Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SportsJune 15, 2024

The need for speed: What I learnt competing in an online jigsaw puzzle competition

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Speed puzzling is like a marathon for the mind – intense, demanding, surprisingly exhausting. But does turning it into a sport destroy it as a relaxing pastime?

Watching the highlights of the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship makes me want to be sick. Dozens of teams in matching T-shirts swarm around tables in a brightly-lit convention centre, working in unison to assemble 1000-piece jigsaws with the ruthless efficiency of Formula 1 pit crews. When they finish the puzzle they don’t even stop to admire the picture – instead, they immediately fold the pieces back into the box and start on a new one.

This is speed puzzling, a sport on the rise internationally and here in Aotearoa. It takes one of the most peaceful and relaxing activities ever invented and turns it into an intense and stressful white-knuckle race against the clock. As someone who enjoys doing jigsaw puzzles slowly and as mindlessly as possible, I find the whole concept kind of appalling. Why must everything be turned into a competition all the time?

I share these concerns with the person who sent me the link: Adele Bryson is the chair of the recently-established New Zealand Jigsaw Puzzle Association, which is preparing to host the country’s first jigsaw puzzle Nationals in Auckland in July. She counters by extending an invitation: why don’t I take part in their first official online event in a couple of weeks and see if I don’t change my mind?

The puzzle arrives at work on a Wednesday morning, wrapped in a pale pink recyclable mailer. A large sticker on the back reads: “ONLINE SPEED PUZZLE COMPETITION … DO NOT OPEN UNTIL 8 JUNE 2024”.

I do as the sticker says. “No peeking” is one of the fundamental rules of speed puzzling – whether in person or online, it’s important that everybody lays eyes on the puzzle for the first time together, usually just before the race begins. 

On the afternoon of 8 June, a Saturday, I return to the empty office. I place a chair on a table, then put my laptop on the chair at an angle that allows the camera a clear and uninterrupted view of my “puzzling surface”. Then I click the button to ask to be let into the Google Meet. 

There are around 20 other people on the call. I can’t see any of them except for Adele, who’s one of the organisers for this event – her primary responsibilities include admin, keeping a watchful eye over everybody’s puzzling surface to ensure none of us are breaking any rules, and giving me a fright every 30 minutes by announcing how much time we have left.

Once everybody’s cameras are pointing in the right direction, Adele invites us to unwrap the puzzle. It’s a 500-piece (the international standard for individual speed puzzling competitions) bold and funky modern floral design called “Lost in the Garden”. More experienced puzzlers than me will later describe it as “a tricky wee number” and “more challenging than I expected”. 

We begin on the stroke of 3pm. My strategy, informed mostly by a list of tips and tricks I found on, is to do more or less the opposite of what I’d normally do. Instead of tipping the pieces into the box, I dump them all out on the table. Instead of idly swishing my hand through the box until I find the piece I’m looking for, I begin what’s known as the “flip and sort” phase. And instead of feeling relaxed and content, I feel frantic and under the pump. 

The race has a three-hour time limit – after that it comes down to a count of the pieces left to decide the final placings. I have set myself the goal of finishing within those three hours, something Puzzle YouTube has misled me into believing should be fairly easy.

The previous night I watched several videos made by a self-described “puzzle influencer” from the US who goes by the name Karen Puzzles. In one of them, she analysed the results of the 2022 World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship, where the individual final was won with a time of 34 minutes and 25 seconds by Alejandro Clemente from Spain, a staggering seven minutes ahead of the next fastest finisher, Norway’s Kristin Thuv. 

The top two speed puzzlers in the world for the last two years, they have cartoonishly different styles: Alejandro moves incredibly fast, his hands like hummingbirds, while Kristin appears bored out of her mind, puzzling with one hand while resting her head against the other. 

Kristin appears to be the outlier in terms of technique – most speed puzzlers use both hands – but she makes up for her lack of velocity with extraordinarily efficient sorting. I try to incorporate the best of both their techniques as I flip and sort my pieces, but puzzling two-handed is more difficult than it seems, like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time, and my sorting only gets as far as putting all the edge pieces in one pile and some “reddy bits” in another.

