Welcome (Back) to Grandmaster Puzzles: Thoughts on our first ten years – The Art of Puzzles

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A ten-year update to our first puzzle post ever.

A logo, and a puzzle

Solve our logo puzzle online by clicking here or download this PDF to solve offline (go back to the original post for solution tracking).

A few stats for our past decade of puzzles:

  • 2,618 web puzzle posts (389 weeks of content across 10 years), from 78 different authors including our 12 main puzzlemasters;
  • 3,800 book puzzles across 59 distinct collections (with a similarly high number of total authors but where completing that count would take a lot more time);
  • 0 broken puzzles / mistakes in artwork that needed fixing after publication (either online, or in our books), thanks to countless hours from our testing team supporting me and Serkan — mistakes in posts was always a critique of hand-crafted designs, compared to computer generation, but we have never failed our solvers on the released artwork;
  • 684,396 Penpa-plus web clicks across 2,684 solving links (we’ve recently finished updating EVERY web blog post except for 3 with an online solving option, as well as having our five Starter Packs also with these digitial options as we plan for more across our books);
  • 802 solving videos to date explaining different puzzles, with a small but dedicated audience of 1,146 subscribers to our YouTube channel.
  • Longer form thoughts follow, including some introspection:

    Ten years ago, in the last days of December 2012, we launched our blog and new website at Grandmaster Puzzles with this logo puzzle. While I had used the GMPuzzles publishing imprint to self-publish The Art of Sudoku earlier in the spring of 2012, and had already contracted with Dave Millar to build the initial website, I view 12/12/12 at 12:12:12 as the moment a bigger mission for Grandmaster Puzzles started. At that time, I sent out a larger plan* to champion hand-crafted logic puzzles in an age where uninteresting computer-generation was dominating the commercial markets. I shared lots of different goals for what the business model might be (print books, e-books, puzzle licensing, competitions, …), with the commitment as step 1 to recognize and gather the best puzzle designers and bring them more rewards for their work, under a single brand. Achieving something I wasn’t seeing at the time when many of the people I considered the top designers of the sudoku/post-sudoku era shared all their work for free on their own blogs, my motris.livejournal.com no different a story from the rest.

    *(I’m sharing the original My(Grand)MasterPlan doc here broadly for the first time as a (curious) source document for our company history.)

    This ten-year anniversary might seem like something to celebrate, and for the puzzle community it certainly is. For me, it is more complex than that, as that December moment is tied up with one of the more challenging times in my life to look back on.

    December 13, 2012 was the day I “quit” my first science job at a start-up. That role as chief scientist was an eye-opening job for me as I had the chance to advance a technology I had co-invented at Stanford, now at a company trying to translate it to the clinic. The goal was to impact the lives of organ transplant recipients by developing a blood test to better monitor and manage their post-transplantation care. I was already seeing that an “academic” life wasn’t the right fit for me — so many ideas never grow beyond their academic publication in peer-reviewed journals to be useful; being at a company to directly see the design and execution of studies to launch a clinical product was more of a dream job for me. But after many years on the project, spanning Stanford and the start-up, we were not on a path for success. The lesson I was learning is that even when the science is sound, other challenges can stand in the way of advancing new, useful solutions into the world. In our case, a skeptical set of potential investors, competing technology ideas around the immune system, and other challenges around the leadership table were too much for us to solve. Unlike a sudoku, there was no clear answer that we could agree was right when times got tough. After an extended period of trying to find a way to keep the team together when we couldn’t raise funding or maintain alignment with the cofounders, after not having much sleep for over a month, of walking around Palo Alto on too many nights to organize my thoughts in a hypomanic mode, I could not see any way forward and left the team.**

    **(The path that seemed possible was acquisition, and via CareDx which acquired the start-up, aspects of my invention are now routinely used in tens of thousands of patients with kidney, heart, and lung transplants. I routinely contribute the patent royalties I get back to projects like GMPuzzles which don’t stand on their own yet; these patent payments are an annual reminder of the failure/success of that first diagnostic journey and my first career arc.)

    Within a day of sending out both my “resignation letter” of sorts and my GMPuzzles business plan, I took a long drive down the coast of California. It was the first step in what would be a much longer year of recovery for my mental and emotional health as I reset my life. Early in 2013 I moved to Seattle, where I would do a lot of reading and hiking and daily puzzle publishing as Grandmaster Puzzles was at least an interim answer for me while I took some time to rediscover my larger mission in life.

