Johan de Ruiter (The Netherlands) is the founder and administrator of the well known PuzzlePicnic website -which is one of the most satisfactory puzzle portals. PuzzlePicnic stands out among its counterparts, since it is an open platform in which you can solve puzzles or create your own ones at the same time.
Interview: Gülce Özkütük Yürekli
I am 29 years old and I grew up in a small village near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I married an Israeli girl with whom I moved to California in April 2011. There I had been offered a position as Software Engineer at imo.im - a start-up of one of the first ten Google people.
I have an innate curiosity for a wide variety of things and when my mind is free, I try to come up with something I can turn into a puzzle or an interesting question to entertain myself. I can often be found just sitting and thinking. Reflecting, wondering and gaining understanding in this way is what really makes me feel alive. I also love to read on Wikipedia and to take part in programming competitions.My biggest successes are actually not in puzzles, but in the field of algorithm contests. In high school I excelled in the national olympiad in informatics, and during my studies in Leiden I twice won the Benelux Algorithm Programming Contest and once placed third in North-Western Europe. I also had some small successes writing short stories. This is an area in which I would like to develop myself more.
- Familiar questions for a puzzler: How did you enter the world of puzzles? Did you start as a solver or a designer, which one is more challenging for you? Most people say that designing a puzzle is way better than solving. Did your designer side beat the competitive side?
I have always enjoyed bringing my ideas to life, turning inspiration into something tangible, whether it is through creative writing, programming or puzzle making. The first puzzle I ever constructed was a word search puzzle I wrote for my mother. I was 9 years old and had just solved a bunch of those. I vividly remember this 1-letter mistake she found, where I had put ‘jasen’ into the grid instead of ‘jassen’. Four years later, when I learned how to use a computer, I made a small puzzle booklet containing a variety of word-based puzzles for my sister.
When I first heard about the Dutch Puzzle Championship through BreinBrekers, which published the preliminary round, my competitive nature really got me on the logic puzzle track. I reached the on-site final round 5 times, but with my best rank being 2nd in the qualification and 22nd in the finals, I wasn’t the star of the show.
It wasn’t until 2003 that I first created my own logic puzzle. I came up with Pathfinder and one of my early puzzles was used for the World Puzzle Championship. I then went on to develop Cogwheels puzzles, which were published in BreinBrekers.
You could say over time the puzzle designer in me has beaten the competitive puzzle solver. It suits my qualities better as I don’t think as fast as the top ranked puzzlers, but I am creative and have a great deal of patience.
- Do you have any favorite types of puzzles, both in solving and designing? Your stats in PuzzlePicnic tell me that your most published types are Sudoku and Kakuro. Do you have a special interest in these classics, or is this a natural conclusion since it’s easier to design many puzzles of those types?
I did go through a Kakuro phase, but I’m not really a fan of Sudoku. Sudoku was one of the first puzzle types we implemented, and indeed they are relatively easy to design. Hence the stats. I’m not proud of them, my Pi Sudoku - in which I managed to put all 32 digits of the number pi before the first 0 occurs - being an exception.
When solving, I particularly enjoy LITS, Tapa, Hamilton Maze and the classic Easy as ABC. In constructing, I like the wide variety of genres we support. When I have an idea, there is most often a puzzle type that I can use for it. And if not, I can make a new one.
- Can you give some information about Puzzle Picnic, for your future fans? Who are your team, how did you come up with the idea, what will solvers and designers find in your website? And what about your PuzzlePicnic routine; how often do you work for it, how does the puzzle evaluation process work, etc..
In 2006 I started competing in online programming contests and it made me dream of a similar concept for puzzles. When I first bugged Maarten Löffler with this idea, he was very hesitant. I had met him at a chemistry event and later ran into him during math, programming and puzzle contests. He had known me for a few years now and learned I had a liking for coming up with projects that were at best on the edge of the feasible. “Is this one of these things that you will have forgotten about by next week?” he asked me. “I don’t know,” I told him, “ask me again in a week.” So a week went by and he did indeed bring the subject up. I had to admit I hadn’t really worked on developing the concept much further. “I can’t stop thinking about it anymore”, he said. So he was on board. Neither of us had any experience with programming for the web however, but we could convince Thierry de Kok, a mutual friend, to help us out.
We figured that in order to create many puzzles, we required a good interface to design them. So a language was made up in which the admins could easily describe puzzle types in such a way that puzzle designers could click their puzzles together without knowing anything about programming and that their output could immediately be interpreted as an interactive puzzle. Our focus shifted from hosting puzzle competitions to catering to aspiring puzzle authors and offering puzzlers an ever larger collection of puzzles and puzzle types.
So users generate the content on PuzzlePicnic, but because it is quite difficult to create a correct puzzle and it is very annoying to spend time on solving a puzzle that ultimately turns out to be incorrect, a puzzle is thoroughly checked by a puzzle judge before it is shown to others. Besides the three founders, there are currently four puzzle judges: Bram de Laat, who won both the Dutch Puzzle Championship and the Dutch Sudoku Championship last year, Fred Coughlin from the United States, Murat Can Tonta from Turkey and Eran Grinvald from Israel.
Because these guys are doing such a good job and everything is running quite smoothly, we founders can now afford to spend less time working on the content and instead think more about new opportunities and how to implement these.
- A puzzle friend of ours says: “Publishing puzzles online is nothing but creating garbage.” That’s because he thinks those efforts never get the credit they deserve! But I really appreciate projects like yours because you put something forward without expecting any returns. How do you feel about this? After five years, are you still enjoying it?
I believe publishing your puzzles online is a great way to polish your skills and get some feedback. Thousands have seen my puzzles in print, but I rarely hear from them. On the Internet this is very different.
After five years, I am still excited about this project. It is really great for me to see that people enjoy what we have built for them, and to see people contribute their time and effort to keep it going and make it better.
- Do you follow other puzzle sites like Nikoli or CrocoPuzzle regularly?
I check Ed Pegg Jr.’s mathpuzzle.com every day. It is not updated every day, maybe once a month, but I check it just in case. I keep an eye on Thomas Snyder’s blog and once in a while I visit Erich Friedman’s site, because I like his puzzles and his Math Magic pages. That’s about it.
- So, you have been living in USA for a while. Are you sparing any time for US puzzle events, as a competitor or designer?
My work environment is very inspiring and I’m learning a lot from working with extremely talented people - one of them a former member of the German puzzle team and the German Sudoku team. On the downside, I have less time for participation in competitions and puzzle designing now than back when I lived in The Netherlands. I do have some projects in the pipeline, that are not necessarily related to the US puzzle events, but are nonetheless exciting and who knows where it might go from there?
- Last, let’s talk about the Dutch puzzle culture. The Netherlands is one of the notable countries in the field of puzzles; with WPC organizations, publishings, etc... For example I know that BreinBrekers magazine is being published for a long time. But I guess the puzzle culture is not “very” popular throughout the country, as it is always the case (Japan may be an exception). What do you think about your people’s attitude towards puzzles?
Hns Eendebak, editor of BreinBrekers, has been doing great work for many years and I think it is safe to say he fathered an entire generation of Dutch puzzle enthusiasts by introducing us to quality BreinBreker-style logic puzzles and competitive puzzle solving.
It is not as widespread as I would like to see, but I guess everyone you would talk to would at least have an uncle or some acquaintance who is into these puzzles. Ever since the Sudoku craze it has become much easier to explain what PuzzlePicnic is about to a layman, but I noticed that, whereas I enjoy figuring out the inner workings of new puzzle types, many prefer to stick with what they are already familiar with - Sudoku. Yet, it is a young a discipline and I foresee a bright future.