Ken Jennings


July 28, 2006

Unless you’re British, some kind of puzzle nerd, or both, you probably don’t know about the bizarre fad for “armchair treasure hunts” that sprang up (on both sides of the Atlantic, though never with any success here in the States) in the 1980s.

The craze began in 1979, when painter Kit Williams published a picture book called Masquerade. Masquerade was a perfectly pretty children’s book, but with an ingenious marketing gimmick: concealed within it were clues pointing to the location of a treasure–specifically, a golden hare buried “somewhere in Britain.”

The book was a million-selling success, treasure diggers began digging up private property all over the U.K., and a fad was born.

(There are plenty of interesting stories relating to the genre, including the fact that the eventual Masquerade champion was a cheater who had hit up Williams’ ex-girlfriend for the location, beating out two bona fide solvers by mere days. The craze in America was pretty well killed by Treasure, a Masquerade rip-off that buried a golden horse, not a hare, and offered a $500,000 prize to the finder. The horse was never found, the “solution” proffered by a pair of treasure hunters a few months later seemed phony, and there was a general feeling that the puzzle had been made purposely unsolvable to save a few bucks.)

I’m no expert on the still-thriving subculture of armchair treasure hunters. I bring it up only because they helped spawn my personal favorite puzzle book ever written: Mike Wilks’ The Ultimate Alphabet.

Like Kit Williams, Wilks concealed a puzzle inside a book of elaborate oil paintings. Like Williams, he and his publisher offered a prize to the reader with the keenest eye and the best solution–not a buried hare, but a check for £10,000. Like Williams, he borrowed the tropes of a children’s book, though his is not a fairy tale. It’s an abedecary.

The Ultimate Alphabet is a collection of 26 oil paintings, one for each letter of the alphabet. Within the paintings, Wilks included 7,777 items that began with the appropriate letter–361 A’s in the first painting, 542 B’s in the second, and so on. The S painting, of a shop stuffed with sundry stuff, includes an eye-popping 1,234 ‘S’ items. Here’s “C,” borrowed from Wilks’ website.

The contest was, in effect, multiple choice. An included paperback workbook listed over twelve thousand words, the real answers along with dozens or hundreds of “red herrings” for each painting, and readers had to check off the ones they could find. The penalty for false positives was incredibly high: more than a few dozen would disqualify you entirely.

I got the book for Christmas when I was in the seventh grade and became obsessed with winning the prize. I don’t think I ever got beyond the letter C though. Too many of the words in the workbook were a total mystery to me. Adrianichthyid? Alchymist with a Y? Anacard? Even after trips to the library to check Britannica and the OED, I was at a loss. I don’t think Penguin Books ever announced who won the contest (anyone know?) but I fell in love with the book. The paintings were beautifully intricate–you could stare at them for hours. And it was astonishingly satisfying to find in an old dictionary that the long-handled pruning device in the arboretum was certainly an averruncator, or to squint and finally see the tiny anklet visible on the statue of Adam perched on an artichoke.

Not long ago, I got to thinking about The Ultimate Alphabet. Google had changed trivia, of course, but what about Mike Wilks’ contest? Was The Ultimate Alphabet, once a near-impossible puzzle, an easy solve in the Internet age?

My beloved childhood classic was, I was shocked to find out, now out-of-print in both the US and the UK, as far as I could tell from Amazon. But a used bookstore in England had a copy of the book for sale complete with the original workbook, so I tried not to look at the shipping cost and ordered away. Six weeks later, I was once again a proud owner of The Ultimate Alphabet.

And here’s what I found out: the Internet, of course, made things a lot easier. No matter how obscure the kind of moth or English garden flower or genus of fish, you can probably find a few good pictures on-line. OneLook turned me on to some great rare-and-archaic-word on-line dictionaries like The Phrontistery or the 1913 Webster’s Unabridged, so I no longer needed a trip to the library to find that an ajimez is a kind of window on a minaret and antigropelos are waterproof leggings.

I finished “A” and whipped out The Annotated Ultimate Alphabet, Wilks’ 1988 “answer key” to his own puzzle, to check my work…and learned that I’d made forty-odd mistakes on “A” alone. I had identified almost as many “false positives” in the first painting alone as I would have been allowed for the entire contest! I was crushed.

But here’s the thing: looking at my work, only one of those mistakes was the result of my being not perceptive enough. (I didn’t realize the woman carrying a jug represented Aquarius.) The rest of them were mostly due to ambiguity or errors in the word list! For example: I was apparently supposed to know that anthropomosis, while not a word, is acceptable because it’s a typo for anthropomorphosis. Those wispy clouds at the horizon just look like altostratus. They’re apparently altocumulus. The rooftop with odd circular indentations in the balcony? It’s vaguely ashtray shaped, so that counts as an ashtray. The carved Atlas column holding up that roof? You lose a point if you call it Atlas. You have to check the plural Atlantes, even though there’s only one. You’re supposed to check asp but not aspic, even though aspic is an archaic synonym for asp. Aaaaaaand so on.

So I was disillusioned. The Ultimate Alphabet may be a beautiful book, but as a puzzle, it was essentially unsolvable, unless you could read the artist’s mind, or knew his ex-girlfriend. The winner was probably some kid who checked very few answers, but didn’t check enough wrong ones to be disqualified.

Maybe I could have won back in 1987 after all.

Posted by Ken at 6:21 pm