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

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

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.

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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.

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