    While I stayed (f)unemployed in science in 2013, not using the skills I’d spent my life training for, in January 2014 I went back to full-time science work again while continuing to contribute to GMPuzzles during evenings/weekends. 2014 was when we launched one of our first revenue models via Patreon while also contributing to an external magazine, the short-lived Will Shortz’s Sudoku series, with hand-crafted sudoku variations. These business models would come and go, as would others, over the coming years. Our team by then had grown to ~8 contributing puzzlemasters and several more regular testers, but a lot still rested with me to keep things moving including our web posts and other projects. So when I got a new science job at Google Life Sciences and moved back to the Bay Area in 2015, the site stopped publishing for several months but eventually came back on a slightly less regular basis. Stops and starts is a familiar story across these ten years, as some of our early books took extra months to finally be released but were (hopefully) always worth the wait. I still feel blessed to have had all the patience from our authors and solvers when we made updates to our plans on the fly as my schedule required.

    The stories I can tell of these ten years of Grandmaster Puzzles are closely tied to the story of my life, a life that isn’t about being (just) a great sudoku solver or puzzle constructor, but about being a great problem solver particularly in science/medicine (knowing that skills from puzzles can help me in other parts of my life). A life where I can’t separate science/professional from puzzles/personal, even if I try to on Grandmaster Puzzles most of the time.

    Around so many life events, I can remember puzzles I was editing or writing:

  • like John Bulten’s extreme Quintessence when I was in Ohio in March 2018 for my grandfather’s funeral, a challenging puzzle to edit at a challenging moment in life as it also marked the start of my own awareness of my mother’s final health decline from cancer as she couldn’t attend);
  • like the Lighthouse that was the first puzzle I wrote after my mother died several months later, a story I wrote about before when discussing the World Puzzle Championship title I finally won that year but when I didn’t feel I could/should attend.
  • Following my mother’s death, I doubled down on my scientific work at Verily (originally Google Life Sciences), trying to make sure all my projects were set up for high impact because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people dealing with disease again, to have more tools reach the clinic. I expected we were on the cusp of some meaningful things at Verily (if we could align our actions), but by late 2019 I also saw other outside opportunities that could be bigger. I again needed to pause GMPuzzles posts at the end of 2019 to consider new jobs, and decided to leave Verily and go back to the Seattle company I’d joined in 2014, now in a larger role that would eventually involve leading an extended org of 30+ people. I started that job in March 2020 just as the pandemic was starting to impact the United States, which made for one of the weirdest first weeks of any job I can imagine. My first team message just after meeting them in person was describing how we were going to handle remote work as Seattle was starting to shut down. My temporary apartment in Seattle was abandoned after a frantic couple weeks as I returned to the Bay Area as we all limited our social contact while advancing our work remotely. If the first week on the job was tough, my team rallied throughout the year. Within a month we had access to a lot of partners with COVID-19 samples to investigate; within a quarter we had an early method to measure the immune response to SARS-CoV-2; and within a year we had completed its development and received an emergency use authorization from the FDA for a new kind of T-cell based test to help in COVID-19.

    2020 was an incredible year as a scientist to see how the research community rallied together in unexpected ways, where the usual barriers of capitalism and ownership/licensing challenges and other things fell aside a bit so we could work together to advance solutions. There were bad signals, sure — too many people (including non-scientists) suddenly acted like they were experts on COVID-19, and the policy follow-through from governments will need revisiting in the future. But 2020 showed me some clear signs for how much we can do as groups if we apply our minds to large problems. Yes, other things happened in 2020 in my life and for Grandmaster Puzzles***, but the whole year felt tied to launching that COVID-19 test and supporting immune-related research in vaccination; those are the main memories that I and the team that rallied to the work will keep from 2020.

    ***(Summer 2020 was the most recent relaunching of GMPuzzles after a half-year hiatus, back to weekly form for the first time since 2014. A big business update was moving to a Shopify store front for all books; a much larger company change was adding Serkan Yürekli as managing editor, basically full-time, for our submissions and web/book work even though we don’t make enough in any year to support staff. This was the best way to keep releasing puzzles into a world that needed them when I had limited time/energy to work on the GMP effort but could donate some of my science earnings back into Grandmaster Puzzles as a way to help people’s mental health in challenging times.)

    You might note that I just found myself using footnotes/asides to tell the story of Grandmaster Puzzles; that is likely a sign that the company story is starting to grow to be a different story than just mine. At least I started to view it a lot more directly as a charity where it needed some new leaders starting with Serkan who would try to make it into a business.

