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October 7, 2015 at 1:21 am Leave a comment

On the Spot in the Spotlight

By Jamie Hovis

Middle school is an uncomfortable time. Most of us are far removed from those days of catty lunchroom politics and overwhelming, freakish bodily mutations. But we still cringe when we remember how terrifyingly, unexplainably awkward we were.

As Venom in Spider-man 3, Topher Grace proves the purest metaphor for pubescent angst.

As Venom in Spider-man 3, Topher Grace proves the purest metaphor for pubescent angst.

It had been a while since I’d been to a bar or bat mitzvah, but from what I remembered they were pretty stuffy events. A few hours spent crammed into uncomfortable clothes, sweating out the boredom, followed by some sort of reception, which was similar to a middle school dance except there were a bunch of old people there and you were forced to attend out of religious propriety. My terrified, giggling buddies and I would stand around on the periphery cracking jokes while all the girls and a few brave boys occupied the dance floor. It must be said that I was not exactly one of the “cool kids,” but neither was I the most reclusive, and the number of kids on the dance floor always seemed fewer than the number who chose to sit out most of the songs.

I was totally surprised the first time I was sent out to work a bar mitzvah as one of Eureka’s On the Spot game leaders. It was a beautiful day, and we’d set up in a big ballroom with large French windows. The sun shone invitingly over the tables where we’d arranged games like Abalone, Quarto, and a giant chess mat. It wasn’t long before the guests started trickling in.

I’d been picturing the four of us in our green vests standing awkwardly over a table cluttered with puzzles in the corner of some dark room, watching the festivities and entertaining the odd passerby, an afterthought to the usual bat or bar mitzvah deejay and catering. But it quickly became apparent I was wrong. We were the main event, and the kids were loving it. The room filled with people so we game leaders had our hands full circulating the room and handing out stickers for the challenge course (more on that a little later), explaining rules, and partnering the kids up to play games together.

IMG_2018The comfortable, festive energy in the room surprised me. But I was even more stunned by the lack of social awkwardness. Girls and boys were getting along and talking to each other! Some of the kids knew the games already and pulled their friends along to teach them. Others asked us how the games worked, and we stood by for a round or two to make sure they got the hang of it. But it quickly became apparent that the games were a hit as the afternoon progressed; after we told one kid the rules, he or she would stick around for a couple of rounds and teach their next opponent. That opponent would teach the next kid, and so on. The kids became fairly self-sufficient, with the game leaders stepping in occasionally to offer advanced strategies or  clarify the rules.

IMG_2017And the kids weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves. The adult population in the room began to stir. At first there were only a few parents, stepping in to check on the kids or just take a look around, but soon there was a large clump of adults congregated around the mechanical puzzle station. Most had a wine glass in one hand and a tavern puzzle or a packing puzzle in the other. Some were idly fiddling while chatting. Some were totally engrossed; they’d set the wine down and were fiendishly struggling to get their puzzle apart. After a while, they started lining up behind the kids, sheepishly asking if I could help them solve their puzzle.

By the end of the event I’d been asked multiple times about our business, “Do you do birthdays?” “What’s your rate for events?” Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. At the end of the party, after all the guests had left and we had begun cleaning up, the hostess came up to us beaming. “I have a few older boys,” she said, “and if you can believe it, this is the first bar mitzvah where anyone’s come up to me and made a point to tell me they had a good time.”

“It turns out gameplay is appealing to people across gender and generation.”

“Our goal is to create an atmosphere,” says Rafi Benjamin, our On the Spot coordinator. “When we started this, no one really knew what a game event was, so we had to kind of make up our own definition. David (Eureka’s owner) wanted to answer the demand of kids who like to use their minds to have fun. Not all bar mitzvah kids enjoy the club scene. It turns out gameplay is appealing to people across gender and generation. It’s about creating an environment with few social barriers.” When you’re not out on the dance floor, there’s less of a risk of looking silly, Rafi explains. It’s a less nervous environment. “The Jewish Advocate described our events as haimish, which is a Yiddish word that means relaxed, or cozy. We like to make sure no one gets left out.”

To create that same atmosphere at every event, there are three core elements we always use:

  1. Giant gameplay. These are the giant-sized versions of some of our best games; Rush Hour, Abalone, Blokus, and Connect Four just to name a few. “We bring games that are quick and effective. A game like Catan, which might be great at a game night, might not work so well in a fluid social environment.” The ideal game for a typical event requires one to four players and lasts one to ten minutes.
  2. Mechanical puzzles. These range from the classic blacksmith puzzles we carry in the store, all of different designs, to a number of custom-built specialty wooden puzzles made by international designers. “While we bring board games that can be quickly and easily explained, the advantage of a puzzle is that there is no barrier to entry. You can literally walk up to the table and pick one up. Most people see a puzzle and know what they’re supposed to do, even if they don’t know exactly how. ‘You’re supposed to get that piece there off of this piece here.’” And, should there be any doubt about the objective, we always have…
  3. Game leaders. These are the men and women in the green Eureka bowties and vests. “We’re instructors and social facilitators. We’re there to make sure everyone knows the rules and has a partner to play with.” Usually we bring three to six people, all of whom were brought on board based on their love and knowledge of games and puzzles and their ability to work well with people.

I asked Eureka’s owner, David, what prompted him to start doing events in the first place. “We had been running community game nights, board game camps, and after school programs since the early days of the business,” he explained, “and I’d occasionally get a request for someone to come to a party, you know, replicate a game night for free and sell merchandise on the side. At first I was hesitant.”