Around the time Alejandro or Kristin would be finishing their puzzles, I am still working on the edges of mine. I didn’t expect to be as fast as them, of course, but I didn’t realise I‘d be this much slower. The gulf between my pace and theirs is comparable to the gulf between my running pace and that of Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon runner whose feats are often described in terms like “not human” and “freak of nature”. 

One hour, 10 minutes and 35 seconds in, an unscheduled and truly indescribable sound comes out of my laptop speaker, shattering the silence of the empty office and sending me into fight or flight mode. The first person has finished their puzzle. My puzzle looks like this:

Over the next hour, a spirit-breaking procession of speed puzzlers take turns to unmute their microphones, say “done”, hold up their time sheets to the camera so their results can be written down by someone, then say “thank you” and hop off the call. 

Realising I have no idea exactly how many people there were to begin with, a fresh anxiety takes hold. Am I going to be the last to finish? Am I already the last to finish? Is this Google Meet now just Adele watching me try with growing desperation to fit puzzle pieces that clearly don’t go together, seemingly at random, for another hour? 

I am not the only one with this fear, it turns out. “Am I the last one?” a forlorn disembodied voice asks. “No, there’s still a bunch of you,” Adele responds. “Keep going everybody, you’re all doing so well.” I feel like I could burst into tears, which, if I’m honest, is not an emotion I had anticipated feeling in the middle of a jigsaw puzzle competition. 

I wouldn’t be the first person in the world to describe speed puzzling as a humbling experience – even Karen Puzzles says so in the title of one of her vlogs, and she does puzzles for a living. The closest thing I can find to compare it to – mentally and, surprisingly, physically – is the time I ran a half marathon. But that was over in two hours, and this is rapidly approaching three.

I started the puzzle sitting down, and expected to stay that way for as long as it took me to finish it. But for at least the last 90 minutes I’ve been standing, leaning over the table with roughly the same posture as the Pixar lamp in order to get a better overview. I allow myself a three-second microbreak to stretch like an actor in an ad for Voltaren Emulgel, imagining an alarming red aura emanating from my lower spine.

There are five of us still going as we head into the last 15 minutes. Then there are four. I am so close and yet so far from the finish line. One moment I think I might just sneak in under the three hours, then my momentum stalls and I think I’m definitely not going to make it. Then I go on a little run and place three or four pieces in a row and start to believe it might be possible again. 

It’s like this right up to the final minute. Then something unexpected happens: Adele starts talking to one of the other organisers on the call, and they agree to throw the rulebook out the window and let us keep going for a couple of extra minutes. They can’t bring themselves to ask us to stop when we’re all so close. 

The speed puzzling endorphins kick in as I get down to the last handful of pieces. My hands are flying like Alejandro’s, or at least it feels like they are. Finally, three hours and 56 seconds after starting, I have finished “Lost in the Garden”. The others in the trailing pack follow within a couple of minutes. 

The last people to finish a marathon are often the happiest. In that moment, as we place our final pieces and stop our clocks, each of us gets to feel like we have won. 

Why did I have such a strong negative reaction when I watched those highlights of the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship? I’ve had time to reflect on it, to really try and unpack those emotions, and I think it’s probably because I was scared. 

So many things in life that used to bring me pleasure and excitement – CD shopping, provincial rugby, going on the computer – have had the joy sucked out of them by the inexorable march of progress. I was scared that the same thing would happen to jigsaw puzzles; that if I did one speed puzzle I’d never be able to feel relaxed while doing a puzzle again, consumed instead by some sick need for speed. 

But that doesn’t appear to be how it works. These two different ways of doing a jigsaw puzzle are capable of coexisting – like walking and running, or, as Adele explained it to me, like swimming in the sea and swimming in a pool. If someone who loves speed puzzling so much they helped set up a national association for it can still find peace in doing a puzzle with the clock off, so can I. Maybe I’ll even break the elusive three hour mark one day too.

Keep going!