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Inside the Raptors’ ‘Puzzlepalooza’: Trust, egos and trash-talk thanks to Wordle and more

HOUSTON — An issue of trust threatens to tear a small portion of the Toronto Raptors asunder. Accusations are flying. A neutral tribunal might be necessary.

“I know I would be the first person that she would screw over,” Raptors centre Jakob Poeltl said late last week.

“All my trust went out the window,” he added. “I’m fully calling this tournament rigged — officially in the media.”

“The losers of the group, I think, is who it’s coming from,” said Raptors physiotherapist Amanda Joaquim.

“The egos are out of control. The complaining — holy. The rules are the rules. What am I supposed to do? I just have to enforce the rules. There’s no leeway to these rules. But now people want to change the rules. They want to add rules. I told them, if they want to do that, they have got to run their own Puzzlepalooza.”

The Puzzlepalooza has become a topic of contention for the Raptors, or at least the seven staffers and one player, the 7-foot Austrian, Poeltl, who went public with his match-fixing allegations.

Joaquim is the commissioner of the Raptors’ New York Times puzzle tournament, which is poised to wrap up later this week. The group has competed in three separate mini-tournaments so far — one for Wordle, one for Connections and one for the Mini Crossword. (All three games are owned by the Times, which also owns The Athletic.)

The tournaments are single-elimination, with matchups determined by random draw. Winners and losers brackets follow to determine placement. The winner of each tournament gets eight points, the last-place finisher gets one, with corresponding rewards for results in between. Each tournament takes three days, with a few days of “load management” in between. (When Joaquim was told the term is now frowned upon by the league, she called them “mind rest days.”)

Raptors puzzle tournament tiebreakers

Game Tiebreaker

Wordle

Most correct squares in earlier guesses

Connections

Completed in most difficult order

Mini Crossword

Time

Ultimate tiebreaker

Rock, paper, scissors — obviously

There are also some, errr, personal touches in the scoring system.

“There are random bonus awards that are given out based mainly on how I feel,” Joaquim said. “There are some that have (actual merit).”

One of the current bonuses is for whoever can beat the crossword score of Jennifer Quinn, the team’s director of communications.

“Even if they’re not competing against her — bonus two points,” Joaquim said. “She’s the queen of crosswords.”

Yes, perhaps some codification of the rules is in order.

The idea took shape at the start of this season, when a “group of nerds,” as Joaquim put it, began sharing their scores in various games in a WhatsApp group. Poeltl’s and Quinn’s competitors come from a wide range of departments within the Raptors: Social impact manager Katherine Allen, Wayne and Theresa Embry fellow Gregory Ho, nutritionist Jennifer Sygo, massage therapist Melissa Doldron, technology lead Brandon Moita and player service and advancement specialist Rae-Marie Rostant. Garrett Temple has entered the chat, sharing his scores, but joined too late for tournament play.

Sygo won both the Wordle and Connections tournaments, with Quinn winning the Mini Crossword competition. They were tied for first, heading into what Joaquim has coined “the grand championship.”

“The rules haven’t been released yet,” Joaquim said last week.

It’s hard to see why there are trust issues here.

Joaquim eventually decided on having a final eight-person tournament as the grand championship, with single-elimination games in which the contestants compete in all three games on the same day. The matchups were determined by seeding from the first three rounds, with an awards banquet to come next week. Poeltl drew Quinn in the first round again. Quinn won the Mini Crossword, but Poeltl won Wordle, getting to “repel” quicker than his competitor. Neither got a line correct in a particularly tough edition of Connections, leading to a rock, paper, scissors tiebreaker. The match was live-streamed to the group, with Poeltl winning and advancing to the semifinals of the championship round.

Reports indicate Poeltl was “a gracious winner,” perhaps a bit of a surprise. Poeltl has been completely above reproach during the tournament. One source said that Poeltl manipulated his time during the Mini Crossword tournament — presumably for his own amusement — before coming clean.

“As far as trash talk goes, I think there are a couple of dark horses. I count myself up there with the trash-talking crew,” Poeltl said. “I know Amanda’s also high in the trash-talking crew.”

Poeltl has been interested in various puzzles all of his life. (Coincidentally, the NBA player guessing game launched after Wordle gained popularity in late 2021 is named “Poeltl,” for rhyming reasons. Poeltl said he has become involved in that game on an official level, with an announcement to come about further developments.)

As with many people worldwide, Poeltl started playing Wordle soon after its release and began playing some of its copy-cats, including Pokedle, based on Pokemon characters, soon after. Game fatigue hit, but he resumed playing once talk of scores took over the training room. He said he plays six or seven of the games regularly, although he is coming at this with a disadvantage — German is his first language.

“It’s just different kinds of problem-solving,” Poeltl said. “You need a specific type of knowledge to be good at them as well. But at the end of the day, what I really enjoy and what I think I’m good at is trying to find the best way to solve whatever problem’s ahead of me. I might not know all the words because (English is my) second language. For Connections, sometimes if there’s a word in there that I just don’t know, then I’m pretty much just done for. At least I can try to make sense of it the best I can, try to work with process of elimination, for example. I think that kind of stuff is really helping me also, just working with the brain.”

Poeltl said Connections is currently his favourite game because it encourages the most creative thinking and reasoning.

“Jak doesn’t just participate, but he was able to reverse engineer what everybody’s Wordle word guesses,” Joaquim said. “He spends a lot of time. He was able to work out our whole four guesses. He was able to figure it out. He is a master at planning and he was able to get two back-to-back perfect Connections games by spending hours upon hours upon hours working out these puzzles.”

Heading into the season, head coach Darko Rajaković said Poeltl was well-suited to running the offence from the elbows, picking out cutters and shooters based on how opposing defences react. Since then, the Raptors roster has changed dramatically, with his assist numbers right around where they were in his final San Antonio years.

Still, the Raptors will continue to use him at times in that role, and Poeltl sees a connection — sorry — between his hobby and profession.

“I think they are very similar concepts,” Poeltl said. “It’s a completely different field, but it’s similar concepts. It’s understanding what’s in front of you and trying to attack it the most effective way.”

Another overlap: Complaining to, and about, the officials.

“I don’t want to put myself out there and open myself up to a lawsuit or something like that (by being specific about complaints about Joaquim),” Poeltl said. “But something’s going on, I can tell you that much.”

These allegations are why Joaquim has stayed out of competing in the tournament. She did not want a conflict of interest to emerge.

“That would be grossly unfair,” Joaquim said. “I would be awarding myself (points). I do send my scores for bragging rights and to show that I would be the supreme champion (if I were) participating.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic; Photos: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)

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