But eventually one very persistent family convinced him to try it out. “They kept coming back and asking ‘have you thought about it?’ Eventually I said yes.”

For years after that, Eureka only went to events on special occasions as a favor to personal acquaintances. It was a two person operation, with David and Devon Trevelyan (who now owns Knight Moves Board Game Café) taking a few games and puzzles to the early events. “There were ten or fifteen events per year at most,” David says.

Rafi came on as a game leader in 2011. The business was gaining a reputation in the community and they’d started doing two parties a month. People were calling more frequently, requesting event services, and David was having a hard time organizing it all. He turned to Rafi Benjamin.

“I come from a circus background, and in the summer of 2012 I was actually leaving Boston to teach circus camp with Circus Smirkus for two months,” Rafi says. “David asked if, when I got back, I could take over events. David is the best idea guy I know. He’s great at the creative and social sides, but he lacks a bit in organization,” Rafi laughs. “I tried to take David’s brain child and organize it.”


Under Rafi’s supervision, On the Spot services have expanded rapidly since 2012. While bar and bat mitzvahs are our specialty, we’ve provided entertainment for pretty much any function you can think of from 50th birthday parties to corporate retreats for the hotel accommodation industry. In addition to our three basic services, Rafi enjoys finding other activities to cater to the needs of the event.

After the three core services listed above, our events are fully customizable. “The possibilities are pretty much endless,” Rafi says proudly. “We’ve expanded greatly as an entertainment company. Now we do much more than puzzles and games.”

Rafi likes to work closely with the family to create a complete party environment. We own a full professional sound system, which we frequently bring to events to provide music that’s event-appropriate and enhances the atmosphere rather than distracting from it.

“One of the most popular services we provide is the challenge course,” Rafi says. “These are a series of challenges that we set up throughout the party that are targeted to engage the kids. So you’re running around solving puzzles and playing games and collecting stickers and at the end you get a prize.” They’re typically themed with the party. For bar and bat mitzvahs, for example, Rafi has challenge courses that relate to themes from Judaic studies. “The challenge course is internally competitive. The kids are competing against themselves. They’re goal-oriented and encourage all different kinds of thinking. You give a kid of a certain age a challenge or a goal and suddenly everything changes and they say ‘LET’S DO IT!’”

To satisfy the needs of adult guests, we’ll often bring table activities. These are small games and puzzles that can be brought to family events and reunions. “They encourage folks to sit around and schmooze for a few hours,” says Rafi.  “You’ll see people wandering from table to table, picking up puzzles and saying, ‘here check this out.’”

“Another offering is our workshops,” Rafi says. These are special activities held by a specialist within an event that teach a special skill or craft. “They started by us asking ‘what can we offer that’s physical, you know, that will get people off their feet. The first one was a juggling workshop that I put together. Since then we’ve done a few others such as tight rope walking and origami. We try to choose activities that require mental focus. Origami, for example, combines a craft and a puzzle and requires fine motor skills. So everyone leaves the workshop having learned something and had fun.”

Some Eureka staff members come from casino backgrounds, and from time to time we’ve brought blackjack and roulette to events. We’ve also provided custom jigsaws that all the guests work on to complete. At the end of the party the puzzle is mounted and everyone signs it.

“I’ve really branched out in my role as an event planner,” Rafi says. “I’ll coordinate the flow of the event as a whole, design floor plans, and emcee the event myself. Our goal is not to create one-big attention-demanding splash but guide the whole event in a relaxed way and keep the attention on those we’re celebrating.”

I ask him what his goals are for 2015. He tells me at the moment he’s working on a portable mini golf course that he can bring to events. We may set it up for a demo in the alley next to Eureka now that the weather’s getting warmer. Every event requires unique planning to allow for specific restraints and requests. Our abilities are constantly expanding as we take on new staff members.

Since I started working, it seems like we’re taking on more contracts than ever, and with bar mitzvah season approaching, Rafi will have his hands full. But he doesn’t seem worried. He’s excited by the prospect. It means word is getting out about On the Spot. And if his hands get too full, he’s pretty good at juggling.


April 13, 2015 at 7:33 pm Leave a comment

Taking Pride in an Impossible Craft: Saul Bobroff Talks Mechanical Puzzles

By Jamie Hovis

I’ve written on the subject of mechanical puzzles for this blog before. In that post I mentioned their intimidation factor. They can sometimes seem like they’re not for lay folk or that only a genius is capable of solving them. It takes a certain kind of logical thinking to become good at solving a mechanical puzzle, but it also takes the right conditions and the right kind of introduction.

For those looking for the right introduction to mechanical puzzles, I would strongly suggest attending Saul Bobroff’s presentation at Knight Moves tomorrow, Tuesday December second. I had the pleasure of speaking with Saul on the phone recently about his love of puzzles, his vast collection, and his theories on what makes mechanical puzzles so fascinating.

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I asked Saul if he thought there was one unifying trait that all dedicated puzzlers shared. “Many people don’t want to have the solution,” he explained. “They want to solve it themselves and have that ‘aha!’ moment. So I’m not too sure it’s a group function…Many people will be handed a mechanical puzzle and say, ‘excuse me, I’m going to go sit at a table by myself for fifteen or twenty minutes and work out the solution to it.’ It’s concentration. It’s being able to turn off all other activity and concentrate on the solution.”

Nevertheless, Saul loves participating in puzzle events and the puzzle community because it attracts people from all walks of life. “The camaraderie and pleasantness of the group is very astonishing,” he said.

