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Jigsaw Champions Reveal How to Solve a Jigsaw Puzzle Fast

Whether you sit down for a 300 or a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, these strategies will help you complete it quickly.

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Puzzle-solving tips from experts

Sitting down to begin work on a jigsaw puzzle is an exciting but daunting experience. Alfonso Alvarez-Ossorio, the president of the World Jigsaw Puzzle Federation, and Tammy McLeod, a competitive puzzle solver, share their tips on solving puzzles quickly, expert strategies for completing jigsaw puzzles of all sizes, the best methods to get started with the hobby of puzzling, and more details about how jigsaw champions work on their puzzles. This is what happens to your brain when you do a jigsaw puzzle.

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The challenges of solving a puzzle fast

“The difficulty of a jigsaw puzzle —and the time it will take to assemble it—is directly proportional to the number of pieces,” says Alvarez-Ossorio. In addition, there are two factors that account for the difficulty of a jigsaw puzzle, says Alvarez-Ossorio. First, he says is the “morphology of the pieces, which depends on the manufacturer and the die used (the more you distinguish some pieces from others, the easier),” and second is “the contrast of the puzzle image (the greater the contrast, the more diversity of colors and strokes more defined, the easier and faster the assembly).” See if you can solve 25 of the hardest riddles ever.

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The right surface

Where you do jigsaw puzzles is almost as important as how you do one. “In official competitions, vinyl-plastic is used so that the pieces move quickly across the surface,” says Alvarez-Ossorio. The mats are usually used white, “to reflect the light of space—lighting is a very important factor.” When doing a puzzle at home, you’ll want a dedicated space, such as a folding card table, so you can spread out your pieces and so they won’t get lost. If you don’t have room, puzzle mats are helpful because you can easily roll a puzzle-in-progress up for storage when you need to reclaim your dining room or coffee table.

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Jigsaw puzzle on the floor.Puzzle pieces.A pile of puzzle pieces on a surface.
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Different strategies for different puzzles

In her personal puzzle-solving experience, “a 500 piece jigsaw is small enough to be spread out completely on a table so that all the pieces can be viewed at the same time,” McLeod shares. “This makes it easy to simply pick out pieces to be assembled, without sorting; usually, each piece contains enough details to uniquely identify it.” Larger puzzles are a different story, however. With a puzzle of 2,000 pieces or more, “each piece contains a much smaller portion of the full image, so it’s faster to sort into general groups,” she says.

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Edges first?

A popular strategy is to put the edges of the puzzle together first because, with one straight edge, the pieces are easier to identify and put together. “There isn’t a single strategy that will work for 100 percent of puzzles, but in the majority of cases, it is easiest to start with the edge,” McLeod says. “This does not apply for non-rectangular puzzles and some puzzles where the edge pieces are cut interchangeably, but generally, to solve a puzzle fast, sorting is key.”

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Hands, head and jigsaw puzzle pieces on a table

Cutting corners

Because there are only four of them, McLeod doesn’t spend time looking for corner pieces. “You’d have to spend a lot of time sifting through all the pieces just to find them,” she says. “Instead, start by pulling out the edges, then when you have most of them, start assembling them.” She goes to say that you shouldn’t be of the mind that you need to find every single edge piece, as that too will waste time. “The few edge pieces that you miss will naturally emerge after other pieces get placed.”

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Smart sorting

“The larger the puzzle, the more time you should devote to sorting the pieces,” says Alvarez-Ossorio. “Divide the jigsaw puzzle by zones, normally identified by colors, though sometimes it can also be by textures.” For example in a puzzle about nature, “separate an area of trees and another from grass—both can be the same color but the textures are completely different.” You might be a British spy if you can complete this puzzle.


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Perfect placement

Once you have your pieces sorted, it’s time to start placing them. If your puzzle is of a drawing, painting, or collage that contains lots of details or has words, it makes it easier to place pieces, notes McLeod. On the other hand, “Photographs and landscapes usually have large patches of similar textures which can be a stumbling block for beginners,” she says.

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Hands of a child doing a puzzle at table

Take a break

Don’t expect to complete your puzzle in an afternoon. “I have worked on puzzles with over 4,000 pieces that take 60+ hours to complete, so I definitely cannot finish them in a single sitting!” McLeod shares. And yes, fresh eyes can help, especially if you’re tired. You may also want to invest in a lighted magnifying glass. Practice these 15 habits by age 50 to save your brain at 80.

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Puzzling patience

“Working on puzzles helps you develop your hand-eye coordination, your visual acuity, color and shape recognition, and your patience,” McLeod says It’s also a very meditative activity, she says, “Your mind can wander while your hands and eyes are involved with assembling plus you get a hit of dopamine every time you fit a piece, so it becomes a long session of satisfying feelings.” Now, see if you can solve these brain teasers that might leave you stumped.

Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award–winning photographer, avid traveler and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment and more for Reader's Digest. He is the proud dad of teen daughters.