By a TMO Reporter
Mongolia has a long history of puzzle-crafting, and has created some of the world’s most difficult puzzles and chess sets. Shatar or as chess is called in Mongolian (in Hindi chess is called shatranj), dates back to the Middle Ages, while more modern burr puzzles (made from interlocking pieces of wood) can be traced back throughout the 1900s.
Mongolia’s enigmatic history is honored at the International Intellectual Puzzle Museum in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, the only private museum with a rich collection of exhibits – toys and puzzles and chess sets. The museum is the creation of Tümen Ölzii, who was born to nomadic herders in Zavkhan aimag in the country’s extreme north west and would have followed either that path or would have become a lama, had he not fallen in love with logic puzzles at an early age.
His mother gave him a six-piece burr puzzle with one piece missing when she was digging through an old chest of Tümen Ölzii’s grandfather. Tümen Ölzii spent months trying to solve the problem of the missing piece and at the same time, he began creating his own puzzles, eventually ending up making thousands of puzzles and even getting the copyright for them, which prompted him to set up his own museum to showcase puzzle and logic history.
Tümen Ölzii’s work has not gone unrecognized—he has been awarded the prizes for “Best Inventor in Mongolia” and “Meritorious Person of Culture.”
The museum displays some puzzles created by Tümen Ölzii himself, as well as rare and precious puzzles from around the world. Over 10,000 toys, puzzles, and games are on view, most of which visitors are invited to fiddle with.
Tümen Ölzii’s inventions are usually wooden, the pieces carved into whimsical Disney characters and animals of the zodiac. Some even depict figures from Mongolian history, like Chinggis Khan. The simplest are the traditional six-piece models, but some puzzles in the museum include as many as 350 pieces. There are also various puzzles made from gold, precious stones, and silver. One turtle-shaped puzzle offers a prize of $100,000 if solved within a specific timeframe. In the museum’s three decades of operation, no one has ever solved it.
Mongolian chess, another of Tümen Ölzii’s passions, also hold an important and notable place from among the exhibits in the museum. According to Tümen Ölzii, some of the masterful woodcarvings in the form of historical figures, wild animals and even historical generals, are jointly created by other craftsmen – Tümen Ölzii’s longtime friends and colleagues. One of them, a giant chessboard is placed on the carvings of different wild animals such as elephants, lions, deer, bear and even whales.
The purpose of the museum is not just to catalogue the history of puzzles in Mongolia, but to remind visitors that curiosity and play are an important part of training the brain because Tümen Ölzii believes that children who are taught games and plays at school, apart from their academic classes and also who are taught what work and labor means, will be and are intellectually far superior that their counterparts who are strong only academically. And this idea is something Tümen Ölzii wants to impart which is the most important mission of this museum.
Visitors to the museum are guided by a guide who performs magic tricks, watches you struggle with the puzzles, and reveals their solutions to you in a matter of seconds.
Mongolian puzzles mirror the intellectual capacity of the people
The TMO had a chat with Tümen Ölzii about his museum, about his collection, and how he started with the game of puzzles – wooden, which have not grown and developed to become a “science of IQ.”
First Tümen Ölzii will tell us about his childhood years and his passion for puzzles.
You attach a lot of importance to intellectual growth. Can you first, tell us about the difference between a person with high intellectual development and a person with poor intellectual growth?
As the saying goes, a fat animal has many uses. Similarly, if a person has a good living capacity, then that person is considered having high intellectual development. There are people who are unable to manage their own personal life but even then they beat their chest clamoring they are smart and clever, but that’s not the case, such people have low intellectual growth.
Another important litmus test for intellectual growth is the ability of a person to differentiate between what’s good and what’s bad. Then comes the ability of a person to inspire and encourage others. A person with a negative intellect would only criticize others pretending that they are honest. And finally, living a healthy way of life. A person with high intellect will prefer not to drink or smoke, or engage in gambling.
Three factors are crucial to intellectual development. They are labor, games and schooling.
Obtaining education through schooling alone is not sufficient and through such a system we churn out so-called “populists” who only talk but not walk the talk. The fact labor and games are important is that both of them can break stereotype thinking in a person. Stereotype thinking is an impediment to the life of a person as well as social development.
