The Puzzle Drive

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Oct 24, 2007

Filed under: Personal 52 comments

It’s September 22nd, and my brother and I are sitting in the pastor’s office in our tuxedos. We’re listening for the music change that will cue us to walk out into the sanctuary, where the ceremony will take place. We’re sitting in nervous silence with the pastor, who has given up on his attempts at small talk and has left my brother and I to our fidgeting. This would be an excellent time to go over the order of events in my head, since I would very much like to get through this without screwing up my brother’s wedding.

But then I see a puzzle on the bookshelf beside me. It’s right within arms’ reach. It’s a piece of wood with a few plastic pegs in it. There is a bit of text on the side explaining the rules, and under that are the words, “IF YOU CAN SOLVE THIS IN THREE TRIES OR LESS YOU ARE A GENIUS.” Now, you should not believe puzzles when they make these sorts of claims. These things are designed to sell themselves, and so it is in their best interest to flatter you. I know this, but a statement like this is the equivalent of telling a guy with a gambling problem that you have a hot tip on a horse and that it’s a sure thing. I’m defenseless, even against such a clumsy and obvious ploy.

I think about the fact that we are due to go out any second, the fact that my brother is about to be married, on my responsibilities in the coming hours, and I turn away from it. But it’s too late. My brain is already picturing the arrangement of pegs and holes and visualizing the various permutations of moves. I’m screwed. I sit there for about thirty seconds before I give up and childishly swipe the toy from his shelf. My brother laughs at me.

The pegs are exceedingly stiff in the holes and it shows no signs of wear. Either this thing is brand new (unlikely) or the pastor just keeps it here as a decoration and never plays with it. He sat in the same room with it for years and never felt compelled to touch it, and yet I could not do that for even thirty seconds. There is something wrong with one of us. At least.

My hands are shaking. Not over the puzzle. The puzzle has a calming effect, but not enough to overcome the anxiety of the coming hours. I have to give the wedding toast, and I’m filled with apprehension.

For crying out loud. When I was trying to think about the wedding I couldn’t stop thinking about the puzzle, and now that’ I’m doing the puzzle I can’t stop worrying about the wedding. It really is tough to make the pegs go in with my hands trembling like this.

I solve it on my second attempt, which means I get the satisfaction of knowing a piece of wood thinks I’m a genius. The music changes and we all stand up as I’m shoving the last peg into place. We walk out and the ceremony begins, but in the back of my mind I’m still fiddling with the thing. Was that the only sequence of moves that would lead to the solution? Could it have been done in fewer moves? What is the maximum number of moves you could make without hitting a dead-end? It really is sad.

I have never had any interest in recreational drug use. I’d rather be stoic and alert than happy and fuzzy-headed. Drugs just don’t offer the sort of stimulation I crave. But if someone ever comes up with a way to capture and purify the sensation of solving puzzles and distill it into liquid form, I’m hosed. Three weeks after the drug hits the streets you’ll find me in some filthy hotel on the edge of town, needle still in my arm, overdosed on some cheap Tetris clone.

I don’t know why I’m wired this way. I’m driven to overcome obstacles and create order from chaos, but only in abstract, symbolic ways. Getting a bunch of shapes into the right color and configuration brings me a sense of satisfaction, but getting the grass in my yard to a uniform height and color gives me no such thrill.

It’s not a very interesting puzzle in the grand scheme of things, but I knew some people would want to have a look once I mentioned it. If I remember correctly: The idea is to swap the red & blue pegs.  Each color may only move forward, never backwards.  They may advance one space or jump another peg. Remember, if you can do this in three tries or less then "you are a genius". (A claim I disproved the moment I solved it, since I am not a genius by the accepted definition.  I think I wasted too many skill points on CHA.)
It’s not a very interesting puzzle in the grand scheme of things, but I knew some people would want to have a look once I mentioned it. If I remember correctly: The idea is to swap the red & blue pegs. Each color may only move forward, never backwards. They may advance one space or jump another peg. Remember, if you can do this in three tries or less then "you are a genius". (A claim I disproved the moment I solved it, since I am not a genius by the accepted definition. I think I wasted too many skill points on CHA.)


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52 thoughts on “The Puzzle Drive

  1. Carl the Bold says:

    I believe there is only one empty hole between the colored pegs. I solved it on my third try, earning a ranking of “Near Shamus-Like Intelligence”.

    My wife didn’t even give me any experience points for in on Chore Wars. Darn railroading GM says I only get XPs for doing “productive” things like dishes.

