Screen vs. Paper

This is pretty much a straightforward question. Given an online contest where the puzzles are supposed to be solved on paper, should the participants be allowed to solve the puzzles on screen instead?

It is my understanding that, when a puzzle is displayed on their screen, some solvers prefer to load the image into some kind of editing interface (instead of printing) and solve it there. What software exactly they use or what functionalities it has, I do not know; my guess is, there are different programs in use for this purpose.

Actually, this comes down to several questions: Can one gain an advantage from solving the puzzles on screen? Is it reasonable to impose a rule against it? Is there an issue with people solving on screen if there is an explicit rule against it? Is there an issue with people solving on screen if there is no such rule? And finally, is there something like an unwritten rule against it, an implicit understanding?

Some questions are easier to answer than others. For example, if solving on screen is explicitly forbidden, one should not do it. Period. Clearly we cannot control what the participants in online contests are doing, so we can only trust them to follow the rules in place. But this applies to many areas, and we cannot content ourselves with the thought that violating rules is ok just because theoretically everyone else might do it as well.

Likewise, if there is no (explicit) rule at all against it, there is no ground for complains if someone actually does it. But that leaves the question if there is such a thing as a “spirit of puzzle-solving”, which might or might not make it undesirable/unwelcome.

This is a very delicate matter. I usually object to arguments which are based on the premise that someone’s personal view constitutes a universally accepted standard, so I am trying not to make this mistake myself.

However, we should keep in mind that it is generally impractical to make a complete list of everything that is allowed and everything that is forbidden each time someone hosts an online contest. I would therefore hope that, if a certain rule has been imposed in a series of a dozen events or so, and another event of the same kind takes place, the participants show some good will when it is apparent that this new event is supposed to be handled the same way as all the previous ones.

I skipped the very first question above, namely whether solving the puzzles on screen can lead to a notable advantage, and I want to share a few thoughts. In an earlier post I tried to explain that difficulty is a rather inaccessible abstract concept; if one wants to find out why some solvers are faster than other, in practice a lot of factors must be taken into account.

Handwriting is such a factor. In my times as a helper in championships I have seen various degrees of good or bad handwriting, for example during last year’s WSPC (and, looking back, I am all but happy how we handled things – see the WSPC afterthoughts on my website). Some solvers save time because their handwriting is much sloppier than that of others, so they can be said to gain from it.

I have no doubts that a suitable program can save time here and there because of the available means to enter the solution (I often use Shading Puzzles as an example, where shading a cell requires only a single mouse-click). But there is a matter where the interface can make a much bigger difference: bifurcations.

I guess most of us employ bifurcations (Trial and Error) every now and then, and notation-wise we probably have many different ways of doing it. Something I have often realized when solving myself is that I forget where I started a bifurcation. In the worst case, I thus have to start all over again. An automatic interface can simplify bifurcations a lot because one can simply press CTRL-Z or the equivalent, or even Save/Load a certain position without even going there step by step at all.

Since I feel that I lose a considerable amount of time doing Trial and Error in harder puzzles, I definitely think the screen-solvers gain from the technical means which are at their disposal. Like I said above, this is not a priori a problem, it can only be one if the rules stipulate that the puzzles are meant to be solved on paper.

Oddly enough, different people have entirely different perceptions regarding the advantages that working on screen brings. Some say they “don’t think they gain from it at all”, while others subscribe to it because “it makes solving easier”. (Although the solving steps themselves remain unchanged, due to the difference in execution I think of these two views as pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum. I cannot remember ever hearing both statements from the same person, which I somehow find reassuring.)

The one thing that really troubles me is when the rules prohibit solving on screen and people do it anyway, justifying their actions by claiming “it’s not a big deal”. Perhaps they do not see the link between “it makes solving easier” and gaining an actual advantage. Sometimes it is suggested that “the solving logic is all that matters” (not the way we work to get there).

This is a dangerous statement, because it does not clarify where to draw the line exactly, and – under the described circumstances – it is still a violation of the contest rules. One should be very careful to argue this way.

Let me digress for a minute. If we take a look at the world of sport events, some cases are easier to decide than others. Cycling, for example, is easier if your bicycle has an engine (not to mention all doping-related issues), but clearly it is not in the spirit of a cycling championship to use motorized equipment. On the other hand, the Olympic swimmers in 2008 wore a new generation of swimsuits which led to substantially better results, and at the time many people did not seem to have a problem with it.

So, where do we draw the line in puzzling? Most of the time, calculators are forbidden; they would certainly help with arithmetic puzzles (TomTom puzzles with large product clues – in the magnitude of 3360 – come to mind). But people are frequently allowed to prepare notes, including arithmetic tables, with contents like “23 = 9+8+6” for Kakuros.

A question that came up recently is whether competitors (in solving-on-paper events) are allowed to use transparent paper. I imagine it helps with bifurcations almost as much as a screen interface. What about using pens with different colors? What about templates for drawing certain objects faster? What about a cardboard set of Pentominoes?

And by the way, are participants allowed to draw a second grid – perhaps even pull up a pre-prepared one – and continue solving there? I admit I have done this frequently and never bothered to think about it; at this point I am wondering.

I have no intention to answer all these questions. In fact I would rather leave them open as suggestions for further discussion. It should be clear that, in online contests, it is not realistic to have all competitors participating under identical conditions anyway. But it would be nice to have some guidelines. And if one question comes up repeatedly (and is always answered the same way), I would wish for the answer to become an accepted standard in our puzzle community.

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