A tendency toward concentration is by no means a limiting factor. Mechanical puzzles are a broad category, and within that category are ten different groups (which Saul will be covering in his presentation). Each group employs different skills and attracts people with different interests. “My wife does knitting, and she can do string puzzles relatively easily. She understands the physics of the string. You give her a packing puzzle and she says, ‘No, no, no, it’s not my thing.’”

Saul hopes that by giving people an introduction to mechanical puzzles, he’ll be able to ease people into what particular type appeals to them. “I think the index, or directory of the different kinds of puzzles (that I’ll be handing out) will help you be direct with the person about what they have an aptitude for, which will make the puzzle more pleasant for them.”

Saul’s particular specialty is impossible objects, “stuff that you hold in your hand and say, ‘No, no, no. That’s impossible. You can’t do that.” One of the impossible objects for which he is most known is the 4 Impossible Street Elbows puzzle, an object made out of four ¼” iron plumbing elbows held together at the threads. It’s like an Escher painting made real.

He’s attracted to these kinds of puzzles because of his passion for manufacture and the challenge of finding a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. He also enjoys being on the fringe as one of maybe four or five people in the world who specializes in impossible objects. He feels it gives him more creative leeway.

He also comes from a computer science background, working with Dragon Systems for many years in the computer department. He draws a connection between his work with computers and his work in puzzles in that, “the solutions are not always obvious. In the computer world, finding out what does or doesn’t work sometimes requires a creative thought process to get to where you want to be. And I believe the same thing is applicable in a puzzle design. What appears to be a solution doesn’t always turn out to be one. You have to be creative. ‘Think outside the box,’ I think is the common phrase.”

Saul’s taste in puzzles is diverse. He’s the proud owner of over 3000 mechanical puzzles, many of which he’s collected through exchanges at the International Puzzle Party (IPP).

“I bring one puzzle for everybody that’s in an exchange (either one that he’s licensed the design for, or one he’s designed himself). Normally it’s about one hundred puzzles. I give you one; you give me one. I explain to you what my puzzle is; you explain to me what your puzzle is. So each year you pick up from the exchange almost one hundred puzzles.”

Saul is also a member of the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors (AGPC), which is a group that specializes in jigsaw and mechanical puzzles, and a participant in the Gathering for Gardner, an annual event that I’ve posted about on this blog before.

When I asked him how much of his time he devotes to puzzles, Saul laughed. “Does it occupy all of my time? No,” he said. “I live in a large old Victorian. In a large old Victorian, it’s maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. And when you’re not doing maintenance, you’re doing more maintenance.”

Though we only had time for a phone conversation, I definitely plan to take him up on his invitation to visit his home, where he has all of his puzzles in display cases and placed around the house.

“If my life is quiet and enjoyable,” Saul says, “I will spend two months, three months and work up an impossible idea. Then it’ll take almost a year to work from the idea to something that’s a prototype. And that may involve thirty or forty tries at the same thing. And then it takes a year to produce it.” It’s a lucrative hobby, with some of his higher-end merchandise selling at over a hundred dollars, but Saul doesn’t consider it a profession.

Tomorrow he will be providing some illuminating thoughts and insights from his 50+ years of experience with mechanical puzzles. He’ll be answering questions and explaining how he personally approaches the challenge of a puzzle. If you go, you’ll definitely leave with a deeper understanding of puzzles and, Saul tells me, “so you don’t go home empty-handed, I’m hopefully going to give out some wooden blocks with a piece of paper that’s cut. And you have to try to get the cut piece of paper to completely cover the wooden block.” Leave it to a puzzle craftsman to find something to torture you on your way out the door.

Saul’s talk will be held at Knight Moves Cafe (1402 Beacon Street), from 6:30 pm to 8 pm on Tuesday, December 2, 2015. No registration required.

December 1, 2014 at 7:16 pm Leave a comment

Perpetual Motion: An Interview with IOTA Designer Gene Mackles on the Forces that Drive His Creativity

By Jamie Hovis

One of the best perks of working at a place like Eureka is the opportunity to meet fascinating, intelligent, original thinkers. I told this to Gene Mackles when I sat down to interview him recently over a couple of medium dark roasts (another perk of the job is free coffee).

Meeting Gene was particularly meaningful for me considering his background in television. Along with being the creator of IOTA, the instant-hit abstract strategy game in a tiny white tin, and president of PDG Games, Gene carries the distinction of having been a senior designer at WGBH for 23 years. What that means to me (and any other child of the 90’s) is that he had my undivided attention for countless hours of my early life when I would religiously sit down in front of the television and watch programs like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Zoom.


Photo: Kathy Rosen

Gene, it turns out, was also consulted on refining the rules of Carmen Sandiego, a children’s game show based on the best-selling series of computer games designed to teach kids geography. This was in the early days of computer animation, and Gene remembers scrambling to acquire six Macs and a team of designers to produce one and a half hours of animation three months before the first episode was shot.

His first foray into board games was in 1970, with a game called MAXE, which Gene describes as “somewhere right in between checkers and chess.” That game got Gene as far as a sit down with Parker Brothers, who unfortunately found the game too static.

However, like everyone else I’ve interviewed for this blog, Gene had other irons in the fire. He spent the next couple of decades at WGBH and as lead designer for children’s program promotion at PBS. During that time he maintained an interest in game design, creating a mechanical baseball game as a hobby. He also managed to produce a pilot for a game show called Quickdraw, which was similar to a later mildly successful 80’s game show called Win Lose or Draw (the pilot featured Loni Anderson, Betty White, Burt Reynolds and Tony Danza sitting around in a fake living room essentially playing Pictionary), and shared elements with a later boxed game called Backseat Drawing.

