If physicians are puzzled, it is often not the best sign, unless they participated in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship 2023.
Alyssa Zackler, an OB-GYN associated with Providence Facey Medical Group and Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, can leisurely complete a puzzle in roughly three hours — and while that is impressive in and of itself — she competed competitively at a much faster rate.
Along with her partner, Tiffany Medeiros, who is from Massachusetts and met Zackler for the time in person in September in Spain, hours before the competition, she placed seventh.
“We started talking on Instagram knowing that we were going to be pairing up, and we did a puzzle together on Zoom at the same time, just to get to know each other a little bit and get to talk about our puzzling styles,” Zackler said. “The day before the competition started we found a time to sit together at one of these little cafes in Spain, and did a 500-piece puzzle together just to get that out of the way.”
Zackler attended the USA Jigsaw Puzzle Association in San Diego to compete in person for the first time in October 2022, but her passion for virtual, competitive puzzling heightened during the beginning of the pandemic.
“I love doing all kinds of puzzles forever, but my puzzle enthusiasm really took off in 2020 like a lot of people who picked up puzzling during the pandemic. I would use my Instagram account that I started just for my puzzles to share pictures. I’ve met so many people who have turned into real-life friends,” Zackler said. “I began participating in Zoom puzzling competitions, such as speedpuzzling.com, to practice my speed puzzling.”
While there wasn’t a qualifying event, Zackler set goals for herself to maximize her opportunities during the competition.
“There wasn’t really any qualifying event, so whoever wanted to participate could go, but because of the number of participants, they had some elimination rounds. Going in, I knew I’m not the fastest puzzler, but my goal was to qualify for the final round and the individual,” Zackler said.
The elimination rounds took place on the first day, before pairs and teams competed during the rest of the competition.
“They had three rounds for each person on the first day of the competition during their individual prelim rounds. Each group had nearly 100 people in it, and you had to do a 500-piece puzzle within an hour and a half. The top 60 from each group moved on to the next round,” Zackler said.
The next day were pair prelims, where Zackler and Medeiros finished a 500-piece puzzle in 34 minutes. While there was hesitation on her part regarding her speed, Zackler zoomed through the competition, landing in the top 10 pairs at the end of the championship.
“They were only advancing the top 30. I knew a lot of the people from the U.S. who were really fast puzzlers, but we got fourth place so there was no question that we would advance to the finals. Then we had our second round that evening for the individual — they had put together two groups of 180 total and would take the top 90, so my goal was to make the top 90, which I did,” Zackler said.
Her successes led to the final two busy days of competitions.
“They had us doing two 1,000-piece puzzles in three hours. Then we had a little break before our individual final, and then the pairs final. And then the last day, Sunday, was our team final, which was two 1,000s within three hours, again,” Zackler said.
Besides competing in a foreign country, Zackler received perks, such as customized Ravensburger puzzles designed exclusively for the championship.
“I brought home these puzzles with the little insignia for the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship,” Zackner said.
As for what makes a puzzler successful is strategy, along with tons of practice and coordination if working with other teammates?
“A lot of people will do edges first, which helps with getting the structure going. In a team, we try to work through each other’s strengths. Communication helps — we help each other out and work on our own things,” Zackler said. “Picking one person to put together the edges [helps] while everyone else is sorting, trying to figure out which colors we want. Sometimes if we get stuck, we switch spots or move on to something else.”
The mom of three created a Facebook group encouraging other local puzzlers to trade completed puzzles. In addition, Zackler noted the uncanny similarities between her hobby and profession.
“I think jigsaw puzzles are one kind of visual, spatial puzzles. Medicine is another kind of mental puzzle. In medicine, you kind of have to take a lot of data points and figure out how they fit together. There is a lot of problem solving involved in my daily life,” Zackler said. “There are certain, complicated surgeries where the anatomy or scar tissue is distorted, and you have to slow down and take a look at the big picture, and sometimes be creative to come up with a solution, given what you have. I think there is some overlap between the two and general problem-solving skills.”