KenKen Logic Puzzle Competition at the Public Library

You don't often hear a lot of cheering at public libraries, but in the library theater at the Chappaqua Public Library, in Chappaqua, New York, cheering is quite acceptable – especially during the library's annual KenKen logic puzzle tournament. Friends and family of the contestants sit in bleacher-style seats rooting the contestants on at the end of every round of puzzles. The finals of this tournament take place on the stage in the library theater, with all the suspense and fanfare of an international chess tournament. Pulling in contestants of all ages from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, this contest of the mind has become a new library tradition.

KenKen logic puzzles were invented in 2004 by Tetsuya Miyamoto in Japan. The puzzles have an inherent appeal and can be played enjoyably by people from 5 to 105. Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times, was introduced to the KenKen puzzles by Chappaqua resident Robert Fuhrer, a toy inventor whose company, Nextoy LLC, brought the puzzles to the United States. Shortz convinced the Times to print KenKen puzzles as a regular feature in the newspaper, further popularizing these puzzles.

Joan Kuhn, the library's program coordinator, came up with the idea of having a KenKen puzzle tournament at the library. Kuhn, a longtime crossword puzzle and Sudoku fan, had organized a Sudoku puzzle competition at the library a few years ago. The KenKen puzzle tournament was a natural extension of that. When she envisioned this tournament, she knew right away that she'd garner the approval of library director Pamela Thornton, who routinely promotes the use of the library as a community gathering place. Thornton explains, “We've shifted our focus to being a gathering place for our community. We're the neighborhood community center. We're lucky to have Will Shortz in our neighborhood and he is just so brilliant. He's a national treasure. There's nobody like him--and he's willing to give his time at our library.”

Who was the winner of the first two KenKen logic puzzle tournaments? The winner both times was high school student Molly Olonoff, who left the adult puzzle competitors in the dust. Molly's mom, Debbie Olonoff, explained, “I knew she was good at KenKen logic puzzles, but I didn't know she was that good. She looks at the puzzles, sees the numbers, and solves them in record times. She's tough because she has two older brothers. She is quietly competitive--like a stealth bomber. She goes about her job, does not draw any attention to herself, and then she wins and you find her on the podium in first place!”

An amusing part of this story is that Molly did not register herself for the original puzzle tournament. A friend registered her for the tournament, and then Molly dutifully showed up to take first place.

Robert Fuhrer, the Chappaqua resident and KenKen proponent, says that his company will soon be offering a free KenKen app for the iPhone and iPad. People can also play KenKen puzzles for free on the KenKen.com website. Books of KenKen puzzles, from easy to difficult, are also available for purchase on the site. I asked Robert Fuhrer to explain the “freemium business model" of his website and he said: “Our freemium model will be to continue to offer 6 puzzles a day for free, almost exactly as have been offered in the 3 years since we introduced KenKen interactive.” Fuhrer went on to add that in a month or two the KenKen.com website will have its 100 millionth KenKen puzzle played online. This impressive statistic is a testament to the inherent play value of the puzzles and to the creative genius of the puzzle's inventor, Tetsuya Miyamoto.

In the last century it might have seemed unusual to have a logic puzzle tournament at a public library, but libraries are changing. These days it makes perfect sense to have a puzzle tournament at the library. Such tournaments perform multiple functions: they bring communities together, they promote logical thinking skills in outside-of-school settings, and they popularize recreational thinking activities. Robert Fuhrer explains, “Even though the KenKen logic puzzles are immensely fun to play, not that many people have heard of the puzzles yet. Having a puzzle tournament helps get the word out.”

One enthusiastic KenKen puzzle fan is Pam Crowley, a high school chemistry teacher in the Williamsburg area of Virginia. Pam tells her story: “I first saw KenKen in Reader's Digest magazine- my son showed it to me. I like using them in my classroom because it combines math skills with reasoning which are both very essential in chemistry. I use it as a warmup activity or at the very end of class when there are just a few minutes left that I do not want to waste. Occasionally I have a class that does not seem interested in doing KenKen puzzles. All I have to do is start solving it myself on the big whiteboard at the front of the room and before you know it, there are kids yelling out how to solve it and then eventually coming up to help.”

The excitement, mood and spirit of KenKen puzzle tournaments are all captured beautifully in this video produced by the New Castle Community Media Center. with which Chappaqua Public Library has a close relationship.

Fifty years ago, public libraries were mostly about books, newspapers, and magazines. Reading and writing were the main activities taking place in the library. Now libraries are evolving to be “community places of the mind,” where thinking, creativity, wondering, media making, inventing, and artistic expression have an equal role at the library. Brain stimulation of all sorts now happens within the library's walls.

Just last month, a new study by William Jagust at the University of California (Berkeley) described how people who engage in mentally stimulating activities throughout their lives can stave off Alzheimer's later in life. If this is the case, public libraries have a role in promoting the playing of puzzles of all kinds. Along these lines, Chappaqua library director Thornton points out that the Chappaqua Public Library has a weekly Scrabble and bridge coaching session every Saturday morning from 10 am to noon, taught by community resident Stan Kurzban. “People travel from all over the county to attend our library's programs,” notes Thornton.

If you were a high school math teacher, would you rather teach a class where 30 percent of the students loved solving logic puzzles, or a class where more than 60 percent of the class loved solving logic puzzles? The latter class would be more fun and more fruitful to teach. There is a way of raising the number of students who love solving puzzles – and Chappaqua, New York, is going about it in just the right way. Let's hope many other communities follow suit.

In a knowledge economy, we need thinking as a popular pastime. The well-being of the economy depends upon it. Thinking is important, too, because it makes us more human.

--Phil Shapiro

The blogger, a member of the Internet Press Guild, is an educator at a public library in the Washington, D.C., area and teaches an occasional graduate educational technology class at American University, in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro

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