Perplexing puzzles

Logic game or piece of art?

puzzle 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
puzzle 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On a quiet street in central Tel Aviv, Ili Kaufmann makes her home in a cozy ground floor apartment amid philosophy books and finely crafted darbuka drums. Born in the house a few streets from where former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin lived as a child, she is one of the rare Tel Avivians who can truly claim a lifetime in the city. For as long as she can remember, puzzles and riddles of all shapes and sizes have fascinated her. It was even through a riddle that Kaufmann met her ex-husband Mickey, who remains a good friend. "One day on the beach in Tel Aviv he came up to me and asked me a three-part riddle he had invented, bragging that no one had ever solved it. I gave him the answer almost immediately and he looked at me and said, 'I am going to convince you to marry me,' and he did." After completing her bachelor's degree in television and film at Tel Aviv University, Kaufmann launched into her field with great enthusiasm. "I was one of the youngest freelance directors in Israel to write and direct educational films for the government in the late 1970s," she says wistfully. But the low salary and long hours soon led her to copywriting, a field she worked in for a few years before at last returning to her childhood passion: games of logic. "I got fed up with copywriting and decided to do something that combined art and logic," she says. That was in 1990, and for the last 17 years she has divided her time between creating unique versions of her own puzzles and selling them in the Nahalat Binyamin artists' market two days a week. "The beauty of this market is the meeting between the artist and the buyer." Kaufmann's no-nonsense, up-front approach to selling her puzzles includes a strong caveat about the level of difficulty. "I ask people if they want something solvable or if they're looking for a punishment." By punishment, she jokingly refers to one of her two most recent puzzles, Rebuilding Jerusalem, because it requires at least 261 steps to solve. "I guarantee people that it will take them at least two years to solve, and so far no one has proven me wrong." However, when she receives desperate e-mails from dismayed puzzle players around the world begging for the solution, she sends it immediately. "I don't want to cause any mental problems due to the challenge, and I don't tell spouses if people ask me not to." Of course, many people buy the puzzle just for its hand-cut pieces and antique map drawn by Henrich Bünting in 1585. Europe, Asia and Africa are illustrated in a clover-leaf shape with ancient Jerusalem at their center. The original map is on display in the National Jewish Library in Jerusalem, and Kaufmann says the puzzle is based on a challenge by Nob Yoshigahara. "The unique thing about my puzzles, especially the two recent ones, Rebuilding Jerusalem and Israelogic, is that I create a logic game that is also a piece of art." Rebuilding Jerusalem required hundreds of sketches and over two years of work before Kaufmann was satisfied, and she painstakingly cuts out sections the map and affixes them to each piece by hand. "It's very important to me that every detail be perfect. It's part of the success of my puzzles." Aside from her most recent work with ancient maps, a style she plans to continue in her next puzzle, she also sells some hand-drawn logic puzzles that she designed. "I studied art for two years at Beit Berl. I live and breathe art." As for the inspiration, she is constantly searching for new logic games that suit her twofold criteria: to evoke some historical or philosophical idea in a logic game and stand alone as an artistic creation. Take Alice for example. One of Kaufmann's first puzzles requires the user to piece small Alice figures together according to the right suit of cards on the lapel of her dress. "Alice is a symbol of philosophy and mathematics and literature combined," Kaufmann says, showing me how the beautifully drawn figures fit together on both sides of the puzzle. The White Rabbit adorns one side and Alice is on the other, and there are several different solutions but all of them are difficult. On a recent trip to New York, Kaufmann spent all of her time browsing every bookstore in the city to find new mathematical formulas. "I take formulas that have never been used with puzzles and transform them into a physical game that people can touch, see and play." In a puzzle entitled simply Logic, she sketched a series of seven faces, each with a remarkable nose. The object of the puzzle is to ensure that all of the noses end up pointing in the same direction. Like her other puzzles, it's much harder than it looks. "I tell people that although the puzzles are based on logic, it's a logic that has to be found from the side. It's an incredibly complicated logic that requires a different kind of thinking."