Win Lose or Draw, Pictionary, and Backseat Drawing all came after Gene had pitched his idea for Quickdraw, but this fact seems more like an amusing anecdote than a point of bitterness for Gene. In the osmotic gaming world it seems likely to just be a coincidence. The fact that almost identical designs can pop up in two totally separate minds is part of what makes game design an interesting field. It can feel like you’re all working toward the same end.

When I asked him what led him to work in game design, Gene told me he likes to think of games as “these little worlds-unto-themselves, systems where all the parts have to work in harmony with each other. I almost see it as a puzzle similar to creating a perpetual motion machine.” Like many creative people, Gene is attracted to projects that “fill his head,” and is most satisfied when he comes to that “(no pun intended) Eureka! moment.”

Gene first started his professional involvement in game design and production around 2011, when he came up with the idea for an abstract strategy card game. He was at home playing Qwirkle (another popular strategy game that Eureka carries) with his wife, when he had a thought that occurs frequently in the lives of regular gamers and with which most game designers are well familiar. “The phrase that kept going through my head was ‘this would be so much better if…’ And after about seven or eight of those, I had this idea for a game that involved three parameters instead of two and ‘all the same’ or ‘all different.’”

From there Gene began to fine tune the elements of the game, cutting back the number of shapes, colors and numbers from five to four, changing the designs of the cards from numerals to the more abstract representation of numbers as dots, and introducing wild cards.

What emerged was a colorful chaos, a simple-looking game where the trick was to understand the flow of the board and “see what’s out there.”

Gene playtested the game until he felt there was minimal risk in orchestrating a small production run. He was aware that other games and creative projects had found funding through Kickstarter and other similar crowd-funding campaigns, but because of the size and scale of his game, and the discovery that he could hire a company in China to produce 1000 decks for $2000, Gene opted to produce the first run of IOTA out-of-pocket.

When he first contacted Jason Schneider, Gamewright’s Director of Product, about IOTA, Jason suggested Gene speak with David Leschinsky (founder of Eureka Puzzles) about “the odds that a one-off game made by an individual could ever go anywhere.” Gene visited David at Eureka a couple of weeks before Christmas (our busiest time of year). “I asked David, ‘Is this a good time,’” Gene remembers, “and obviously he said ‘No.’”

But a month or so later the two found each other at a New York gift fair. Gene had a few copies of IOTA in his bag. He showed them to David and David immediately agreed to sell them in the store, making him one of the first retail locations to carry IOTA.

Shortly thereafter Gene created a website for online sales and a few months after that he had won the Mensa Mind Games Competition.

The calls started coming in, and Gene eventually decided to publish IOTA through Gamewright.

Since then Gene has created three new games, all of which are published independently through his own company, PDG Games (the website,, will be launching in full within the next few weeks).

“It’s an educational journey,” he tells me. As the founder and president of a game company, there are greater risks for Gene than his initial $2000 investment in IOTA, and he’s encountered some pitfalls along the way including serious manufacturing issues. But one gets the sense that for Gene, these are all problems that he enjoys working on, elements of the puzzle that fills his head. If he weren’t designing games, he would be working on something else.

“I think with IOTA I had a little bit of an idea of what was involved. And the one thing that struck me with IOTA was that right after I made the licensing agreement with Gamewright, I suddenly felt like I had all this time,” he says, laughing. “There’s really nothing to do on that front anymore. So that’s when I started making new games. And I also joined a game prototypers meet-up group (now known as the Game Makers Guild).”

We discussed his new games (Bop!, D!Git, and Q!nto), and the fine line one has to walk between strategy and simplicity when designing a game. “I think that balance is key,” Gene tells me. “What I wanted to do with D!Git was step back from IOTA and say “I don’t want a game where you have to spend any time calculating. I don’t want a game that is frustrating in any way. What I do want is a game that is challenging enough so that you might look at your hand, look at the board, see a perfectly good move, but maybe take a deep breath, look at your hand, look at the board again and decide that there’s a good chance you’ll find a better move. I thought that was a good place to be for a family game.”

He tested the game out at a few game nights with parents and kids and was pleasantly surprised by the sense of accomplishment the kids felt when they were able to execute a great move. It’s a feeling he can share with them, having himself executed the perfect rule set to lead them there. “In a way I feel like I’m sort of a stickler for elegance. It’s like I’m always looking for that elegant solution. And it’s often the case that when you find it, it’s obvious. But it’s not easy to find it. And it’s also the case that a lot of times you think you’ve found it, and you try it out and it’s terrible.”

Ultimately, it’s the idea of contributing to the legacy of play, the idea that someone could be inspired by his games to create something of their own, that drives Gene to keep creating. “It might even be the biggest kick there is,” he says with a smile, “to see someone having fun playing a game that you designed. It’s a thrill. That’s sort of the whole point.”

Gene will be presenting on his experiences with design and gameplay in an informal discussion at Knight Moves Board Game Cafe on November 11th at 6:30 PM. No registration required.

November 9, 2014 at 6:19 pm Leave a comment

An Interview with Christopher Morgan, Generalist of Generalists

By Jamie Hovis

Christopher Morgan is a computer scientist, electrical engineer, author, puzzle enthusiast, magician, and Martin Gardner devotee. He’s dedicated much of his life to exploring the legacies of the great generalists before him. He was an early participant in the Gathering for Gardner, a convention held every two years in Atlanta in honor of the great recreational mathematician and writer. He is also the author of the forthcoming book, The Pamphlets of Lewis Carroll, Volume five: Games, Puzzles and Related Pieces.