  2. That puzzle is called Lucas’ puzzle, after à‰douard Lucas.

    I had a similar experience; my roommate was getting married a little over a year ago, and we were sitting in the pastor’s office before the wedding. The pastor had a bunch of those puzzles, commonly seen in Appalachia, among other places, made of wood and metal and string, where you have to separate a couple of the parts. Good times! I never did figure out the one puzzle, and was thinking about it while standing at attention all during the wedding.

  3. Dev Null says:

    Bastard. I lasted about a minute and a half before I had torn up little bits of paper to try it on my desk.

    Only marginally related (inasmuch as its about my inability to leave stuff alone): Why is it, in the new page style, that the 4th comment is sometimes, but not always, wider than the others?

  4. Shamus says:

    Let me try it and see…

  5. Shamus says:

    Dev Null: Can you point me to a post where you see the problem?

  6. Mike says:

    Dev Null: Only marginally related (inasmuch as its about my inability to leave stuff alone): Why is it, in the new page style, that the 4th comment is sometimes, but not always, wider than the others?

    Good observation, but the recent wide fourth comments were mere coincidence. Both of them contain long URLs that blow out the comment table width.

  7. roxysteve says:

    I did it in one move by turning the whole puzzle through 180 degrees.

    Then I thought that might be cheating, so I did in no moves by simply walking around the other side of the desk.


  8. Davesnot says:

    It’s call pot.. mary jane.. etc.. you think you’ve solved everything.. you see all the puzzles.. everything relates.. you can solve it all.. but an instant later you forget how it went.. you can’t relate the answer to anyone and you are left with the feeling that you have all the answers but just can’t get them out.. very frustrating.. but that feeling doesn’t last long and you see the solution to that puzzle.. and before long you pissed away a lot of time.. if you don’t stop you end up pissing away a lot of life and still don’t have the answers or can’t remember them anyway..

    Nope.. pick up the puzzle instead.

  9. Heather says:

    To get all psychological on you–I just realized that this is a coping mechanism. You were stressed and therefore your brain sought out something it knew and understood. It is just like how I, when I am stressed, start drawing the lines of things in my head–like when Grandma died and I went with Dad to the funeral home, I kept ignoring what was going on around me and instead started looking for things I could draw–like the lines of the branches outside the windows framed by the window, tracing them in my head as if I had pen and paper.

  10. Carl the Bold says:

    Steve –

    It takes more energy to walk to the other side of the table than to rotate the puzzle through 180 degrees, therefore your second solution is also void.


  11. Shamus says:

    Davesnot: Yeah, I’ve heard that about pot, but wouldn’t know, having never tried it myself. I do lament for a few people I’ve known who have smoked pot in lieu of living life. Alas.

  12. Althanis says:

    shoot me. Took me 3 tries. My bosses would like to thank you for helping me waste even more time at work Shamus. =)

  13. Taelus says:

    Gotta love this particular puzzle. I used to regularly forget the solution when I was a kid, so it had replay value :-)

    I don’t remember what restaurant had it, but that’s where I’d run into it and my parents were grateful because it kept me entertained for quite some time, trying to find multiple solutions.

  14. Justin says:

    “But if someone ever comes up with a way to capture and purify the sensation of solving puzzles and distill it into liquid form, I'm hosed.”

    Do not, under any circumstances, install a “free trial” of any MMORPG. Their reward system doesn’t give quite the same glow as a real puzzle, but there’s just so *many* little obstacles to overcome!

  15. Davesnot says:

    Actually.. pot makes you feel like you have discovered the answers like alcohol gives you the illusion that you have an ability that you don’t really have.. like good looks and charm.. or strength.. again.. the puzzle is the better choice.. then again.. moderation.. moderation.

  16. Dana says:

    I realize that this was a convenient oversimplification, but not all “recreational” (i.e. non-government endorsed) drugs make one “happy and fuzzy-headed”. MDMA, for instance, tends to make one happy and clear-headed, and filled with love for oneself and all humanity to boot. It’s an experience I would heartily recommend, although it is hard to get “the good stuff” these days (since most E is produced by organized crime syndicates now that it has been declared illegal, and is often “cut” with other substances like meth).

    And psychedelics (like psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, or peyote) help one to think DIFFERENTLY than usual, not simply “worse”. There was a recent study which showed that people on psychedelics tended to make direct associations (like “yellow” and “canary”) slower but indirect associations (like “sweet” and “lemon”) faster, thus underscoring the idea that they can actually enhance creativity or “broaden consciousness”, in the words of the researchers).

