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Diabolical Clues Puzzle Even Some Puzzle-Solvers

April 16, 1985

NEW YORK (AP) _ A farmer, two coal miners and a math teacher were among the 36 winners Tuesday of ″Decipher,″ a $117,000 puzzle with clues so diabolical that even the solvers still don’t understand some of them.

″I’m using my prize money to take my family to Hawaii,″ said Richard Zucker, a college math teacher from Irvine, Calif., because solving the puzzle ″took away three months of their lives.″

Zucker estimated that he spent 100 hours actually working on the puzzle and an additional 200 hours thinking about it. He won $3,251.71 for his effort, as did each of the other solvers, whose names were announced Tuesday.

Decipher’s creator, Warren Holland Jr. of Norfolk, Va., had set a two-year deadline of March 29 for solving the puzzle, which was based on a cipher, or coded writing.

The code was a series of numbers. Each number stood for a letter, and the challenge was to find the key to the code and translate the numbers into a message.

Home computers that could try out different combinations of numbers and letters came in handy.

Obscure new clues were released periodically via a telephone hotline.

″We’re still asking what some of the clues mean,″ said Zucker, who swapped cipher-war stories with fellow winners at a Manhattan gathering.

Those clues included: ″The first place to start may not be the first;″ ″300 is closer to A than Z;″ ″Some numbers are repeated but do not be fooled;″ and ″A cube is a clue if you are geometrically inclined.″

Another clue was a list of 21 authors. They had to use a list of numbers from the puzzle to pick the right author - Carl Sagan - by figuring that the number group 3,19 was his initials, with the 3 standing for ″C″ and the 19 for ″S.″ However, rules could change and the same numbers in another reference might stand for something else entirely, like third chapter, 19th sentence.

Still more coded clues led to Sagan’s book ″Cosmos″ and finally to its sixth chapter, which contained the last clues.

″My 8-year-old did the legwork. When the 21 authors came out, he went to the library’s card catalog and pulled out every one of them,″ said another winner, Jim Hutz, a computer worker from Pittsburgh.

Hutz said he initially thought the 3,19 stood for the book ″Catch 22,″ and spent months following that false trail.

The eventual answer was a passage from poet e.e. cummings that begins: ″Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel.″

″Besides its business and entertainment value, I wanted (the answer of) Decipher to be worthwhile,″ said Holland.

More than 200,000 copies of the puzzle were sold at $13.25 apiece through catalogs and by major department stores and more than 1,000 entries were received, according to Lee Keel, speaking for Decipher Inc.

Hutz, Zucker and the other winners present - Russel Mikel, a consultant from Columbia, Md.; Ken Virgile, a medical student from Burlington, Vt., and Otis Willoughby of Boulder, Colo. - all said they used computers to help solve the puzzle.

The other winners included a farmer, Robert Craig of rural Sparta, Ill.; two coal miners, Wayne Shook of Marissa, Ill., and Dale Thomas of Tilden, Ill., and a 15-year-old girl, Christine Spencer of Mary Esther, Fla.

Holland said a sequel to Decipher will be unveiled during a stationery trade show in Manhattan next month.

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