As teams huddled around tables of scattered jigsaw puzzle pieces, their matching shirts proclaimed: “The jig is up.” “A piece of cake.” “The dining room table is mine.”
Over the course of the day Saturday, a total of 310 teams — more than 1,200 participants; team sign-ups sold out well in advance — competed in the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s annual puzzle contest at Landmark Center.
The Winter Carnival’s puzzle competition is the largest and one of the longest-running jigsaw puzzle tournaments in the country. It’s also one of the most well-respected: The Winter Carnival’s puzzle contest was the subject of a 2014 documentary, “Wicker Kittens.”
And the current iteration of the contest only began in 2010, which speaks to the relative newness of competitive puzzling. The activity saw a significant boost during the pandemic, competitors and organizers said.
This year’s contest, an all-day affair at Landmark Center, consisted of five divisions: an expert round of previous competitors or established puzzlers, three general admission adult categories, and one kids and family round. A timer was projected onto a large screen at the front of the room, and judges milled around the large tables as solvers worked.
After the initial frenzy to rip open the brown paper bags hiding the 500-piece puzzle boxes, Landmark Center became unusually quiet as the clock ticked. Teams that spoke aloud mostly communicated in whispers. Some people muttered to themselves as they worked. One table quietly harmonized “Please Mr. Postman,” by The Marvelettes.
During the expert round, Karen Kavett’s team meant business.
They’d done a couple practice puzzles the night before to train together. When the timer started on Saturday morning, they sprang into action: One team member pulled the plastic wrapping off the box; another was ready to slide the box top off, and Kavett pulled out the bag of pieces and dumped them onto the table so they could begin sorting.
They finished the puzzle in just over a half hour, good for second place. The winning team, from Minnesota, clocked a time of 26:48.
“I really think it’s just about doing a lot of puzzles all the time,” Kavett said. “And then it’s just muscle memory when you try to do it for speed.”
Kavett, who lives in Los Angeles, was one of several veritable celebrities in the puzzling world who came to St. Paul for the competition. On her YouTube channel, Karen Puzzles, she’s amassed over 200,000 subscribers and regularly racks up six-figure view counts. Thanks to YouTube, puzzling has functionally become her full-time job. After the expert round concluded on Saturday, a fan approached her to request a photo together.
“I spend most of my time alone in my apartment either doing puzzles, or filming or editing puzzle videos,” Kavett said. “So to be around other people who love it as well is — it’s like, there are other people out there like me!”
The champion of this year’s second division was Golden State Puzzlers, from California, with a time of 32:17. The quartet took sixth place at last year’s jigsaw puzzle world championships in Valladolid, Spain, and they’re each renowned for their individual accomplishments, too.
One member, Yvonne Feucht, is the reigning U.S. national puzzle champion. Another, Tammy McLeod, holds a puzzling-related Guinness World Record. McLeod tackles more than just jigsaw puzzles, too — she’s also completed more than 400 escape rooms around the world and is one of the country’s fastest escape-room solvers. McLeod and teammate Aly Krasny both serve on the board of the USA Jigsaw Puzzle Association.
“It’s fun because I feel like a lot of us are competitive, but we’re not overly competitive where we get angry or anything,” Krasny said. “I feel like in this community, we all feel like we’ve found our people. … We’re all very Type-A, competitive, but also nerdy, so we can’t take it too seriously.”
All the puzzles used in the Winter Carnival competition were donated by PuzzleTwist, a company that works predominantly with local artists to design puzzles. The “twist” is that each puzzle is slightly different than the picture on the box, which founder Tony Nelson said adds another layer of both challenge and excitement. On Saturday, all competitors assembled the same puzzle: “Winter Gnomes,” designed by native Minnesotan Kirsten Sevig.
Cynthia Schreiner Smith organizes the Winter Carnival’s contest as the chair of the puzzle committee — and its sole member, she said with a chuckle. Schreiner Smith also runs Cyn City Tours, which offers guided walking tours of St. Paul’s history.
As a competitor herself in the early 2010s, Schreiner Smith and her team won the Winter Carnival contest seven years in a row. She had to audition for a spot on the team, which she initially disbelieved before realizing puzzling is serious business.
Ultimately, she said, solving jigsaw puzzles is about connecting with friends and community, regardless of whether you’re competitive about it.
“There’s people who come to this, they know they don’t have a chance in a hill of beans of winning,” she said, “but they love being in the room with other like-minded people who love puzzles.”