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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

$40,000 For Solving A Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle?

Stave Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles
A puzzler works on a wooden jigsaw at the 40th anniversary puzzle competition.

At one point or another, probably each of us has worked on a jigsaw puzzle. Some find it infuriatingly frustrating and others love the thrill. 

But for puzzle enthusiasts, there's an even greater challenge: a mind-boggling, purposefully deceptive, intensely intricate puzzle from ... Vermont.

That's right, if you want a seriously tough jigsaw puzzle, look no further than the Stave Puzzle company of White River Junction. 

To celebrate its 40th anniversary of puzzle-making, president and CEO of Stave Puzzles Steve Richardson decided to go big.

He organized a national puzzling contest in Woodstock, and put up $40,000 to anyone who could solve a dastardly devilish jigsaw puzzle  in under 40 minutes.

Seventy people from all over the country showed up to compete, with 20 trying for the $40-grand challenge.

Richardson says the handcrafted wooden jigsaw puzzle was a mere forty pieces, but contestants had to find all four possible solutions. 

After two elimination rounds, the competition was whittled down to a final four contestants. Each was given a puzzle called “Devils Triangles,” says Richardson, who is also known in the puzzling world as The Chief Tormentor.

After the timer ticked past 40 minutes, still none of the puzzlers had found all four solutions. Richardson got to keep his $40,000.

“They know I'm not going to put $40-grand on the table lightly, without them having to show a genius bent,” says Richardson.  “But they came for the fun.”

The next party will be in five years, and the prize will be $45,000.

Personalized puzzles

Richardson says these handcrafted jigsaw puzzles are unique and personalized: “they are carved one piece at a time on an all fashioned jigsaw, so this is not stamped out, it’s not laser cut, it’s not cardboard. It is a beautiful wooden, polished-back jigsaw puzzle. And we cut people's names into it and their birthdays and we can integrate photos into it.”

Richardson began building puzzles when he was just nine years old, when his grandmother gave him small Dremel saw.

“My career lasted exactly one week,” says Richardson. “By that time I had butchered my finger so much, and one time  I ran the blade right up the middle of my index finger. My mother, as she was dragging me up the stairs to take me to the hospital, she unplugged my brand new saw and threw it in the trash, she said, ‘buddy your career of making jigsaw puzzles is over.’ ”

But Richardson kept at it. He says “there was something visually, and there is a tactile pleasure of holding a piece and sliding it into place.”

Today his company has a staff of 25 people. Richardson says all the crafters are women, except for himself and a talented male graphic designer.  He contends women “have a more balanced brain” and “enjoy the left brain and right brain challenge” of the complex puzzles.

Deviously tricky puzzles

Though Richardson says he’s the only one that comes up with the trick designs:

“My most famous one is Champ. Now it has 44 pieces, but it goes together 32 different ways. When you put it together way number one the head is over to the left, the tail is over the right, and then you have a serpentine shape of the monster.”

“Then you have to rearrange the pieces so that Champ bites its own tail, so it loops back on itself.”  

The personalized puzzles range anywhere in cost from $100 to $5,000. 

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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