Shmuzzles appear to be conventional jigsaw puzzle pieces creating rather ordinary pictures like, say, autumn foliage. But there is one titled “Can of Worms,” and that is the tip-off. Anyone who opens a Shmuzzle box is likely to curse his fate—or the manufacturer—within the hour because it features 168 identical pieces, cut by laser beam to insure against deviation. The pieces are 1.564 inches long and salamander-shaped. They can snuggle head-to-head, leg-to-leg or tail-to-legs in trillions of variations, but only one of the astronomical number of interlockings is correct if the puzzle is to fall into place.
“I don’t have the patience to complete one myself,” confides the creator, Sam Savage, 35, a teacher of management science at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. In fact, Savage came up with the name for his invention in a moment of frustration, crying out: “It’s not a puzzle, it’s a Shmuzzle.” However, a 14-year-old mastered one in two days. For people like himself who are not whizzes—or grinds—Savage suggests flipping the salamanders on their backs and creating your own fanciful mosaics like, say, a “shmigure eight” or a “shmowflake.” Shmuzzles are also being used in schools as teaching tools to illustrate geometric principles. Some 10,000 Shmuzzle puzzles have been sold at $10 apiece.
Savage got his inspiration seven years ago when he spotted the drawings of Dutch artist M.C. Escher, who was influenced by the Moorish mosaics in Spain’s Alhambra. Savage created a Shmuzzle prototype, but standard jigsaw technology couldn’t cut it. To work, the pieces had to be accurate to .003 inch. “If you get a Shmuzzle with a wart on its nose,” jokes Savage, “others won’t want to Shmuzzle with it.” In 1978 Savage discovered an Indiana company employing computers and lasers that could manufacture his brainteaser with precision.
The son of a celebrated University of Chicago statistician, L.J. Savage, Sam dropped out of college as a freshman but after a year as a grease monkey finished up at Boston U and got his master’s in engineering and Ph.D. in computer science at Yale. With his puzzle catching on, Savage, who is divorced, has given up his assistant professorship for the less demanding post of senior lecturer. “Shmuzzles,” he proclaims, “have satisfied my ego.”