KenKen Ken

In October of 2019, people still went on business trips, and the Bacon Provider was out of town for a couple of days. Left to my own devices, I signed up for the 10th KenKen International Championship.

They had swag

When we bought the house in Bedhead Hills, I was so grateful to be able to get a New York Times delivered to my house every day that I quickly deeply intensified my crossword addiction. I saw my first Times crossword in college, and if I tried to solve one then I don’t recall being able to get very far. But at some point in my adulthood my enormous underused brain started drumming on the inside of my skull and I took it to mean DO THE PUZZLE EVERY DAY. And once I got good at it I started doing the KenKen puzzles, too.

At first you might not really understand that they are different  from Sudoku puzzles, but they are. KenKen puzzles have math operations. You use a lot of logic and a little arithmetic. 

And I can do them pretty fast. Like, sometimes I just take out a pencil and fill in the numbers. So, when I saw that the World Championship was going to be held in a town not far from me, on a day in the near future, I signed up. 

By way of preparation for a puzzle competition, I did the usual puzzles in the newspaper every day, plus a few online. I did not read up on strategies for doing KenKens quickly. I should have.

The day of the event, put on sneakers and jeans and arrived pretty early. The first wave of nervousness hit me as I got out of my car. Am I fast at mental arithmetic? Maybe above average, but not really very. Am I good at KENKEN puzzles? Probably above average, but not going to be competitive here. Why did I sign up then? I checked in and got a special big KenKen pencil and an official orange shirt. At the check in desk, they were surprised to hear I’ve never been here before. I guess I looked experienced.

Big game tournament energy selfie

My Past Self always wants my Future Self to go Out and have Fun and Interesting Adventures. Her optimism is eternal. She’s a frickin joiner. Present Self had to ask for the bathroom. She maybe didn’t need to go, but what if she did, later. Also, she wants to have a word with Past Self, because she is never the one who wakes up with a headache.

The KenKen International a gymnasium, really, where under normal circumstances the room is full of ping pong tables. It has gymnasium vibes. But there are excited clumps of people (mostly men), including kids (mostly boys). 

There are big tables, set up in a regular array throughout the room. People are already sitting, and warming up for the competition by putting their heads down and doing puzzles. Looking at them makes me a little sick.

KenKen International Championship Sunday, December 15, 2019

Now I have to sit. Seats are filling in, and if I want a choice—and I do, I do!—it’s time. I choose the table closest to the women’s bathroom (which does not seem to have a proper sign). But I asked; I know where it is. I could have done more to be ready for this morning, but knowing where the bathroom is makes up for a little of it.

There is one seat taken at this table, by a man named Louis, who came to the event in a $90 Uber from the Bronx.

In my seat I am perfectly situated to watch people approach tournament organizer and puzzlemaster Will Shortz for selfies.

Famous Puzzlemaster Will Shortz

I realize I left my big eraser on the island in my kitchen. Next, I realize that the empty bleachers behind me are going to be filled with spectators.

Doing KenKen puzzles are supposed to make you smarter. It’s true if “smarter” is “better at KenKen puzzles.” I am feeling less smart at this moment than when I locked the car, but more smart than I did in early October of 2019 when I signed up for this.

Other people brought snacks and water. I left my water in the car. I guess I could buy a snack. If I’d brought any money. Who carries money anymore? Not me.

The seats at my table are filled quickly, mostly by other women, who seem genuinely relieved to find a table with other women. The last two seats are taken by a young enthusiastic woman whose sister is sitting in the bleachers, and a sort of rumpled older fellow.

Starting any minute. My optimistic goal is to finish all the puzzles. My realistic goal is not to give up and start giggling. My best alternative to meeting any goals is leaving; I’m sitting equidistant from the women’s bathroom and the exit.

Now for the medley of national anthems played on violin by a local high school kid. It includes the songs of U.S., Egypt, Israel, Uganda, UAE, Australia, India, and China. Play ball!

Round one is done. The first one went ok, but something about the puzzles is different from the ones I’ve been practicing on. The second puzzle is tricky, and I have to erase the whole thing twice. I’m not used to doing this with my heart thumping in my chest!! I am able to finish about 4 minutes before the time runs out. When you finish you raise your hand. The young woman next to me is incredibly fast. I should have been faster.

In round two, I cannot finish the bigger, harder puzzles in the time allowed. I realize that the contest puzzles are hand-made, and not according to simple algorithms. Now I’ve given myself a nice headache and I just want to leave. I check my pockets for Sportsmanship pills, or forgotten candy. Wouldn’t peppermint Lifesavers be just the thing at this point?

I am running on fumes. The rumpled man at the table mutters while he’s solving. I take out my earplugs and put them in again. It doesn’t help.

But for you, I tell Twitter, I will stick it out. Even if I can’t finish the puzzles.

And then I’m done. I finished only one of the puzzles in the last round, and my head hurt, and I decide it was all great fun. While the puzzle sheets are checked, I chat with the others at my table. I feel kind of silly when I realize that many of the adults here are math teachers. Of course they are.

When the results are in, the kid winners are announced first. The winners in the youngest group are from China and the UAE. Kids from the UAE swept the second kids’ division. The high school division winners were from New York and India. Senior division (by which I mean the elderly) winners were from Tenafly, New Jersey, Manhattan and Yorktown, New York.

Louis who spent $90 on an Uber was happy to announce that a friend would be picking him up to take him back to the Bronx. This was his 2nd year competing. He finished third and his was a new name to the announcer. It was gratifying to clap for my new acquaintance’s achievement.

Since starting to do KenKen puzzles, I dream about doing KenKen puzzles. So there’s that. When the organizers published the results, I saw that I did not come in last, and was, in fact 54th in the adult division. If I can figure out how to do puzzles with my heart pounding in my chest, I might try again.

This year’s competition was postponed, due to the pandemic.