I was lucky enough to interview Chris over the phone this week. Our hour-long conversation covered photography, nursery rhymes, modern science and math curricula, photography, Isaac Asimov, and everything in between.

During our conversation, I noticed we kept coming back to the same topics. This was, of course, partly due to the nature of the interview. But I got the sense that it’s this connectivity that appeals to Chris and other generalists.

We started by discussing his upcoming book.

Chris: I’m currently working on a book that’s part of a series the Lewis Carroll society is publishing along with the University of Virginia. Throughout his life, Carroll liked to run down to the printers and have them print maybe ten or twenty copies of something he was interested in. Then he’d hand copies out to people. The pamphlets might be something about mathematics or Oxford University politics, and so on. He’d written about three hundred or so little pamphlets. No one’s ever printed them in book form, so we’re publishing a six volume series so people can see them. I’m doing the fifth volume, on Carroll’s games and puzzles pamphlets.

He did quite a lot of those. He invented a lot of games. One of his word games is still played today. You’ll find it in a lot of newspapers. You start with a word like “cat” and you have to change it to “dog,” and you do it in stages. You create another three-letter word that’s different by one letter. So you say “cat” changes to maybe “cot,” and then “cot” to “cog,” and then “cog” to “dog.” That’s called a word ladder. He called the game “Doublets.”

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The current Einstein riddle at Eureka! is an example.

He ran a column in a magazine, in Vanity Fair of all places, which is still around… It ran for about a year and a half and was very popular. He’d just give people challenges. He’d say, “here, can you change this word into that word?” and they’d get thousands of entries.

J: The goal being to do it in as few moves as possible.

C: Exactly. The fewer steps, the more points you got. And people liked it. To this day, you’ll see word ladders in puzzle books. And you’ll see them in crossword puzzles…Actually I was talking to Will Shortz about it and he sent me some information about the history of word ladders, so that’s going in the book, talking about how people are still playing a lot of Carroll’s games.

J: Is Will Shortz a Gardnerite himself?

C: Yes, he has come to the Gatherings. And he also goes to events held by another organization I work with, the International Puzzle Party. Their meetings are held every year in the summer in a different city around the world. We get about 400 people. People who collect mechanical puzzles- Rubik’s Cubes and such. We get together, buy and sell, and have talks about puzzles. Many of the attendees are also big fans of Martin Gardner.

J: How would you describe the difference between The Gathering for Gardner and the Celebration of Mind events like the one on Thursday?

C: The difference is the scale of it. The gatherings in Atlanta are big big events. They’re like TED talks — like a big conference. There are talks all day long and it goes for four days. It’s very immersive. You go and you meet…not just mathematical people, but also actors, musicians, jugglers, magicians. For me, the best part of the Gathering happens during the breaks when you meet these great people. It’s a huge social event with lots of fascinating people, and it’s a big deal.

The celebrations are very different. They’re much smaller. They’re ad hoc. They can be held anywhere…So the nice thing about that is that schools will do them and all they have to do is just let us know and we will send them resources. It’s all free, and nonprofit. Everything that happens, both at the Gathering and at the Celebrations is keyed into all of the many interests that Martin had… 

We had a great talk from Martin’s son. He gave a talk to us in Atlanta in March about how his father worked, and how he wrote all the many books that he wrote. It was very interesting. Gardner wrote almost 100 books. You go down the list and you can’t believe the range of them. He even wrote an annotated Casey at the Bat, all about the history of the poem and interesting pieces of trivia about it. He wrote about all kinds of things.

Martin Gardner reminded me of Isaac Asimov, in that Asimov was the same way. He wrote over 800 books about everything. You name it. Asimov even wrote a book about Gilbert and Sullivan. Then he wrote I, Robot, which of course became a movie long after he died. He wrote Fantastic Voyage, but he also wrote books about almost anything you can think of. And Martin Gardner was the same way.

J: I really admire that kind of person who throws it all on the line in the hope that something will stick for everyone. You mentioned the term “polymath” earlier. I think it’s a noble way to approach life.

C: …I’m actually writing a book about Generalists…It’s all about people that have multiple interests. I find that very interesting. The thing about Martin was he was not a dilettante. He knew a lot about each of those fields, and he kept up with them. And people like that, you do see interesting threads connecting these people together.

For example, a lot of the people that I meet at the Gatherings and the Celebrations are often computer people, computer programmers, and they’re interested in music because music has a logic and a structure that appeals to people who are interested in computer programming or mathematicians. A lot of the people I met there are musicians, as am I.

In the eighteenth century and nineteenth century, scientists weren’t called scientists. The term only came into use late in the nineteenth century. They were called “natural philosophers.” And natural philosophers would often be just as interested in the arts as they were in the sciences… That was not looked upon as unusual… It’s only in the twentieth century that we started to get this artificial demarcation between the arts and the sciences, which is totally bogus. I mean there’s no such thing…

J: That demarcation tends to happen pretty much any time any kind of Renaissance occurs.

C: And our educational structure is set up to almost discriminate against the generalist, because colleges force you to “major” in something and “minor” in something else. So right off the bat, those words are judgmental. “Oh well that’s a major thing you could do. The other one, that’s just minor.” Which is crazy… Many of the new educational studies today are showing that children who study art and music become better at science. You can see the correlation, because the artistic activity is training the mind. Kids who learn music by memory, become better at memorizing everything. So it’s insane to just do what a lot of schools are doing now, which is to just throw out the art and music curricula. It’s just such a mistake.

