The Speed Puzzling Champion: Meet Alejandro Clemente León
Written by SOONNESS / October 9, 2023 / Cover Photo: Alejandro Clemente León and his dad's first pairs competition in 2019
Have you heard of Speed Puzzling? Did you know that there is a fastest puzzler in the world? If you thought puzzles are just a pastime hobby, think again. After the 3rd annual World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship ended in September 2023, we had an honor to interview Alejandro Clemente León- the Gold medalist in the individuals category with the record of 32 mins and 41 seconds for a 500 piece puzzle. Here is his story.
What is your name and where are you based?
I'm Alejandro Clemente León, and I am from Barcelona, Spain. I've spent all my life in Barcelona, but since last year I live in a small village next to Barcelona called Sant Feliu de Llobregat which is less stressful.
Tell us about what your ordinary day looks like.
During the week I spend most of the time in the university, where I work as a researcher and a professor. I also like to play football 2-3 days a week. In the evenings I usually watch TV series or football games. During weekends I spend time with my girlfriend, friends and family. I like going to the cinema and go for a walk in the city to find good ice cream shops.
How did you get into the world of puzzling?
I don't have memories of my first puzzle but my parents told me that they bought the typical ones made of wood with animals and letters for me. The first one I remember and I still have is a 24 piece puzzle with the Mickey mouse image, and unfortunately one piece was lost (it's strange considering that the size of each piece is practically my whole hand hahaha). I believe at the age of 6-7, I started doing puzzles with larger piece counts (between 200 and 1000). I remember that my first giant puzzle was 3000 pieces, which I solved when I was 11. I will never forget about it because I started to do it when my parents bought a new apartment with 0 furniture and I assembled the puzzle on the living room floor with all the pieces scattered for days. It was a great time as I had more space to do a puzzle!
Growing up, my dad had shown me his passion for puzzles. He spent some time with me when I was puzzling at home. On the other hand, my mom never liked solving puzzles. I remember telling her to sit with me and put some pieces together, but after 2 minutes she had left. However, last year I signed my parents up in a pairs puzzle contest and she loved the experience. After that, she started to ask me for 500 piece puzzles and she assembles them with my dad.
Photo above: Alejandro (left) with his parents (Photo credit by @cronicaspuzzleras)
What makes you keep puzzling & how often do you puzzle?
It's difficult to put in words why puzzles are so special to me. When I try to explain to my friends they always make fun of me hahaha. They don't understand how I spend hours searching for pieces, but for me it is a way to unwind and disconnect from the daily things. On regular work days, I usually have a quick puzzle to do so I can spend some time here and there to put the pieces and disconnect from work. During the weekends, if I am not participating in a contest, I spend more time puzzling larger piece counts. To be honest, in recent years I have been so busy finishing my PhD thesis, I didn't spend as much time as before, but I hope to find more time next year and be able to finish some puzzles that I started to assemble.
How did you get into speed puzzling?
I started speed puzzling in 2019. One day, I found a pairs puzzle contest that took place in Viladecans, a small city next to Barcelona. I talked to my dad about it and we went together and finished in the 4th place. After that I met many puzzle people where I found new contests to go to. I participated in some contests next to my region and the Spain National contest, where I participated in the individuals category for first time finishing in the 11th place. Then the pandemic hit and in 2022 I resumed participating in contests until now.
Photo above: Alejandro and his dad puzzling during the pandemic (top left), puzzle contest with his parents (top right), World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship in 2022 with his friends (bottom left), at a local puzzle contest (bottom right)
How do you train for the competition?
I don't have a specific training method. During the pandemic I started doing all types of 500 piece puzzles from different brands. As I was not used to doing speed puzzling, I felt that maybe I could improve my sorting and assembling strategy. For small contests I usually do not train but for the Spain Nationals and World Championships, I spend weeks doing 500 piece puzzles of the same brand offered at the contest. I do the puzzles listening to music and taking notes of my time in order to see if I can puzzle faster.
Do you have a specific strategy you use to solve puzzles?
Yes, I have a strategy I use to do 500 piece puzzles. I first turn all the pieces right side up and at the same time I sort the edges on one side. If the edges are particularly similar and difficult to do, I leave them at the end. Then I start putting the parts that can be easily assembled with colors or patterns. I always take the pieces that I believe correspond to the same area and when I finish one part, I pass on to another. If the puzzle gets tricky, I start doing the edges. This way, I take a moment to disconnect from the difficult part and this also allows me to organize the assembled parts inside the border.
