Byline: Eric Wilson

WEST HARTFORD, Vt. — The masters of industry were focused on a puzzle before them, searching for its solution as if the fate of their fortunes depended upon making just the right decision at that moment.
But that moment was on a cloudy Saturday morning, while they were sitting in a gaudy used-car dealership in this New England hamlet, cramped around a cheap folding card table rather than the nice ones in their board rooms back home.
Paul Derby and Jeff Straathof, two Internet moguls who have amassed amazing personal wealth based on their powers of technological logic, were huddled over one particularly tricky piece of this puzzle, which, of course, they had already solved.
“This is a test of observation,” Straathof said. “Let’s see how long it takes for you to figure this out.”
But the puzzle before them wasn’t about a business dilemma. Rather, it was one of the jigsaw variety.
Straathof, who created the Performix software technology that stress-tests Web sites, pushed the assembled pieces over for a closer look, which turned out to be a small bit of the puzzle that showed an image of a tree reflected in a lake. No big riddle here, right?
“Here’s the beauty of this type of work,” he said, pulling a piece out of the puzzle, which turned out to be shaped like a little tree, then another that was a small ladder, and a third — a woman perched on the ladder pulling an apple from the tree.
“And, wouldn’t you know, the ladder is standing on the grass in the puzzle, and the tree piece is part of the reflection of a tree,” Straathof said, quite satisfied with himself, as these are the little clues that are used to solve the big picture.
But isn’t there a picture on the box that shows what it’s supposed to look like?
“Oh, no!” came their joint scoff.
People like Straathof and Derby don’t do ordinary cardboard jigsaw puzzles.
Derby is the East Coast technology partner of MarchFirst, a former chief technology officer of both Computer Sciences Corp. and SRT International and holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology with concentrations in computer science and industrial and organizational psychology.
Being of advanced mental capacity, they have turned to a more challenging puzzle producer, in this case the 25-year-old Stave Puzzles, based in nearby Norwich, whose works they collect as if they were Beanie Babies for adults.
For its anniversary last week, some 200 Stave enthusiasts gathered for what the company described as the “World’s First Xtreme Puzzling Event,” which promised such unorthodox challenges as “underwater puzzling,” “mud puzzling” and “Jell-O puzzling.” But those were really just teasers that turned out to consist of, for example, a fish tank full of Jell-O from which contestants plucked oversized puzzle pieces.
The real action was at the card tables, where Stave unveiled its latest brain teasers to its best customers, which included schoolteachers and nurses alongside the ceos of several major global businesses. The company has a reputation for going over the top with its puzzles — Stave holds the Guinness World Record for the most expensive one at $15,000 — which is the major appeal to Stave devotees.
Jigsaw puzzles have been around since the 1760s, believed to have been invented in London by John Spilsbury, a teacher who thought of cutting up a map along county lines to teach geography. There are, however, competing theories of who created them first, said Anne Williams, a professor of economics at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
By the 1850s, they were used for entertainment and saw their heyday during the Great Depression, since they could be made inexpensively. But the latest puzzle craze is being driven by some of the wealthiest individuals in the world.
Bill Gates calls them “entertaining and stimulating,” while Barbara Bush and investment guru Tom Peters are top clients of the company, as are several of New York’s leading social families. Annette de la Renta is also said to be a fan of the puzzles, some of which are hand painted, while others contain riddles within them, such as anagrams and encoded quizzes, and typically cost upward of $1,000 apiece.
“There’s a lot of left-brain professionals out there who really have right-brain talents,” said Steve Richardson, Stave’s founder and ceo. “They use these puzzles as an escape. It sort of depressurizes them and relieves their tension. They get so absorbed in them that they forget everything else.”
Derby said he sometimes stays up until 3 a.m. working a Stave, just to find the little jokes and wordplay within them. Even Stave is a play on words — Richardson founded the company with David Tibbetts and combined “Steve” with “Dave” for the name, which also means “to smash or break,” as in to pieces.
“It’s like work,” Straathof said. “But there’s no craftsmanship in software.”
Darryl Allen, retired chairman and ceo of the $2 billion Aeroquip-Vickers industrial hydrolics company, which was acquired by Eaton last year, has formed a puzzling team with his wife, Sharon, three sons and two daughters-in-law called “The Allen 7,” several of whom traveled from Toledo, Ohio to attend the Stave festival.
“Our whole family gets together every Thanksgiving and we always work a Stave puzzle,” Allen said. “In Tahoe, we did the ‘Pentagon’ and, last year, we did the ‘Hexagon’ in Gasparillo Island,” referring to Stave titles.
“We own 30 or 40 of them,” he said. “They are really exciting, interesting and sometimes irritating.”
“They are also very expensive,” added Dena Willmore, a retired senior partner at one of Boston’s largest investment advisory firms.
She and Martha Thurber, a principal of AEW Capital Management and its director of communications, participate in Stave’s “time share” program, in which they receive six puzzles each year and keep the one they like best. That’s usually one themed around cats, like “Frederic the Literate,” a puzzle that features a feline snoozing in a library among books like “A Tail of Two Kitties” and “Three Blind Mice,” Williams said.
“But the best one we have was custom made,” she said. “For Martha’s Christmas present, I took a painting of our home in Buckland, Mass., off the wall and had it professionally photographed with a large format camera to have a print made in the same size. Then I drove it all the way here and they made a puzzle out of it.”

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