Tag Archives: games

82. Puzzles

I’ve met my nemesis and it is called the Rubik’s Cube.

No offense to its creator, Ernő Rubik, who in 1974 developed the puzzle cube. I bet you were a swell guy. The fact remains: This harmless little child’s toy with its impossible labyrinth of color shifting devilry has been a thorn in society’s side ever since.

I’ve never solved one. Obviously. Even the instructions I try to use from the internet betray me.

There are competitions, famous competitions, where people solve Rubik’s Cubes in the quickest or strangest ways. One-handed, blind-folded, floating in zero gravity. On a boat, on a kangaroo. People challenge themselves, but mostly they challenge the Rubik’s Cube, constantly stretching the boundaries of puzzle solving criteria. Soon we’ll be looking for the one who can swallow the cube whole and solve it with their digestive system.

Our fastest human solver of the Rubik’s cube is Feliks Zemdegs. The fastest computer solved it in 5.27 seconds. We’re not far behind at 5.66, thanks to Zemdegs. I guess we know who to call when during the robot uprising our species’ survival is based on the outcome of a Rubik’s Cube showdown.

More importantly, you should note, the puzzle that has taken me over twenty-five years to never complete was solved by an Australian teenager in slightly less than six full seconds.


But I keep going back to the the puzzle. I keep rotating at random. Sometimes I’ll have a moment of clarity and really see how the rotations work together, but I’d be lying if I said I had some kind of method. I don’t know any of the algorithms people use to solve the thing, I simply like to try sometimes. Like reading a book, picking up a Rubik’s Cube makes you feel smart, even if you’re just winging it.

What draws us back to these unsolvable puzzles though? We ache and groan because they defeat us regularly. We think we’ve figured it out, then it gets even more complicated. We might even tell ourselves that we’ve given up, but it never lasts. We’ve all got a Rubik or two in our lives.

I don’t think we can help it.

It’s boring to have everything figured out. It’s boring to solve all your problems.

We all need something on the backburner, even if the pots on the front burners are boiling over. Like a lighthouse beacon in the fog, these insistent background tasks, these puzzles you’ll never solve but never let go, they kind of remind us that there’s something to aim for, even if you never get there. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s our non-task that needs to never be completed because if we didn’t have these intangible, unrealistic goals, then we’d wander like sheep without fences.

I’m not saying the Rubik’s Cube has channeled my attention away from bigger and better things. We’re all capable of experiencing all of the life’s wonders, regardless of our puzzles. I’m only saying that I like to keep the cube around. I like to try and solve it once in a while, like catching up with an old friend. Like a grizzled cop meeting an uncatchable mobster in a coffee-shop, wanting to choke each other right there on the checkered linoleum, but sipping coffee with amicable smugness and understanding between them. I’ll never defeat the cube and the cube will never defeat me.

Live life. Pursue goals.

But not all the puzzles will be solved, and there will be goals that evade your reach like fireflies, flashing briefly before slipping away. Chase them, but do not be defeated by them. Know when to put the cube down for a while and take care of bigger things.

81. Backgammon

My opponent has two remaining pieces on the final point of his home board. It’s my roll. I’ve got three pieces on the second point of my home board and one piece on the final. If I roll doubles, I’ll win. I shake the dice. I pray. Not a religious man, I aim my prayers toward the Great Gods of Backgammon. I ask them, in a tone normally used by hostages pleading for their life, that I might roll doubles. It is as if all the universe has been created for this one minuscule moment of my own personal history. This roll means everything. This roll defines all of human existence. This is the roll to end all rolls. I take a deep breath, I close my eyes, and I release the dice.

And this, my friends, is why backgammon is the best game in the world.

Argue all you want, but if you can create a game that results in this manner of jaw-dropping, gut-clenching, heart-stopping excitement, then you’ve got something special. We’re talking about the Superbowl, the Olympics, the space race, and the California gold rush of 1849 all mixed into one.

It’s dice and checkers, basically. You roll two dice and move your pieces around the board and the first one to get all their pieces off the board wins. Simple. It’s mostly luck, mixed with strategic use of that luck. In a five (or fifteen) minute game you will come to reevaluate your understanding of destiny. This is a game that can encourage risk or spit in your face. This is a game that can give you anything you ask for, only to take it all away in the final roll. There is no game like it.

The game is about 5,000 years old. When I first met backgammon, I knew it as “tavla,” which is what the Turkish call it. Since I was Turkey-bound for a semester abroad, I taught myself how to play (knowing how passionate they were about the game), and I taught a few of my friends before leaving the country. There, I played it relentlessly, teaching a few others, usually over a cheap beer in a smoky bar, while having my amateur skills decimated by the local Turks, who seemed born with an innate bond with the tavla board.

They even know how to roll the dice in such a way to promote doubles.

And doubles will win any game.

It’s deceptively simple while incredibly complex. A new player will make mistakes that they’ll immediately regret or not recognize as mistakes until they’ve lost ten games in a row. It is a game that will let you win, then tear you down from your pedestal to remind you that you’re only human. You will come back for more, and more, and more, until you figure out not only why you lose, but more importantly why you win.

There’s a reason my friend coined the term: “Crackgammon.”

What other game has been so captivating?