When and why did you decide to set up the intellectual museum?
I was born in Nömrög soum in Zavkhan aimag. When I reached 6 I was sent to a monastery to become a lama. It was spring, when the snow and ice were thawing and I started learning by heart Tibetan alphabet. In spring mother animals bear their offspring. I was given leave to come home. Back home I found other boys and girls my age holding a torn piece of newspaper and reading it. I felt ashamed and I said to myself I must go to a proper school. Then my father and elder brother had gone away driving animals to the slaughter house in a nearby town and I was left with my mother and younger siblings.
Without telling my mother I joined a primary school at a place called Morin, a couple of kilometers away from our home. I borrowed 1 tögrög from my teacher and bought 8 copies, 2 pencils and on 1 September when my mother came to take me away I cried and resisted. And at the age of 7 in 1951 I joined the school and here I am today.
I never regret having spent some time at the monastery and frankly speaking I have good memory and I still remember the religious scriptures I had learnt then. Although I did not and do not understand their meaning, learning by heart helped my memory. My father used to tell me to learn to differentiate between good and bad, and to take up what’s good and useful. This is what helped me to take up the hobby of collection.
My uncle was a good blacksmith, who used to make knives and in return would take snuff bottles made of precious and semi-precious stones. and he had many of them. So, one day when I was in my fourth grade my uncle gave me a snuff bottle and I began to collect it and soon I had about a dozen of them. In those days, religious practice was banned and people used to hide away their deities and statues in the hills and amid rocks and stones, and I knew about it. One day in 1995 my mother was going through an old family wooden chest box and took out an old, oily square wooden piece. I asked “what’s this?” My mother replied saying, “My father was a man called Zeveg who was a local administrator. He was arrested as an enemy of the revolution and disappeared. This is his chest box. Smart people call this piece of wood a puzzle.”
The old square wood was a piece of traditional Mongolian wooden puzzle. In the beginning I could not make the head or tail out of it and spent one month trying to undo the puzzle. After that I thought I could add another two-piece to it and make it a six-piece puzzle and my parents and my siblings could not undo it. That’s how my passion with puzzle started in 1955 and started adding more pieces to it and that’s how I had the foundational piece.
Beginning 1981, I started approaching puzzle from a more scientific stand-point. Since I have designed and made more than 3,000 different kinds of puzzles and I have their copyright too. The largest among them is a space ship made of hundreds of wooden puzzle pieces (See image above). I made 5000-page technical drawings, with definitions and theorems for every single piece of puzzle and this is where I am today with this museum which has all the puzzles that I have made and also there is a large collection of puzzles from different countries.
In what way are your puzzles different from Rubik’s Cube?
Rubik’s Cube works on a formula and a player has to follow a patterned formula. It develops stereotype thinking. A person can even arrange it without looking at it by holding the Cube behind the back. Whereas Mongolian puzzles do not have a fixed formula and so stereotype thinking is ruled out.
I would call Mongolian puzzle solutions as limitless and this has been proved through mathematical calculations that I have development and done.
I have developed 2021 solutions for the 6-piece puzzle and I have left it here as we would be observing the centenary of the Mongolian People’s Revolution in the year 2021 and that’s when I plan to unveil my secret.
Mongolian puzzles are limitless also as I have found that just one single piece of wood can be altered or have 368 different slots or grooves. I know 369 grooves are possible, but I have yet to find how and I am working on it. So, I have given the task to mathematicians to find the solution.
Mongolian puzzles have a number of special features. It starts with simple to complicated solutions, easy to tough. Secondly, it has its source in the nomadic way of life of the Mongolians. Being nomads, every household belonging need to be detached and carried and they have to be compact. Thirdly, Mongolian puzzles have become a work of culture and art.
How many puzzles and other exhibits do you have at your museum?
The museum was established in 1990. WE now have more than 10 thousand exhibits. 3,000 of them are from my personal collection and the remaining 7,000 are gifts and collections by my friends and colleagues. The wooden puzzles start with a simple 2-piece wood to 73-piece wooden puzzle.