On a rainy Saturday in January, 25 teams of two gather in Redwood City for a competition testing their patience, strategy and speed. The rules: no pauses, no teammate substitutions, no spatulas and no magnifying glasses.
With the ring of a cowbell, the jigsaw puzzle competition begins.
Redwood City resident Emma Taylor has organized two sold-out competitions at the Red Morton Community Activities Building, one in March 2022 and the most recent on Jan. 14. A native of the San Diego area, Taylor has been putting puzzles together since she was a child, a hobby shared by her mother and grandmother.
"In the garage of our house, (my grandma) had a big puzzling table and I'd join her," Taylor said. "She's the one who taught me to start with the edges."
Now, Taylor is using one of her favorite pastimes to foster community in the city she's called home for the past five years. Her competitions have drawn a mix of "super serious puzzlers" and more casual participants; couples, mother-daughter duos, sisters and friends of varying ages. The events are organized under the name Peninsula Puzzlers (the puzzlers being the competitors themselves).
"I love doing jigsaw puzzles, and I remember sharing with my husband that if this was a competitive thing I'd probably do pretty good," said Taylor, who works as a sustainability consultant in the building and construction industry. "I did a quick Google search and realized there are jigsaw puzzling competitions in other parts of the country and world, but I didn't see anything local and I figured if I was interested other people would be excited to do something like that."
While puzzling's popularity soared during the onset of the pandemic, with NPR reporting on a "global shortage of puzzles" in 2020, the inaugural two-day World Jigsaw Puzzle Championships started in 2019. More than 1,000 competitors from 40 countries split into teams of four or five, with eight hours to complete four puzzles ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 pieces, according to a 2020 story published in The Guardian. On the second day, individuals vie to complete the same 500-piece puzzle and earn the title of world's fastest puzzler.
The two and a half hour Peninsula Puzzlers competition earlier this month tasked participants with completing the same 500-piece jigsaw puzzle the fastest, with prizes for the top three teams. Spectators were allowed to cheer on friends and family, but teammate substitutions were banned, along with tools that puzzlers sometimes use at home like magnifying glasses and spatulas.
The first-place team, Joanna Yong and her daughter Jillian of Belmont, finished the puzzle just after the 47-minute mark in what was their first-ever competition. They typically complete a 1,000-piece puzzle every month.
"I sort, she goes: That's how we do puzzles together," Joanna Yong said after the competition. "It's a nice activity to do together."
Ellen Omoto traveled from her home in Los Angeles to compete with her friend Krystal Ragat of Santa Clara. They found out about the event online and had never tried competitive puzzling before and came in second place a few minutes shy of the one-hour mark.
"It was a little more stressful," Ragat said. "We were afraid we weren't going to finish at all."
Longtime puzzlers like teammates and friends Kerry Zarchi of Redwood City and Nancy Magee from San Carlos, who finished in third place, were also among the competitors. Their puzzling hobby turned into an obsession during the pandemic, with Magee recently completing a 40,000 piece puzzle (10 connected puzzles with 4,000 pieces each). It measured 22 feet long by 6 1/2 feet wide, and Magee borrowed space at her church to put it together.
"This is our sport," Zarchi said.
The latest competition grew from 15 duos to 25 after the initial Peninsula Puzzlers contest sold out quickly, forcing Taylor to waitlist eager puzzlers.
"I thought I'd have to convince a bunch of my friends to do it, but it was all people I didn't know," she said of the first competition. "It was just a bunch of random community members who showed up, which was awesome."
At home, Taylor has a habit of leaving a puzzle on the table and working on it when she's bored or has free time.
"I could sit around and scroll through my phone, or I could sit around and try to find a couple puzzle pieces," she said. "It feels a lot more therapeutic."
Taylor buys puzzles for competitions from a California company, SunsOut, but hasn't bought a new one for herself in years by swapping puzzles with neighbors through Nextdoor. She doesn't even mind the dreaded fate of putting together a puzzle with a missing piece or two because, she said, "I take it apart at the end and give it to someone else."
While Taylor's hobby stems from her childhood, she said she became "wrapped up" in puzzling during the pandemic.
"It's a good go-to, in-the-house activity that takes a lot of time and headspace," she said. "An outcome for me of the pandemic and a lot of people was the realization that life is short and if I have an idea about something, there's not enough time to think about whether I'm going to do it or not: I have to do it and follow through. It was a good kick in the pants to harness the time we do have and if you want to host a puzzling competition, do it."
For Peninsula puzzle pros who missed the first two competitions, fear not: Taylor believes there's enough demand to potentially hold quarterly competitions, and she's interested in finding community sponsorships and getting feedback on new elements like expanded teams and puzzle sizes.
"I've really found a good community here," she said. "There's opportunity for community everywhere, even doing puzzles."
Follow the Peninsula Puzzlers on Facebook.