J: Gardner seems like a pioneer in recreational mathematics. Which is something I would guess you’re very interested in as a magician and something that we have an interest in at Eureka as a puzzles and games store. How influential would you say he was in introducing the idea of math as fun?

C: He was incredibly influential when he started writing his column on mathematical games. It ran for 25 years in the Scientific American from the early sixties the mid to late eighties…So many people who subscribed would just wait every month, including me, waiting to read what he had…He did a lot more than just aggregate. He had a wonderful sense of taste and style, what would appeal to readers, and what would surprise them….

His first article was about flexagons, which are hexagonal toys you fold from paper strips and flex them and open to reveal new faces. Vi Hart, who is George Hart’s daughter, creates really great hyper high-speed funny videos on YouTube about recreational math. They’re really fun, and what’s great is that people are watching them and that gets them thinking…. she did one on flexagons and it got several million hits. Her stuff is fantastic.

You give people a good mathematical puzzle and it really gets them thinking. I’ll give you a good example of one I just came across that Martin never saw, but I’m sure he would have loved it:

You’re in a bar, and somebody gives you a round cardboard drink coaster. They hand you a pen and say, “Okay, stick a pen right through the center of the coaster. If you punch it right in the center, we’ll give you a prize.”

Coaster courtesy of The Upper Crust.

Coaster courtesy of The Upper Crust.

Well, let’s say you’ve had too many beers, and the hole is not quite in the center.

image (6)

(No beers provided)













So how to fix it? Well, I give you a pair of scissors that can cut through the coaster, and I ask you to cut the coaster into two pieces and rearrange them on the bar.

image (8)

Scissors courtesy of Panera Bread.

When you’re all done rearranging the two pieces, you have to end up with the same size circle you had before, except the hole is now in the exact center. So it’s like making a two-piece jigsaw puzzle. The question is: how do you do it?

It’s really a nice puzzle. It’s very interesting. Kids like it because there’s no obvious math. You look at it and you say, “now how could I…the hole’s way over here, it’s not at all center, now I have to cut two pieces. What shape are they going to be? And how do I arrange them?” That gets you thinking about geometry and logic. And there’s more than one correct answer.

That’s the kind of thing Martin talked about. He said you get an “aha” moment, when you solve a puzzle, and you think, “Wow, this is really fun.” He was always quick to say that learning math and science is certainly not all fun and games, but your brain will be more receptive to learning if you approach it in a sort of a state of delight. There’s no reason why you can’t teach math and science in a way that makes it really interesting. Unfortunately both of them are often taught very badly.

J: You have to know how to make people delight in what you’re teaching. It seems that your magic is based on a lot of mathematics.

C: Yes, the ones that are up there are all mathematically based, and a lot of those were popularized by Martin Gardner. He wrote a lot of books about mathematical magic and that’s where I got a lot of them. And some of the good ones are good enough to perform for a paying audience.


I don’t mean that in a…I mean not all mathematical magic is what I would call a showstopper. In fact some of the best mathematical magic works when people don’t realize there’s any math at work. And those are some of the most fun.

J: Are you planning on doing any magic at the event at the senior center?

C: Not this year. I did last year because our main theme that year was mathematics, magic and mystery. This year it’s just a general theme about Martin being 100 years old. We’re bringing a bunch of puzzles from the London Puzzle Party just for people to play with. Martin loved mechanical puzzles. He was just a lot of fun. He really was. When people came and visited him he pulled out some puzzles, he’d also take out a few science experiments to show people, and when kids came by they just loved it.

J: And you being a person who is inspired by Martin, it seems like his legacy just keeps on giving.

C: It really does. What’s great is that a lot of his books are still in print, and people are just now discovering them. It’s timeless.

J: you think about literary works, Carroll’s for example, a new generation is exposed to his books, hopefully, but also film adaptations and so forth that may not be as faithful to the originals. But the design of a mathematical puzzle does seem to have more longevity.

C: Yeah, you just hit on a good point. 2015 will mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland, and we’re so far away from that Victorian world now. Kids still enjoy enjoy the books, of course, but not in the same way that children back then would have, because Carroll was parodying poems that the kids would have known. So Martin Gardner went back and found the original poems that the parody poems were based on. When you see the originals it makes the parodies much funnier because you can see what he was making fun of. Carroll was very subversive. In the books, Alice is the only sane character. Everybody else in the books is insane. The red queen is trying to cut people’s heads off and so on and on. The Mad Hatter is indeed mad. Alice is the only normal person. And she’s a child…So Carroll is kind of on the side of kids.

J: And I think any kid can relate, whether you know what mock turtle soup is or not.

C: And we certainly get the joke “twinkle twinkle little bat, how I wonder what you’re at.” But the poem, “’You are old, Father William,’ the young man said,” is based on a very obscure poem. You don’t need to know it to laugh at it, but if you look at it, it’s this very sort of pious thing that someone would have read from a pulpit, and so Carroll turns it inside out and he turns Father William into another subversive.

So Martin tried to explicate these books for a modern audience. He found all kinds of interesting tie-ins we wouldn’t know about. It’s like the Annotated Ulysses or another fantastic book, The Annotated Lolita. If you ever read any Nabokov, and you read The Annotated Lolita, you find unbelievable amounts of things he has hidden away in the book. He was a big Carroll fan.

There’s another Nabokov book called Pale Fire, in which two of the characters are playing word ladders. One of the characters says, interestingly, “Can you get from live to dead in just four steps?”


So Nabokov loved Carroll. And so did James Joyce. James Joyce said that Finnegan’s Wake was greatly influenced by Through the Looking Glass. In fact there’s a tremendous, deep tie-in between the two books. And that’s a whole other conversation.

J: You said you met Martin a few times. What was that experience like?

C: It was a thrill. Because I read his first puzzle collection book in 1959. It’s called The First Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions. It was that book that turned me into a computer scientist and an electrical engineer because I fell in love with the math and the logic. That book, for years, was right at the top of my list. Then I read the Alice books when I was twelve or thirteen and I fell in love with them. Later I found out that Martin was an expert on Carroll. The Mathematical Games book changed my life. The best thing of all happened seven years ago, the last time I saw Martin, because he died about three years later. I brought that book and he autographed it. It’s my most treasured book because it’s a little too late to get Lewis Carroll’s autograph.


But I do have that one, and it’s my favorite book.

Chris will be presenting on his new book at the Celebration of Mind event on Thursday, October 23rd at 7:00 at the Brookline Senior Center.

October 22, 2014 at 7:10 pm 1 comment

Stunning Simplicity: An Interview with Puzzle Designer David Pitcher

By Jamie Hovis

The first thing to know about David Pitcher is that he’s wonderfully helpful and eloquent when it comes to the world of twisty puzzles. I prefaced our interview by explaining that I was a person who’d never solved a Rubik’s Cube. He didn’t blink an eye. In fact, he seemed to relish the opportunity to explain his passion to the uninitiated.

And uninitiated I certainly was. Through the course of our conversation, I was led through the dizzying world of twisty puzzle terminology and culture. I came away with a staggering appreciation for the art and mathematics involved in the design and production of these objects that all operate on the same very basic principles yet provide the opportunity for literally infinite variations.

David’s expertise and eloquence on the subject comes from almost 20 years of practical experience in the art of puzzle making. He began creating twisty puzzles in earnest when he was working as an industrial designer in a company with a design lab equipped with 3D printers (an added perk of the job that he admits was not entirely unplanned). Back then, David explained, 3D printing was a relatively new technology. The first technology David used for puzzle making was a printing process that created fragile wax parts. These then had to be cast by hand in a time-consuming process. Later, a switch was made to fused deposition modeling technology (FDM). This gave the ability to make puzzle parts that were strong enough to be usable straight off the machine, but at the sacrifice of accuracy.  Only relatively simple puzzles could be made due to the low resolution. Today, various web services have made high resolution, high strength 3D printing technologies available to anyone.

“I was in the first wave of puzzle makers to use 3D printing,” David tells me. “Unfortunately I initially didn’t show my puzzles to a lot of people. I came from a world of corporate competition and fierce patent law, so I was very careful about who I showed my designs to. What I didn’t realize is that the puzzle world is very different in regard to intellectual property.” Even the twisty puzzle manufacturers (and there are many of them these days) are very careful to give credit to the puzzle designers and to work with them to produce their designs. This is despite the fact that there are very few designs that actually get patented.

In 2006 David met Oskar van Deventer, a veritable god in the puzzle world. “Oskar is probably the most prolific puzzle designer out there,” David explains. “He stopped by my house since he was traveling through the Boston area. He was also an early adopter of the 3D printing technology, and we had previously exchanged some puzzle files. Oskar wanted to meet up while he was here. He really convinced me that I needed to start publishing.” The world of puzzles, according to van Deventer, was about community. Generally speaking it isn’t cost effective for an individual to own a patent on a twisty puzzle; it’s nearly impossible to recoup the patent costs. Instead, many puzzle designers publish their creations on the internet. This allows for the designer to constantly receive feedback and ideas from the puzzling community (David is an avid participant in, the go-to site for twisty puzzle enthusiasts).

These days puzzle-design is a self-funding hobby. “I’m probably an anomaly,” David explains, “in that I approach puzzles from an artistic standpoint rather than that of an engineer or mathematician. People always assume I’m an engineer, and I’m just not, you know? I went to art school. I consider puzzles my artistic outlet. To that end, I try to keep things as simple as possible and focus on the beauty of the design. I call it my search for simplicity. I try to encourage the puzzle solver to think differently, think outside the box.”

David demonstrates some of his designs to the Eureka staff.

Luckily, 3D printing technology has expanded by leaps and bounds since his initial experiments more than a decade ago. This has allowed David and many other designers to create a feasible business model using online 3D printing technology that gives him access to equipment that costs hundreds of thousand dollars. Nowadays the 3D printers David uses operate via a process known as Selective Laser Sintering, the process of fusing layers of powdered nylon with lasers to create the individual puzzle components. The pieces are then extracted from a block of powder. “It’s sort of an archeological process,” he explains.

David uses the software Solidworks, one of many 3D printing programs that have emerged in recent years. “There’s a lot of software out there,” he says, “but I’ve found Solidworks has the best features for making puzzles.” With this software, David is able to create 3D models for the parts of his puzzles. These are then uploaded to a 3D printing service (David uses Shapeways, he has DIY puzzle kits for sale at and he receives the parts in the mail in a matter of weeks. Typically these kits are sold directly to people on Shapeways so that they may assemble their own puzzles. Occasionally he’ll assemble a puzzle for a customer for an additional fee.

David is very excited about the direction in which 3D printing (a hot topic these days) is taking puzzle making. The challenge, he says, becomes discovering designs that are new and different. New ideas often come to David by taking an old idea and “turning it on its head,” or expanding on existing themes.

Cubic puzzles, for example, seem to be the most sought-after twisty puzzles on the market, a fact David attributes at least partly to the early success of the Rubik’s Cube. There are, however, an infinite number of shapes and mechanisms possible when designing a twisty puzzle. One of David’s most successful creations, for example, is the “Octo-Star Cube,” a puzzle design David arrived at by taking advantage of the fact that an octahedron and a cube are geometric duals (one can be created from the other by connecting the face centers, and thus one can fit inside the other with every vertex centered on a face of the other form). Realizing that, David was able to reconstruct an octahedral puzzle he had previously designed but which was too complex to appeal to him for production, repurposing it into a cube shape that operated on the same principle. This type of puzzle design is known in the twisty puzzle community as a “shape mod.” You really have to see him hold the two next to each other for all of this to make sense. It’s as if he’s taken the octahedral shape comprised of all triangular sides and squashed it into the shape of a cube. When he moves them (twisting the sides to solve the puzzle), it becomes clear that they are related.

I was lucky enough to get a demo of the presentation David will be making at Knight Moves Café in October. He gave me a sample of the six-page guide he’ll be handing out to the audience. He also brought along a briefcase full of puzzles he’s designed. I was awed by the beauty and complexity of the designs and the craftsmanship of the puzzles. Those of us at Eureka! who have had the opportunity to play with them agree they’re the most smoothly functional 3D printed objects we’ve ever seen. He gave me the short version of his talk, explaining the differences between “bandaged” puzzles and “jumbling” puzzles, defining terms such as “shape mods” and “shape-shifting.” Most of these are terms that have been coined during the recent explosion in twisty puzzle designs. But you’ll hear about all of that at the event, which includes David’s explanations of:

  • Turning types
  • Slice types
  • Cut depth
  • Order
  • Basic geometries
  • Mechanisms
  • Classifications
  • Other Crazy stuff (this last one absolutely blew my mind)

To someone totally new to twisty puzzles, it was a fascinating introduction to the history of the field and the basic concepts of solving the puzzles themselves (the last section of David’s presentation is titled “Solving (this is what you’re really after, right?)”). For those who are already part of the twisty puzzle community it will be fascinating to hear the philosophy of a veteran puzzle maker who approaches his craft as a true artist.

Hearing David speak, one really begins to understand the deeper, more elegant beauty behind the idea of a twisty puzzle. I’ve heard of people being turned off by the competitive nature of speed cubing (the art of solving cubic puzzles as quickly as possible). To hear David describe them, the most appealing elements of twisty puzzles are their uniquely beautiful geometric designs. “One of my favorite elements,” he says, “besides the beauty of the shapes and their geometry, is the element of surprise. Sometimes I design a puzzle and it takes me a while to understand what I’ve made. Twisty puzzles are unique in that you don’t have to know how to solve them before you make them. They’re amazing in that the possibilities are inexhaustible. There are an infinite number of puzzles and an infinite number of ways to solve them just waiting to be discovered.”

David Pitcher works professionally as an industrial designer, holographer (hologram designer), and personal trainer. For more information go to:, visit his youtube channel:, or contact him at

For more information about the event at Knight Moves Café on 10/7/14, visit the events page at

September 20, 2014 at 8:00 pm Leave a comment

David Leschinsky Interview — Pt. 2: Making a Difference in the Community

This post is the second installment in a series of interviews with Eureka staff members and members of the Brookline gaming community on their relationship with Eureka and what puzzles and games mean to them.

Last week we talked to David Leschinsky, Eureka owner and founder, about his home life and love of puzzles. This week we ask David about his plans for the future and some of the unique ways Eureka makes a difference in people’s lives.

H.: What’s next for Eureka? I know you are constantly looking for ways to expand into the community with On the Spot and so forth, are you working on any new ideas to expand the business?

David: Yes. We’ve found people really resonate well when we bring our expertise, our puzzles and games, out to various venues. The whole notion of us bringing things out into the community in one form or another is one of the fastest growing aspects of the business. My focus is on both pursuing that within the existing framework as well as adding other avenues where we can help deploy our knowledge and expertise in a way that can make a difference in people’s lives.

H.: More education and being present with the games rather than saying, “Here. Buy this and take it home”?

David: That’s correct. Clearly we do a lot when it comes to entertainment with Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. We have grown interest in utilizing some of those same techniques for corporations around new employee meetings, their own family gatherings, holiday parties, moving into things like team building meetings and workshops. So I think that’s a very direct outgrowth of what we’re doing now. Other things we’ve been asked to do are school groups and retirement communities, where people are interested in understanding and becoming familiar with things that can help them maintain mental clarity and focus as they age.  Many of the games and puzzles that we have directly support that notion of keeping your brain alive and active no matter how old you are.

H.: And tailoring the service to specific needs, depending on what part of the brain needs focus.

David: Correct. We’re on the list at a number of the hospitals in the area as the go-to place for someone who has suffered a stroke or brain damage of one sort or another. There’s a recognition that the brain can actually be exercised through gameplay and puzzle play and we’re one of the few place where they say, “Go to Eureka, tell them what the issue is. They’ll help you out.” We’ve actually had customers that come back in saying their doctors were amazed by how much progress they had made. We’re always happy to help.

H.: I think at Eureka people come in expecting you to have a very specific expertise. You have to not only know the inventory, but you have to know people, and know what they need before they even do sometimes, which can be intimidating but also rewarding.

David: It is. It is. And that’s why Eureka is not an easy place to work. It’s not a normal retail job. There’s a lot of expertise and connections that need to be made for the staff here. So the staff is carefully selected so that they’re able to provide some of that same perspective that I do.

H.: Which is a constant learning experience for us as well.

David laughs

August 1, 2014 at 7:14 pm Leave a comment

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