    I’m sure that there is a drug out there for you, Shamus, if only you’ll look a little harder. ;) :p

  17. Nick says:

    Fourth try. Man, I am really terrible at puzzles, despite their addictive qualities.

    Shamus, you need to get a PSP or a DS or a 360 so you can try Puzzle Quest. Given that it’s an (admittedly, thin) RPG with a puzzle game as a combat system, it might very well prove to be as much of a bottomless timesuck for you as it is for me.

  18. Christian Groff says:

    I remember a similar wood-peg puzzle when we were still living in San Antonio, when we went out to eat at the local Cracker Barrel. They had a pyramid of pegs where you had to eliminate all the pegs by jumping them. :)

  19. roxysteve says:

    Carl the Bold:

    Steve –

    It takes more energy to walk to the other side of the table than to rotate the puzzle through 180 degrees, therefore your second solution is also void.


    Ah, but the beauty of the second plan is that by moving I was able to evade the boss and therefore avoided a damn good thrashing for wasting time on the web instead of doing computer things like I’m paid for.

    Not void at all, but bonus!


  20. Mari says:

    I loathe those wooden puzzles with pegs. Growing up my father was a lunatic. Our family could only take vacations if it involved leaving the house at 3 AM to avoid rush-hour traffic in some distant locale. We weren’t allowed to talk or move our legs and the only time we stopped was for gas (don’t got a bladder the size of a basketball? tough!) To pass the time, my mother always gave us those stupid wooden puzzles with pegs. My sisters then proceeded to poke me with the pegs, testing to see how hard you could poke before skin ruptured or Dad’s brain exploded and he hit the one making the noise (me!).

    I do, however, do what Heather does. Put me in a room and I’ll immediately start counting things or tracing lines. There’s a hotel on the strip in Vegas that, to this day, I know has 1,282 holes in the acoustical ceiling tiles and I can sit down with pencil and paper and sketch every line and hole on that ceiling. I know this because *somebody* got caught up at the slots and didn’t come back to the room when he said he would and I got fidgety.

  21. Phlux says:

    Here I was hoping this thread would turn into a breeding ground of new puzzles for me to try.

    Here’s a good flash puzzle that I’ve had a fun time with. It’s probably about as difficult as the peg puzzle.

    it falls under the general category of “escape the room” flash game….but with puzzles instead of point-and-click hunting.

    Also I played that peg game as a “teambuilding exercise” at work a few months ago. It’s so much more difficult to solve as a group because you can’t just say “Hey let me just stare at it for a minute and solve it myself”.

  22. Carl the Bold says:

    Steve –

    Wait–you get paid? I’ve got to look into that.

  23. Phlux says:

    Here’s another one I found a few years ago which was incredibly addicting at the time.

    Once you figure out how it works, beating the computer is not that difficult. I keep hoping they’ll make a multiplayer version, because playing this against a human opponent would be very satisfying.

  24. WysiWyg says:

    I would say that it’s fairly obvious why you get satisfaction from puzzles but not mowing the lawn. The reason is simple;

    solving these puzzles isn’t for everyone, doing it proves that you’re smarter than at least some (my guess; most), which makes you proud (okey, I admit, I’m talking about myself really ;-)), whereas cutting the grass isn’t really that mentally challenging (for most people at least).

    That and of course the simple reason that it’s much more pleasurable to sit in a cool house, perhaps sip something to drink, and solve a puzzle than to be out in the scorching heat and trying to avoid permanent hearing and breathing issues from the mower.

  25. DiscountNinja says:

    I wouldn’t worry Shamus, all my skill points went into Procrastination (Video Games) and Trivia (Star Wars).

    I swear, I can’t have much WIS either =\

    …on the other hand, I did have the wisedom to not make a consitution and stamina joke, so maybe at last level up I put a point in that?

  26. Lee from Sheboygan says:

    I had a stack of those puzzles. One time, I took a plastic peg and put it over a candle my mom had. The plastic melted onto the wick, snuffind the candle. My mom sat for an hour with matches trying to get the plastic melted off. Boy, was she pissed.

  27. Joel D says:

    Kinda random, but if there’s onlt one space in between the pegs, the lowest possible number of moves is 2x+x^2, where x is the amount of pegs on one side. This allows you to make the puzzle any size, and check if you’re being optimal with your moves.

    Just my 2 cp

  28. Rick says:

    I was stumped. I knew, basically, what the “midgame” position had to be, but I couldn’t get there. So I decided that I’d try to do the puzzle working backwards from the solution to the original position.