    Continuing on the GMPuzzles side, early 2021 marked the last key update in approach in our first ten years for the site, as we began Penpa-Edit digital solving options (with great support from Swaroop G) for all new posts, where we began the task to digitize our public archive of 2000+ puzzles, something I started and that Murat, Prasanna, and Grant helped complete. Online options are now on all of our web puzzles except for these two that are geometrically challenging and on Quintessence which I just can’t find the energy to do or to ask anyone else to do, because it is a different kind of journey that needs to be on paper I guess.

    On the science side, the urgency/pace of our research in 2020 didn’t necessarily ease up in 2021 or early 2022 as my team applied the immune platform to other diseases including autoimmune diseases and cancer, but that might not have been a sustainable work mode for me to take. The team struggled to find our next products or at least to align on our overall strategy from a few potential options. After months of straddling work and split living in SF and Seattle areas, of trying to keep my team together after a round of forced layoffs when I already felt something else was next for me, I had another (this time more public) breakdown due to extreme mental health distress. Not too different from how I felt around 12/12/12 and the days before and the days after when I couldn’t solve for the “puzzle” of my first start-up. That time ten years ago when I was a bit defeated and the simple thought of starting a puzzle company was enough to get me moving forward to something new, whether that vision or another undiscovered frontier once I just had the time and distance to process a lot. 2022 had a lot of the traits of 2012, where I’d again be driving the coast of California to favorite nature spots to think about what was next.

    My 2022 memories for GMPuzzles include my 400th puzzle post and the great story I could tell alongside it. But that was quite far from the headline story for 2022, which was about my public telling (post here, video here) of how I have dealt with hypomanic tendencies at different times in my life including when excited by ideas but also when stressed. Of how I might have gone too far in early 2022 pushing myself to solve an unsolvable problem at work, which lead to my going manic and being hospitalized. Signs to watch out came from all around my friends and family, including a youtube comment from an Araf video the week before things went very extreme as I literally headed south and drove away from Seattle and back to SF as one way to cope with extreme emotions. On a day, Pi Day, when a video I still haven’t watched was set to release to the world — a manic moment that this puzzle community experienced first, alongside some unusual tweets, even though it was provoked by my science/professional story. I still don’t know how all of you experienced those events, and I still have never seen the video. I have it in my archives to explore someday, but still not yet. When I am (hypo)manic, I am my most true and unrepressed self, and those thoughts are quite strong to bear. Some “future Thomas” will be ready to listen to them.

    If I take any lesson from the very recent past, it is that 2022 made it clear I can’t keep the divide of my science and my puzzle lives working in the way I have been trying to. That some of my stories to tell include on YouTube are bigger than just one logic puzzle at a time. Also, that even if Grandmaster Puzzles doesn’t have a successful business model, it may now be the time to give it to others (while I continue to fund) to do more of the major work, because I am onto my next role in science, a role more challenging than the last but feeling one step closer to achieving something in precision medicine through better diagnostic tests.

    So how to summarize 2012-22?

    Over the past ten years, Grandmaster Puzzles has grown its contributions to the world. We have achieved the first mission of my initial master plan to bring together many great puzzle authors, and we’ve even been a part of motivating the “next generation” of puzzle solvers and authors in the US and around the world.

    And over the past ten years, I have rebuilt my career in science and found a lot of success even if 2012 ended in one of my larger failures and burning a set of bridges.

    Neither of these stories has followed a linear path, and there will probably still be some unexpected things to come.

    2023 is going to be a year of looking back and looking forward. Our “blog format” is dated, and we’re going to think of new ways to organize our web content and improve its delivery. While doing this, we’re going to mostly do reruns of prior puzzles — because we doubt most of you have solved all web/book puzzles and the new digital options may make our earlier content fun to explore for the first time, or at least the first time in ten years.

    We’ll continue to put out books, but in a looking forward sense, each new book will now start with digital solving options and also Penpa-edit solving animations for the answers so you can see a logical path through the puzzle. We’re going to also find ways to release some of our favorite pre-GMPuzzles work here, because there is (or will be) a new audience to bring those puzzles to. We’ll also explore licensing our content to other publishers/providers again too, because our unfair advantage is the great network of puzzle creators and editors we have, not our ability to build an app or do everything else that might broaden the number of people aware of our puzzles. Serkan has now certainly grown to be as much a co-founder with me for the next ten years of GMP, and we’re continuing to debate the next steps we need to take as he becomes even more of a leader if/when I step back from putting as much time into puzzles.

    This is a lot to share, but all I know sometimes is to write it down and store it for history. Thanks for reading to here, and happy puzzling in the next ten years! We hope Grandmaster Puzzles stays a routine place for you to come visit, in good times and bad, to find elegant hand-crafted puzzles from the world’s best designers.