrived first, at 2:00:20 ET.
How close were the rest of us? Yesterday they posted the times. Thirty seconds separate positions 1 and 13. Seven more came in within the next few minutes. That’s not 20 fast puzzle solvers — that’s 20 people who were already done with the whole thing, who’d solved it the days beforehand and were racing to get their emails in first. (The 21st solver took 33 minutes more.) To me, that’s a tie.
It’s their contest and their rules and ultimately they’re the arbiters of fairness. But the whole thing leaves an unsatisfying taste, for me and several others who are in the same boat. None of us feel we deserve the prize outright — it very well could be that Davidson would have been the fastest on a tiebreaker puzzle. But we would have liked the chance to prove it, instead of being at the mercy of the vagaries of our different email servers.
It’s an unfortunate ending to an event that was an otherwise beautiful expression of the craft. I absolutely hope the Smithsonian does it again, and I hope they hire Jennings again. I just also hope they devise a more equitable ending, so those solvers who gave it the most attention are given a fairer shot at the prize.