    It wasn’t until I had completed this that I realized the absurdity of it. After all, the puzzle is the same forward as it is backward. Worked, though.

    Assuming the rules only allow for blue pegs to jump red pegs, or vice versa, any solution to the puzzle (as presented) will require 45 moves. (Each peg must move 7 slots; ten pegs therefore move a total of 70 slots. Each peg must jump xor be jumped by each peg of the opposite color, resulting in 25 jumps, which each move a peg two slots, for 50 slots total. The remaining 20 slots must be pushes, so 20 pushes + 25 jumps = 45 moves.)

  29. SteveDJ says:

    I think I’m being inflicted by a similar malady. I’m do testing at my job, and right now I have the urge to “test” the limits of the comment table layout right here, as mentioned in comment #6 (and as I saw in those other posts).

    *Must… resist… urge…*

    Ok, it’s been 30 seconds, time to swipe the opportunity and go for it.

    My apologies if this screws up the whole page layout (Shamus, you have permission to delete this post if it does — yea, right, like you need my permission to delete a post if it screws up the page layout… :) )


    Ok, was that wide enough? Let’s see what happens when I click Submit…

  30. DGM says:

    This is either proof that I’m even more pathetic than Shamus or a desperate cry for help, but I just threw together a recreation of this puzzle with Game Maker (complete with a move counter) and uploaded it to my site. Here’s the link:

  31. DGM says:

    According to the move counter, I managed it in 41 moves.

  32. Joe says:

    You’re not alone… Have you ever read any Vernor Vinge? Specifically, A Deepness in the Sky? Did you put down the book at the end and think to yourself “I need Focus.”?

  33. nehumanuscrede says:

    Nothing wrong with puzzle solving.

    In fact, being a puzzle type myself I’m mulling picking up
    the Iris puzzle over at Sharper Image just because. For those
    who aren’t familiar with it here’s a link to it.

    Not that I particularly care about the prize, I just want
    to see if I can solve it or not :)

  34. nehumanuscrede says:

    Correction to the last post:

    ISIS Puzzle. . . . not Iris. . . *sigh*

  35. Huckleberry says:


    I personally find the “Dark Room” puzzle several magnitudes more difficult than the pegs (or frogs) one: for a start, it doesn’t give either clear objective nor rules, plus it never allows you to see the whole puzzle at once. So I’m (honestly) curious: in which way are they similar to you?

  36. Deathblade_penguin says:

    Damm you Shamus.. I was trying to pretend to work whilst solving this puzzle… had to wait until i got home

    4th attempt :( but i new the logic based at 2, just made a silly mistake (twice)

  37. Shamus says:

    Phlux: Okay, thanks for the link, but you owe me those two hours back.

    Very interesting concept. Needed a zoom out function something fierce, but that was tremendous fun.

  38. Shamus says:

    Full disclosre on the dark room: I was in a hurry to finish up so I peeked for hints on the last puzzle.

    It is sort of annoying having a web-based game where you can’t save and can’t turn off the sound, because you have to put up with the sound / music playing until you beat the sucker. Not cool.

  39. DGM says:

    The Dark Room automatically tracks my progress. I simply close the window and when I return there’s an option to continue from where I left off. You aren’t getting that?

    If the last puzzle is the white one with the 3 orbiting color circles on each side, that’s where I’m currently stuck myself (no hints, please).

  40. Phlux says:

    To all of my victims: (erm…those who have enjoyed The Dark Room).

    I will confess to not having played the dark room in a while. It just came to mind for some reason. The original developers site seemed to be out of comission, so I had to hunt and hunt for a working version on another site.

    I seem to recall the original host using a larger screen format. It could be that it’s dynamically re-sizeable in the HTML. It does seem a tad smaller than I remember it, though a zoom-out feature would be much appreciated.

    I never tried closing it personally. That might be a cookie thing? Maybe an IE vs Firefox thing?

    Full disclosure: I also had to peak for help on the last puzzle.

  41. Phlux says:

    Huckleberry: It isn’t really that they are similar in any way…I just found that the for me the peg puzzle took longer to solve than several of the individual puzzles in The Dark Room. But then again, the first time I played the peg game, it was with a group of 14 people all trying to solve the same puzzle simultaneously. Maddening. maybe this one is harder.

    And here’s one last puzzle to enjoy. I thought maybe I’d seen this one linked here, but maybe I picked it up on, which is where I often my source for time-and-productivity wasters.

    Starts out very easy, and then becomes quite complex. Lots of levels, and this one has a “continue” feature. Not sure about turning the sound off. I usually just mute my speakers.

