Duluth jigsaw puzzler's team places third in world championships
Amber Haglund-Pagel's Jigsaw Junkies took third place in the competition in Spain on June 26.
DULUTH — Competitive jigsaw puzzling has taken Duluthian Amber Haglund-Pagel around the country the past few years, from close to home such as St. Paul, to St. Louis and Louisiana. But her most recent trip took her to Valladolid, Spain, for the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship on June 26. There, her team, the Jigsaw Junkies, took third place in the teams competition.
"We're the fastest team in the U.S.," Haglund-Pagel said. "And that was with not much practice time, like a weekend's worth of puzzling together. We have some very fast people, and I will admit, I am the slowest person on the fastest team."
Haglund-Pagel got her start with competitive puzzling with the Duluth Puzzle Derby competition held as a fundraiser for the St. Louis County 4-H.
"I started going just because I liked puzzles," she said. "But when I started puzzling with Mikayla Keener, we ended up in the placing and thought, OK, we might have something here."
She started attending the Winter Carnival puzzle derby every winter, where her team won first place out of 80 teams from all over the U.S. So she started looking at the next level of competition with the USA Jigsaw Puzzle Association and at the newly formed World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship held in Spain for the first time in 2019.
"And we were putting together plans to go and compete in 2020, when of course," Haglund-Pagel said. "Everything shut down and it was postponed. So again, we planned for 2021 and again, canceled. So eventually I was the last one standing from our team of puzzlers and I still wanted to go."
Haglund-Pagel ended up getting adopted by the Jigsaw Junkies, a team based out of Shreveport, Louisiana, but made up of puzzlers from around the country.
"One comes from New York, another from New Jersey, and one from Louisiana," Haglund-Pagel said. "And they're all crazy-fast and lovely people."
The team met for a puzzle camp in Shreveport, Louisiana, a few months before the competition. In the meantime, Haglund-Pagel returned home and kept her practice going. She does several puzzles a week, enough that in 2020 she was moved to start the "Jigsaw Puzzle Swap of the Twin Ports" Facebook group for jigsaw enthusiasts to exchange their puzzles and keep up a fresh supply.
"I had so many puzzles and I liked doing them, but I went through them fast," Haglund-Pagel said. "And I'd started accumulating so many puzzles that my husband was was like, 'Can we find some new homes for these puzzles? It's getting a little bit out of control.' So I put some in a purple bin on my front porch and started the Facebook group."
Today, the group has four puzzle library locations where puzzlers can browse and drop off puzzles. While the puzzle library helped give her a variety of puzzles to work, Haglund-Pagel needed to find another way to practice working puzzles she wouldn't necessarily pick herself.
"I signed up for a year of Zoom competitions with the Jigsaw Puzzle Association," she said. "Then you get to practice puzzles you didn't personally pick, which is always the case at competitions. That really helped me round out my skills."
These skills came in handy during the World Championships in Spain. The qualifying round, where teams had to pick two 1,000-piece puzzles from a selection of four puzzles, proved especially difficult when the team selected a puzzle with a comic book-like design.
"That ended up being the hardest one and we had to do a lot of piecing by shape," Haglund-Pagel said. "About 15 minutes into the round, our team captain said, 'I'm so sorry for picking this one.' But there was no turning back at that point."
Because there were only 70 teams signed up for the teams competition, everyone who completed the qualifying round made it through to finals. At that point, the Jigsaw Junkies were in 15th place.
The final round consisted of two puzzles, the same for every team: a difficult 1,000-piece puzzle followed by an even more difficult 1,500-piece puzzle. Teams were given three hours to complete both puzzles and the first puzzle had to be completed before moving on to the second.
When working together to complete the puzzles, Haglund-Pagel said she and her teammates really get into each other's space.
"I like to say that speed puzzling is not polite puzzling," she said. "There's no apologizing and you might end up whacking into each other. You just keep going. Getting the pieces in is the important part."
The number of pieces completed in the puzzle can mean the difference between third and fourth place.
Only one team completed both puzzles in the three-hour period: the winning team from Spain. The Jigsaw Junkies didn't complete the puzzle, but had to stack their unfitted pieces into stacks of 10 to be counted by the judges. The teams with the most pieces in place at the finish would place higher in the ranking. By a matter of nine pieces, the Jigsaw Junkies came in third over the fourth-place team.
"It was amazing! We were thrilled. We were up against the best puzzlers in the world and took third," Haglund-Pagel said.
Now that she's back from the championship, Haglund-Pagel said she's looking forward to puzzling purely for pleasure for a little while.
"I love puzzles, like I'm never going to give that up," she said. "But I might not hit the timer every time I do one now for a while."