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This STS alum is a New York Times puzzle creator

February 27, 2019
Will Shortz, NYT crossword editor and Wei-Hwa Huang creator of board game, Roll for the Galaxy
PHOTO COURTESY OF WEI-HWA HUANG

What is a nine-letter word, beginning with a “v” that describes someone who makes puzzles their passion from a young age? Visionary! That is Science Talent Search alum Wei-Hwa Huang (STS 1993): American Puzzler, regular contributor to logic puzzles published by the New York Times and game designer of such award-winning gems as Roll for the Galaxy.

During his junior year at Caltech, Wei-Hwa joined the World Puzzle Championship (WPC) U.S. team, which was captained by Will Shortz, who went on to become the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times. Wei-Hwa and Will collaborate frequently and co-authored a book titled Will Shortz's Puzzlemaster Workout.

Will had this to say about Wei-Hwa: “He thinks creatively and rigorously. He's very playful. And he's easy to get along with. At one of the early WPCs I remember there was a going-away party with a rock band. After some time we Americans noticed that Wei-Hwa hadn't been seen for a while. Worriedly, we searched for him. Finally we found him in a stairwell outside the party ... solving puzzles!”

The Society interviewed Wei-Hwa on how deep his love of puzzles goes, as well as what he has planned for the future.

How did you become interested in puzzles?

I had plenty of puzzle books as a kid—growing up in the US in the early '80s, cheap Fun Pads were ubiquitous with connect-the-dots, crosswords, etc., but I think the first really cerebral puzzle-related book I remember is Martin Gardner's Aha! Insight, which I read when I was seven.

When did you realize you could make a career out of your passion?

I don't think there was ever a specific turning point; it was just a gradual process of actually getting paid to design puzzles, realizing that I was making enough to live on puzzle and game paychecks if I moved to an area of the U.S. with a lower cost of living. Now, I live in Silicon Valley, one of the top three most expensive areas in the country, so I'm rather fortunate that I have a nest egg from my software engineering days.

How did your puzzle skills help you in the Science Talent Search? What were some highlights from your experience?

My STS research project, which somehow managed to help me get all the way to 6th place in 1993, was completely based on the classical puzzle of Peg Solitaire, the game where you jump pegs over other pegs and remove the jumped-over one, like checkers. The specific problem my paper was on was addressed in two different mathematics books, where each book proclaimed that the problem had two solutions—but if you looked carefully, only one of the two solutions in each of the books were the same, which meant there were at least three solutions! My paper was a proof that there were precisely four solutions, not two nor three, which took me a few months to write.

One of the highlights of the STS finalist trip in D.C. was a visit to see President Bill Clinton. I had done my research ahead of time and knew he was a crossword puzzle fan, so I presented Mr. Clinton the first American-style crossword puzzle I'd ever written. A month later, he mailed me back the solved grid.

Friends would often joke that perhaps he just had an aide solve the puzzle. I would point out that an aide would not have solved the puzzle in felt-tip, written the wrong word and then written over the wrong letters. (The clue was a nine-letter word meaning "legally valid;" he had written in EFFECTIVE when the answer was EFFECTUAL.)

Not too soon after the 40 finalists said their goodbyes, a week later I got a group email from one of the finalists, with a little joke about how all 40 of us had received superpowers and adopted superhero identities. My identity was "The Riddler."

wei-hwa puzzle small.png
Rule: Place a chess piece in each square so that each row, column, and delineated 2x3 box contains six different chess pieces.  In addition, no chess piece may attack an identical chess piece (including through other chess pieces; for example, two bishops cannot be on the same diagonal).

What is your educational background?

I graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1998 with a degree in Engineering-and-Applied-Science-which-I'm-not-allowed-to-call-Computer-Science-even-though-really-it-is, having taken one year off because of academic pressure getting to me. (Caltech has quantum physics as a prerequisite for graduation, and I took the class three times before finally passing it!)  Before that, I graduated from the Magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School. Before that I attended schools in Frederick, MD; Taipei and suburban Chicago.

What upcoming or past project are you most excited about?

From a prestige standpoint, I was really happy to have worked with Will Shortz on writing a logic puzzle for every issue of The New York Times Magazine (a job that I'll be picking up again, after a recent hiatus). I was pretty excited for my first designer-credited board game, Roll for the Galaxy, when it came out in 2014 and picked up a handful of industry awards. Among unpaid projects, I'm still very proud about Doctor When, a weekend-long puzzle hunt that took place around the San Francisco Peninsula in 2012.

What is it like working with Will Shortz?

I've been a fan of Will since he was Editor-in-Chief of Games Magazine in the '80s and '90s, which I read religiously. I've seen him at least once every year since my first World Puzzle Championship. Working with Will is very smooth for me— I suggest and compose puzzles for him, he sends feedback, I modify the puzzles as desired and send them back. I think that he's probably a bit more demanding for his crossword writers, as he has so many of them.

What is next for you?

The project currently occupying my mind right now is the Red Bull Escape Room World Championships, which will be held in April. I participated as a contestant in the inauguration run, and this time I've been hired as a puzzle designer and consultant for the Championship semi-finals and finals, which will take place somewhere in the United Kingdom this April. I was also on a 59-person team that won the MIT Mystery Hunt in January, which is the largest and oldest annual puzzle event in the world. But what really takes up my time these days are my twins, Twyla and Titus, who are currently 19 months old and are quite a handful.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

For my childhood and adolescence, definitely my mother, who raised me and my sister as a single parent for many of those years and yet still positioned me to get a lot of opportunities. In the world of puzzles and mathematics, my childhood idol was Martin Gardner, who managed to present mathematics and puzzles in a way that made things interesting and fun. As a board game developer, friend and mentor, Tom Lehmann, whose instincts for game design and patience have resulted in many great games that I'd spend all my time playing were I not interested in furthering my career.