  42. -Chipper says:


    I tried your solution of turning the puzzle 180 degrees, but then all the pieces fell out once it was upside down. ?! What am I missing here? ;-)

    You say you aren’t a genius, yet you have proof. PROOF, I say that you are not just a genius, you are 33% beyond that since you didn’t need your last try to solve it. So don’t sell yourself short. You are a genius and a third.

  43. roxysteve says:

    [Chipper] Duct tape of course. Never go anywhere without it. It is your friend on a spool.

    I dunno, todays youth, wet behind ears, no gumption, etc, more etc, wouldn’t have been allowed in my day, where’s my dinner, get off my lawn.


  44. Neil says:

    Hey Shamus, have you ever played though Planetarium ( It’s a story told in twelve parts, each part containing a puzzle and clues to puzzles. You have to register (free), after which the parts are made available to you at the rate of one every week, so there’s no racing to the finish (it was initially designed around a contest). The writing and artwork are superb and the puzzles range from fairly easy to devilishly hard. At the end of it, you should have accumulated twelve pieces to the final puzzle, after which it will tell you how you did.

    Anyway, you (and others here) might enjoy it and if you do go through it I think we’d all enjoy reading your thoughts as you do.

  45. DocTwisted says:

    You think that’s bad… I once attended a funeral and there on a stray table (I’m thinking it was the church lost and found table, wasn’t my church) was a Rubik’s Cube.

    Yeah, it was scrambled… but not by the time the pallbearers were taking the coffin out. Oh, the angry glares…

  46. Roxysteve says:

    [Rubik’s Cube Litter] I used to delight in popping out one of the middle-edge cubes from the matrix and inverting it. People soon learned not to leave these things out around me.

    Some delight in breaking paradigms. I delight in beaking symmetry. Someone like me was responsible for the universe if the physicists have it right.


  47. Dana says:

    Quoting -Chipper:
    > …you are 33% beyond that since you didn't need your last
    > try to solve it. So don't sell yourself short. You are a
    > genius and a third.

    Excellent point, but I would do the math differently. Since Shamus used 2 tries, and a genius would use 3 tries, the genius would require 50% more tries to get the puzzle.

    Taking this further, if you had 3 genii vs. 2 Shamuses (Shami?) in a puzzle-solving contest, each team would be able to solve puzzles at the same average rate (exactly 6 puzzles for every 6 turns or one puzzle/turn) as the number of puzzles approached infinity (to eliminate the ‘clumping’ effect of the puzzles being solved on different turns).

    So I would call Shamus a genius and a half (and anyone who could do it in one move would be 3 genii, by my estimate). :)

    Boy, I need a day job… lol

  48. DGM says:

    Leaving aside the question of how many tries it took you to beat it, I’m curious to know what the lowest move count anybody got was.

  49. Febrifuge says:

    Okay, so at least I got to level 16 on phlux’ 3D cube game… but I still can’t get the damn frogs figured out. It appears as though at each juncture there are a maximum of two possible moves, and either one creates a situation where, thinking ahead chess-style, I run out of room before I run out of frogs.

  50. Remy and Matt says:

    To your question about minimum and maximum move counts: there’s only one possible number of moves for such a puzzle All the pegs are unidirectional. When you have only one space between the two groups of pegs, you either have one possible move, two possible moves that are perfectly symmetrical, or two possible moves, one of which will lead to a dead end. (Putting two of the same type of pegs next to each other anywhere except the ends of the field will create an insurmountable block.)

    We then found a function f(n,s) for the number of moves required (n is the number of pegs per side, and s is the number of spaces between groups). First of all, a recursive relation: if you move all the pegs forward by one space (using 2n moves), you’ll get the same puzzle with n-1 spaces. The closed-form formula is: f(n,s) = n^2 + 2ns.

    Anyone who wants to explain this formula is welcome to do so, but here’s our logic: Since n is the number of pegs, and each peg must pass n other pegs, n^2 makes sense for a board with 0 spaces (admittedly impossible). In a board with a greater number of spaces, the aforementioned recursive relation can make it have one space by moving each peg s spaces forward (with 2n total pegs).

    You could probably generalize the puzzle tomulti-dimensional boards, but let’s not.

  51. Oleyo says:

    The simple rule that I used to solve this is this:

    Never do a move that results in adjacent pegs of the same color (barring thos that started that way) Just use the move that meets this requrement each time and voila!

    Took me four times to figure it though, but I already know from work that Shamus is smarter than me :)

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