The Puzzler Speaks! A.J. Jacobs on Puzzles, from Jigsaw to Wordle

9 Questions for A.J. Jacobs on His New Book, The Puzzler

Author A.J. Jacobs

AJ Jacobs turns thoughts into adventures. When he thought about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, he read the whole thing and wrote about it in The Know-It-All. When he thought about living by the rules of the Bible literally, the result was the book The Year of Living Biblically. And now, because he thought about puzzles, his new book is all about them.

The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to the Meaning of Life, which Booklist calls “ridiculously entertaining,” draws on the fact that A.J. has loved puzzles all his life. In fact, he happened to marry a fellow game and puzzle fan: Watson Adventures president Julie Jacobs. He writes a lot about the importance of team building through games and puzzles such as those Watson Adventures does.

And not only that: While researching how to create great puzzles, he co-wrote a virtual murder mystery game for Watson Adventures, Puzzled to Death: A Virtual Game of Murder Mystery Puzzles, which is available as an unusual team building activity.

To celebrate the release of The Puzzler, we recently subjected A.J. to the following rigorous interrogation.

What inspired you to write The Puzzler?

I’m a lifelong puzzle obsessive. I figured I could spend a couple years doing puzzles and call it research, which is not a bad deal. Second, I could see if there’s anything to my long-held hunch that puzzles are a force for good in the world. The answer is: Yes, puzzles help us be better thinkers, and bind us together—which, incidentally, is part of why Watson Adventures is so effective.

Thanks! So where did your quest for puzzles take you?

I traveled the world to find the most baffling and fascinating puzzles. I went to the headquarters of the CIA to see a puzzle that not even our spies can solve. And perhaps my favorite: Julie, my son, and I went to Spain to compete as Team USA in the World Jigsaw Championship against 40 other countries.

How did you do in the jigsaw competition?

Well, you know how Watson Adventures hosts say, “There’s the winning team, and there’s the team that had the most fun”? We had a lot of fun. We came in second to last.

What do you think of Wordle?

It’s funny—the Wordle craze happened just after I closed the book. But I got Random House to open it back up so I could insert a tiny section on Wordle. I love it partly because it’s a good game, but I’m especially a fan of all the creative spinoffs, with everything from Taylordle (Taylor Swift related words) to Vertl (Yiddish words).

What prompted you to approach us to create the Puzzled to Death game?

I’ve been solving puzzles for all my life, but I also wanted to try my hand at creating puzzles. So I got all the lessons from the greatest puzzlemakers in the world, and I created a virtual murder mystery for Watson Adventures. My co-writer was Watson Adventures senior editor Ryan Greene.

And you got to write about that experience in your book. What lessons did you learn from creating a puzzle?

The real goal is not to stump the solvers. The real goal is to bond the puzzlers together through a shared struggle. So you have to make the puzzles just right—not too frustrating, but not too easy. Also, when you choose a theme, go all in. Our theme is that the murder takes place at a board game store, and we had a great time creating board-game-based puzzles.

What surprised you most during your deep dive into puzzles?  

I was surprised how deep the puzzle instinct goes in human nature. In every era, in every culture, people have solved puzzles. I explored ancient Babylonian riddles right on up to puzzles that require the help of quantum computers. Humans are wired to want to solve problems, to work hard to achieve that aha moment. And thank God—this drive is responsible for many of the best things in the world, from the mRNA vaccine to our favorite pastry recipes. It’s also why Watson Adventures is so popular, so thank you evolution!

What’s the Babylonian riddle?

Well, don’t get your hopes up. It was funny at the time, I’m sure.

What gets pregnant without conceiving and fat without eating?
The answer is…a rain cloud.

Do you have any words of advice for those playing the Puzzled to Death virtual game?  

Like all puzzles, don’t take anything at face value. Words have multiple meanings. So before you dive into a puzzle, sit back and think about the big picture and potential twists and turns.

Find More Fun

Learn more about Puzzled to Death: A Virtual Game of Murder Mystery Puzzles and how we can stage this game for your group, on Zoom and other popular platforms.


Image credits: Images courtesy of A.J. Jacobs