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A passion for puzzles

teaching kids to puzzle helps with patience, focus, and visual spatial skills, and reduces screen time
With long winter nights upon us, indoor hobbies come to the fore. Combined with the recent pandemic lockdowns, jigsaws are having a moment. Alix Norman speaks to those who are gripped


In The Big Bang Theory beloved social outsider Amy Farrah Fowler is devoted to jigsaws. “When you’re doing a puzzle,” she asserts, “it’s like having a thousand friends.” But a line that gave us all a good chuckle in 2013 (Amy being seemingly so uncool her closest companions were made of cardboard!) today rings a little too true… During the pandemic, reduced interaction has seen millions of people make puzzles their pals and their passion!

Ravensburger – one of the world’s best known puzzle brands – shifted 28 million puzzles in the first few months of the lockdowns, and saw North American sales quintuple. In the UK, there was a similar trend, with puzzle sales hitting £100m by late 2020. And in Cyprus? Well, Jumbo sold out of jigsaws within the first month of corona, and online orders became the norm…

“Cavallini and Co puzzles are simply sublime,” enthuses Nicosia resident Jo Pavlides, who ships the vintage poster-style puzzles in from Germany. “Everyone has their own preference, but I think it’s important you love the subject you’re working on, whether it’s sweeping scenery, kitsch kittens, or antique maps…”

36-year-old Jo enjoyed the odd puzzle as a child. “I think the combination of logic and creativity appealed to my young mind. But since the pandemic began, I’ve got back into them in a big way; as the primary carer in the family, it’s the only me time I get!

Jo sees her hobby as a necessity for mental health. “I’m ADHD, and my anxiety has worsened during the pandemic,” she reveals. “So puzzling has become my antidote – keep the hands busy and the mind clears. Plus it’s a relief from the constant hyperfocus I need in my job as an editor: when I’m feeling overwhelmed, concentrating on sorting and completing a 1,000-piece puzzle helps me to restructure my thoughts, and reset my brain.”

75-year-old Paphos resident Barbara Hill prefers “500-piece puzzles, usually depicting famous paintings. In my youth, I’d regularly set about 2,000- or even 3,000-piece puzzles,” she recalls. “But my eyesight was better then, and I had more space; puzzling can take up a big area!”

sorting the pieces is part of the fun and a great way to keep the brain sharp

Barbara likes to approach her puzzles systematically, with a strategy well-honed over the years. “I work on a large foam board – about €3 in local bookshops. It’s perfect for moving the puzzle round; I have it on my lap while I’m watching the telly. I sort first, finding the edges, then organising by colour and shape. It’s a bit hard when the grandchildren want to pitch in and help – more than a few pieces end up under the table! – but I’m just glad it’s something we can do together: jigsaws reduce their screen time, and it’s not like I can share in their video games!” she laughs.

During corona, Barbara’s collection of roughly 50 puzzles – many bought locally – has been a boon to family and friends. “I’ve often lent them out to fellow social distancers, and it’s lovely to hear how much enjoyment people have been getting from a simple puzzle. I always thought only wrinklies like me were jigsaw fans; it’s a great way to stave off dementia, I reckon. But it turns out they still appeal to all ages!”

Barbara is right. Studies have shown that regular dissectologists (those who enjoy puzzling) have longer life spans and a reduced chance of memory loss. They’re also great for improving visual-spatial reasoning, and a particular favourite with people who enjoy cooperative activities.

“My girlfriend and I aren’t competitive people,” says 28-year-old tech specialist George. “Instead, we enjoy activities in which nobody wins or loses.” George’s partner introduced him to jigsaws at the start of the pandemic, and he’s since become a devotee, completing several 3D iterations, and a couple of the so-called ‘impossible puzzles’ such as the Ravensburger ‘Krypt’ – an entirely grey iteration.

the ketchup jigsaw is one of the 'impossible puzzles' 570 solid red pieces“During one of the lockdowns, we did the ‘Heinz Ketchup’ puzzle,” he recalls. “It took us weeks! And since then we’ve bought several other solid colour jigsaws, which are notoriously difficult to solve.” Working together on something so challenging, George suggests, is a good indicator of whether you’ll make an excellent team in life. “Halfway through the Ketchup puzzle, when the world had gone crazy and we were quietly puzzling together each evening, I knew she was the one! We always say we don’t have kids, we have puzzles – nearly 50 of them now!”

While George’s collection is pretty extensive, the record is held by Luiza Figueiredo of Sao Paulo, who owns 1,047 puzzles! Meanwhile, the biggest commercially available puzzle is known as ‘Memorable Disney Moments’ – clocking in at 1.9 by 6.8 metres and containing 40,000 pieces!

“The biggest puzzle I’ve completed was a 5,000-piece,” says 56-year-old Yiannis Christodoulou. “I never work on anything with fewer than 2,000 pieces.”

The 56-year-old media specialist has long been a fan of all things puzzle, including cryptic crosswords and logic problems. “There’s something very comforting in the sense of closure you get from completing a puzzle,” he asserts. “A real feeling of achievement in a world that’s becoming ever more uncertain.”

Yiannis, who has “a jigsaw on the go at all times, often rolled up on a puzzle mat under the couch if I don’t have space” started puzzling at the age of seven, and favours concrete subjects, such as space shuttles, constellations, and maps. “I don’t go for paintings or scenes of nature. I prefer depictions of something purposeful, something you can learn from. I actually have the night sky jigsaw hung on the wall, and it’s often come in handy.”

While Yiannis’ love for puzzling “comes in phases”, Covid rekindled his passion. “I snapped up a jigsaw from Mitsingas, and have been systematically working on it ever since. Puzzling is something you can pick up and put down, so it’s ideal for busy people. And it’s also a perfect solitary pastime. I can see why jigsaws have become so popular over the pandemic – when you’re puzzling, your brain is simply too busy to be bored, anxious, or lonely!”

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