What was the most challenging puzzle you have ever done?
My first difficult puzzle that I have done was the Guernica 3000 from Educa. I did it when I was 13 years old, and it took me several months to finish the puzzle. I can also name 2 puzzles of 1000 and 2000 pieces that some puzzle friends asked me to do as a favor. The first one consists of an image of olives and the other one is a monochromatic woman's portrait that is still in progress.
What is your favorite type of puzzle?
I don't have a favourite puzzle in terms of brand or piece shapes. My preferences are based mostly on the image, and as a fanatic of Harry Potter books and movies, I never miss an opportunity to buy Harry Potter themed puzzles. Another type of image that I like are all type of landscapes, preferably the ones with big parts of skies. I love doing skies especially if they contain different colors or clouds. I don't usually do puzzles with lot of details, because I'm not used to looking at the box image.
During puzzling sessions, do you listen to anything or puzzle in silence?
If I'm doing 500 piece puzzles to practice for a contest, I listen to movie soundtracks such as Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat or John Williams among others. If I'm doing puzzles for fun, I do them while I watch TV series, football matches or during calls with friends and family.
Do you have any local puzzle friends you puzzle with? Do you prefer to puzzle alone or with friends?
I usually puzzle alone at home but in the past few months I have been puzzling with my girlfriend and she now participates in some puzzle contests as my pair. Although I have been puzzling alone all my life, when I have the opportunity to puzzle with other people, it's a lot of fun. The teams competition has become my prefered category and I have enjoyed different events such as 12 hr and 24 hr marathon puzzle contests.
Photo above: Nazareth Peña and Alejandro Clemente León at the Spain Puzzle Championship in 2022
The U.S. puzzle community is tight on ‘Puzzlegram’. Do you make friends on instagram? Have many puzzlers followed you and contacted you after the competition?
I have some friends on Instagram related to puzzles. I’m not very active on social media, but I remember during the World Jigsaw Championship in 2022, followers grew from 400 to 600. This year has been crazier, as my followers doubled from 600 to 1300 people. I usually do not post stories or publications about puzzles, but I’m thinking about creating a puzzle account to share my daily progress of puzzles. If I have more time in the future, I would like to create different contents related to puzzles, both about casual puzzling and speed puzzling. Some people have reached out to congratulate me for the contest this year, and asked me for some tips and questions.
What do you like about the puzzle community?
One thing that I like about puzzle community is that it includes people of all places and ages, and I am able to share my interest with all types of people. Moreover, this community is healthy with no bad vibes, everyone enjoys their own type of puzzles and they respect each other's differences. In terms of contests, it is possible to see the great humanity of our community where people do their best with an objective of improving themselves. This is pretty rare because usually in sports for example, rivalries, awards and money corrupt the sportsmanship. One of the best thing is that puzzles can be shared with everyone so easily- by doing puzzles together, swapping, and renting.
Tell us about your other interests & joy.
I like all type of sports. I played tennis from the age 6 to 18, competing in different tournaments in teams and individuals. Nowadays I mainly play football and padel. I also love all types of food, but pizza, pasta and sushi are my favorites. And I must have ice cream in the fridge 365 days of the year. When I was in high school, I had to cook for myself and I learned a lot, so I also like to cook. However as I have been busy with my PhD recently, I can only spend 1-2 hrs cooking at home on the weekends. The rest of the time I prefer to go to restaurants and try different dishes.
One of my biggest interest is Harry Potter (people who know me are well aware of this). I love the books, movies, and I even have a tattoo related to Harry Potter. Now I’m thinking about getting a new tattoo related to puzzles by the end of the year. I have some ideas but not the final version yet.
Do you have anything you want to share?
To the puzzle community- I would like to encourage you to continue expanding our puzzle fandom, sharing more content about puzzles and contests. Here in Spain we have puzzle contests every weekend and it would be amazing to see the same in other countries. For people interested in speed puzzling, I would tell them to try puzzling all kinds of brands and images. Not only the ones you like, because the puzzles you don't like can help to train and improve your skills for future contests. One of the best things about the puzzle contest is that you don’t know which puzzle you will do until the competition starts, so practices with different types of puzzle will help a lot for sure.
Photo above: Susana Pérez Van Deenen (left) and Alejandro Clemente León (right) at the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship 2022
2 Photos above: Alejandro at the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship in 2023 - a screen capture from World Jigsaw Puzzle Federation WJPF channel