Playing Games

Who doesn't love a good game? In this week's edition of Magazine Jan Velinger visited the 7th annual Brain teasers, Puzzles, and Magic tricks fair recently held in Prague.

Across from me is...

"Lucka, hello."

We have a little game in front of us called penalty shoot-out, and I'm standing here like Michael Owen, or David Beckham, about to take a penalty and Lucka is in goal. Let me ask you first, are you nervous?


Let's see how it goes. I'm stepping up, and Lucka's gone into the goal to defend, here's the kick...

"You missed, I'm sorry, ha ha!"

I hit the post!... What else do you have on display here today?

"We have here cards for children, cards for adults..."

How did you get involved in this business of games?

"Uh, because it's fun to explain to people how to play games, and I just like it because it's a funny job."

Would you say that Czechs are a playful nation?

"I think so, yeah."

One person who would certainly agree is Jaroslav Flejberk, the enthusiastic organiser of the games fair who explained its esteemed origins:

"Puzzles and games in the Czech Republic is based on American experience that every year they meet collectors and exhibitors who want to show the puzzles to the people. So we started something similar in the Czech Republic. This year is the 7th anniversary, so we can meet together: producers, people who want to play with puzzles and with games."

What are some of the different types of puzzles that you have, if you put them into categories?

"Basically there are three main categories based on materials: plastic, wood, and wire puzzles. The second factor is age: schoolchildren and adults. We have four puzzles here which are only for adults, for example, Eternity, a real puzzle which can take eternity, but if you solve it you get L 1 million! The puzzle has 209 pieces, I have been working on it for more than three years, so I am sure I will not be the first to complete it."

Are you married, and if so, does your spouse share your passion for puzzles and games?

"She usually says she has an extra child at home, which is me because I play with toys! But she respects my hobby, she respects and knows... Anyhow, it's probably better than if I went to the pub."

Well, I wouldn't say no to a beer at the pub either, but I might just take along a Vin & Co. triangle - now, if you're wondering what that is, it's a three-dimensional wooden brain teaser by designer Vaclav Obsivac who enjoys not only inventing things to drive people like you and me mad:

"My brain-teasers are either prismatic, angular shapes or right-angle triangles, half a cube, cut into different shapes... the combination of the various smaller pieces put together create new shapes. The final result is essentially a cubic form, with bits taken away here and there or added to create an overall interesting effect. You can have a ball, and so on. Why do I do it? I enjoy it, I like looking for new forms in geometry, it all comes to life, you discover something interesting which you've never seen before, then you try and find out if it exists elsewhere, if somebody else has it. It gives me satisfaction when I able to discover "America , as they say. Maybe just a small America, but maybe it makes someone happy!"

And I've got a Vin & Co. triangle here in the studio and believe it looks very innocent, just six pieces in a little bag, I should have it together in no time... but will I ? Mr Obsivac warned me that this was a specially-tough brain-teaser without the instructions he usually provides - the instruction card has been left conspicuously blank except for these three large question marks. Hm. Well, maybe this is going to be a little tougher than I imagined.

When you're solving an especially difficult brain teaser, how much of it is rational and how much is intuition?

Jaroslav Flejberk:

"I think it is 50 percent of experience and 50 percent intuition because in these brain teasers they make for you something to surprise you. We have here four puzzles which are not solvable - we believe that they are not solvable, nobody has found a solution yet. These are great problems in which you need 99 percent intuition and 1 percent experience."

Pretty girl:

"I saw an advertisement and I decided to take my boyfriend here because I know he loves these things, so we are here..."

What is it about puzzles that you enjoy?

"Puzzles. I don't like them! It's so boring for me to just sit and put things together! But it's so nice if you see a picture, or for example this cube, the design is very, very nice, I haven't seen anything like this before."

Is your boyfriend more the type who will stay somewhere and work on a puzzle, on a brain-teaser for hours, rather than going out?

"I think so, it's possible!"

Once again listen to Jaroslav Flejberk, on an incredible puzzle he showed me:

You have a very special puzzle in your hand here, it's in a small little canister, almost something for holding a piece of jewellery. Inside, on a black piece of felt there's this tiny, tiny speck of wood...

It's so tiny you could almost lose it under your finger nail and yet you say three pieces, it looks like a kind of cross...How do you actually take it apart and put it back together again?

"I'm afraid that I can not do it, only three pieces and to make it back will be a real puzzle!"

Well, I have to confess 500 dollars for a little splinter - that was what was really puzzling for me! I had to consider whether a fraction of that wouldn't have been better spent on the very special wooden toys for children featured by Zdenka Jirankova, from a toy store in the south Bohemian town of Tabor, a very kind lady who told me she taught and cared for children in nursery schools for thirty years. Her stand was covered with some of the most delightful items at the fair, maybe I'm just a kid at heart: traditional South Bohemian towns made up of building blocks, simple brain teasers such as a wooden take-apart dog, and an item that won my heart a wooden block of "cheese" with a little wooden mouse. The wooden block of cheese, reminding me of something I have at home in my fridge. Zdenka Jirankova on the importance of brain teasers for children, and why wood remains a favourite even today among Czech toddlers:

"From didactic games children learn to think, to concentrate, and from there they move on to puzzles and mind teasers. We offer simple mind teasers for children 3 and older. Of course, when a child gets a new toy the first thing it does is concentrates on what it can do with it, according to his or her fantasy, and only a little later does the child realise what it is meant for. Most of our toys and puzzles are made from wood. Wood is a material, which helps the child gain a positive view of nature, and ecology. We even learned that a child doesn't even need a particularly colourful toy, because if the toy is well made in pedagogical and artistic terms, than he or she doesn't mind that the toy is from natural wood, that it doesn't have the colours. On the contrary children like the fact that they can touch a natural material, they get a special feeling for it."

A feeling for it indeed, I wish I had, I might have been better rewarded for my efforts trying one of those brain-teasers for three-year-olds than this devilish Vin & Co. triangle - it is driving me over the brink, my producer waving from the studio window to stop playing for a living and do something serious. Yes, well, she has a point. That's it for today's Magazine - if you'd like more information on the fair or some of the toys mentioned today you can check out this site: