In season 3, episode 11, we chat with New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs, about his newest book The Puzzler. A.J. is a self-described “human guinea-pig,” immersing himself deeply, even masochistically, into a given topic and chronicling his experiments, whether it’s living by the Bible literally for a year, or thanking everyone involved in the creation of his morning cup of coffee.
An avid crossword solver, A.J. dives down the rabbit hole of puzzles in his latest book, The Puzzler. He goes on a journey to attempt the world’s hardest puzzles, exploring all the varieties including crosswords, puzzle hunts, mazes, jigsaws, and chess problems. Along the way, he tackles fiendish Japanese puzzle boxes, drags his family to Spain to compete in a jigsaw competition, and even plays an escape room with David and Lisa Spira from Room Escape Artist. The Puzzler is also chock full of puzzles, including a hidden, super-challenging but solvable puzzle that will earn the first reader to crack it a $10,000 prize.
A.J. is a delightful guest with an insatiable curiosity about the world. He talks about his adventures through the puzzle universe and shares some amusing insights that he’s learned along the way. A.J. was funny, knowledgeable, and charming. We know you’ll want to read his book after listening to this podcast.
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Topics Discussed in this Episode
- A.J. talks about how being the answer to a New York Times crossword puzzle inspired him to delve into the rabbit hole of puzzles, escape rooms, and crosswords. [1:25]
- A.J. talks about being a fan of escape rooms and how he tapped David and Lisa as a resource for his book. [4:06]
- David talks about his hidden talent of identifying which key or combination goes to which lock. [4:56]
- David tells a couple of stories about his other hidden talent, picking locks. [5:45]
- A.J. talks about how the process of researching puzzles for his book changed his perception of different puzzle genres. [7:22]
- A.J. talks about how he wasn’t a fan of jigsaw puzzles until researching this book, and David and Peih-Gee chime in as fans of jigsaws. [8:02]
- A.J. talks about seeking out the hardest version of different puzzle types for the book and what he learned about difficulty levels. [10:48]
- A.J. talks about the Sleeping Beauty Problem as one of the hardest puzzles he enjoyed. [12:36]
- A.J. talks about other near-impossible puzzles such as the Kryptos sculpture at the CIA. [14:30]
- A.J. talks about the perfect difficulty level for him when it comes to puzzles like Sudoku. [18:56]
- Peih-Gee talks about her obsession with Sudoku after a friend in college showed her an interesting strategy. [20:41]
- A.J. talks about thinking outside the box when it comes to lateral thinking-type puzzles. [21:28]
- A.J. talks about the difference between mazes and labyrinths. [23:36]
- A.J. talks about why escape rooms didn’t get their own chapter in his book, and what it would have been about if he had been able to include it. [29:32]
- A.J. talks about his puzzling philosophy: “The idea of trying to turn down the volume on motivated reasoning and anger while turning up the volume on curiosity and the search for solutions.” [32:46]
- A.J. talks about the puzzles in his book, created by Greg Pliska, and the $10,000 cash prize for solving the bigger puzzle. [36:16]
- A.J. talks about his current favorite puzzles, including crosswords, the New York Times Spelling Bee, and Wordle. [41:31]
- David and A.J. talk about favored puzzles in different countries. [42:26]
- Most of A.J.’s books involve him immersing himself in a life experiment, such as living biblically for a year, and he talks about some life lessons he has learned. [44:17]
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- Article about the time A.J. Jacobs made an appearance in a Tuesday NYT crossword puzzle.
- Stave Jigsaw Puzzles
- Sleeping Beauty Problem
- Kryptos CIA Sculpture
- Example of Sudoku dot notation
- Masquerade by Kit Williams, a treasure hunt story book
- Buy Masquerade
- A.J. Jacobs’s website: ajjacobs.com
- The Puzzler website: thepuzzlerbook.com
About A.J. Jacobs
A.J. Jacobs is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including “The Know-It-All,” “Drop Dead Healthy” and “The Year of Living Biblically.” He has given four TED talks that have total views of more than 7 million. He is a frequent contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition, and writes for the New York Times and Esquire magazine, among others.
His latest TED talk on gratitude:
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Escape This Podcast is a show that’s a mix between tabletop roleplaying and escape room puzzles.
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