Ten Tricks to Reading a Puzzle
Puzzles are different than problems.
Problems have solutions that are usually obvious. There’s nothing hidden.
Puzzles are problems designed to test ingenuity or knowledge.
There is always something hidden. Discovering that hidden thing is the core of the puzzle.
Here are ten rules for how to read a puzzle based on a book I wrote on the topic.
The obvious answer is always wrong. Depend on it—your first thought is undependable. The more obvious the answer seems, the more incorrect it is likely to be. Almost all of puzzles are deeper than they appear to be—that’s what makes them puzzles. By all means, note the obvious answer, but be suspicious. Be very suspicious. Now, take the obvious answer and consider why it’s wrong.
Work the answer, not the question. All the information you need is already there. Nothing is missing. A good puzzle gives you everything you need in the text.
Break it down. Smaller is more manageable. If the puzzle involves five marbles, see what would happen with two marbles.
Read the puzzle carefully. Sometimes what the puzzle asks is different than what you think it asks.
Honor Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor is the proposition that when two explanations account for a situation, the simpler explanation—the explanation with the fewest assumptions—is better. Most puzzles are less complicated than they first appear to be.
Calculus is never required. If you find yourself working a hard math problem, stop immediately. Genuine puzzles never require more than simple arithmetic and mostly common sense. In general, the more complicated the question, the simpler the answer. And if the puzzle calls for a number solution, the solution is always a whole number.
Work backward. Often the solution is easier when you start from the end of the puzzle and work backward.
Favor divergent thinking. Sometimes called “Outside the box” thinking. The tools you need to solve problems with divergent thinking are originality, adaptability, fluency, and inventiveness. Divergent thinkers examine all assumptions, stated and especially unstated. The typical divergent thinker will usually explore many possible solutions before finding the optimum one.
Sleep on it. If the solution doesn’t come to you, sleep on it. Let your unconscious work on it. Put your attention on other activities. You may find the path that gets you to a solution while you are taking a shower or working out.
Puzzle creatures are not human. When puzzles are animated by human-like creatures, it’s important to forget practically everything you know about complex, ambivalent human behavior. Puzzle creatures are simple, one-dimensional characters who exist only to serve the puzzle. They usually have but one motivation. Depending on the puzzle, these characters are concerned only with maximizing money, escaping the fire, moving items across a bridge, or behaving in predictable ways. Puzzle creatures understand probability and when they are expected to act logically, they never fail. These creatures act instantaneously and are thoroughly aware of the logical consequences of their actions. Puzzle creatures never make mistakes, nor are they ever uncertain. Puzzle creatures don’t have an altruistic bone in their bodies; they never do anything because they are nice or it’s the fair thing to do. When they act, it’s for their self-interest alone.
Try It for Yourself
Here’s an older puzzle. See how you apply the rules. Good luck.