Zachary Harrison Polansky
6/1/1997 - 5/1/2023

Zach Polansky

a.k.a “Jack Lance”

Experience was everything.
Awards, Fame, Fortune -
none of that compared to
the sweetness of being "all in."

"I'm in it for the cake!"

Friends gave us a rose bush to remember Zachary. A year has passed since his death and I had little expectation for the rose to make it through the winter. Come Spring, amazing flowers bloomed from the plant. My young Granddaughter admires my flower garden and stopped at the rose bush, proclaiming it to be the most beautiful of all. She stuck her little nose into the flower, sniffed, and said with glee, “It smells like cupcakes!!” Synchronicity, indeed!

After Zachary’s passing, I expected we would receive some condolences with a few kind words about moments spent with him. I guess we didn’t quite realize how world-renowned he had become, as tributes came from far and wide. Our family never took his “specialness” for granted but we were just so accustomed to daily surprises of wit and wisdom. Many of his cognitive abilities were so far over our thinking power that we were unable to understand the depth of his knowledge. His acumen was appreciated by many though, along with his humor and humility, and it was extremely comforting for us to discover how many people he had helped and inspired. I thought it might be nice to share some of what was written, so I’ve sent some excerpts. Okay, maybe more than a few words, but I couldn’t stop myself – there were so many more to pick from.

Zachary was one of my best friends. We had so many great adventures together. He was a true yes-person. He didn’t care if it was a walk around the block or learning to surf in a tropical land. One of my favorite memories comes from him deciding to say yes.

On a family trip to Costa Rica, our family went zip-lining. Zachary and I were paired together for most of it. At one point they were telling people to go either left or right. They directed us to the left. We figured that it was just two different lines for the next zip-line. Spoiler alert: it was not.

We waited in this line for over twenty minutes. As we got closer to the top, we realized, we were not in fact in line for a zip-line, but a tarzan swing. Now if you don’t know what that entails, it is a rope swing, were they attach a harness onto you and then push you off a high platform.

Neither Zachary or I were a fan or heights or falling. But here we were, on the steps, with just a handful of people left in front of us. We looked at each other and said “I will if you will”

Most people would let out some kind of primal scream on their way down, but if you know Zachary, you know that’s not his style. I will never forget how he matter of factly yelled “I do not like this” as he plummeted toward the ground with his lanky arms and legs flailing in all directions.

That was my Zachary. My happy, goofy, fun-loving, soul. He was never afraid to say yes, or if he was, he never let it stop him. I’m going to miss him deeply and hope that we can all carry on his memory, by saying yes. Yes to adventures, big or small. Yes, to a walk around the block. Yes, to a quick lunch, a board game, or maybe even to a 50ft drop on a tarzan swing.

humor in complexity

One of my first memories of Zach was him retelling some zen koans from Alan Watts one night.    (Alan Watts was a British orientalist, and koans are short, inscrutable stories that may provoke thought about Buddhism.) We both loved Alan Watts’s in particular as they had the wonderful quality of tantalizingly almost making logical sense, but ultimately lacking a coherent resolution or punchline, like an anti-joke……While I know neither I nor Zach subscribe to Buddhism, knowing Zach was probably the closest I have felt to “zen.” To paraphrase Richard Feynman (theoretical physicist), “if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t truly understand it! Zach was the smartest person I knew, so he could explain a myriad of things in simpler terms than I had ever heard before. Of course, regarding mathematics, he would often find solutions more direct and intuitive than even my textbook or teachers. However, even when discussing things like politics or social drama, Zach could break down complexity in often humorous ways. Seeing the world through Zach’s eyes, it was as though the entire world could become clear and comprehensible just by following things to their logical conclusions.…Sometimes the conclusion of a discussion would simply be that our opinions on a topic were fundamentally opposite. I think when I graduated from high school I had a general sense that everyone, or at least everyone I wanted to be around, essentially saw the world the same as I did. Zach challenged this by being so fascinating and open, and also completely confident in himself even going against the norm. It was not until I met Zach that it finally clicked how fundamentally different not just he, but everyone I met was, and how grateful I was for that fact.

patterns from chaos

…I will never come close to capturing who Zach was, or how the gift of the time he spent with me has changed me. It was obvious enough to anyone that he was beyond an ordinary genius, though he did his best to not make it feel that way to others. Anyone who has watched his mind work cannot help but imagine what the rest of us must have looked like to him…. what always struck me most was seeing him join any random competition, challenge, or experience and invest his entire heart into it. It was something I admired, and had the privilege of being swept alongside in and it continues to shape how I act and think about the world and its opportunity today…..Zach saw a world of patterns in chaos that nobody else could. And no matter how much it will continue to hurt I am so grateful to have known him. I am so grateful to see a glimpse of what he saw….

joy, laughter, fun and family

…I was a close friend ….Zach brought so much joy and laughter into my life. He was one of the most fun people I’ve ever met, and being friends with him meant that I was always entertained and amused, but also impressed. He always had some kind of project going on just for his own entertainment…. He really had an impact on what I thought was important in life. Zach was the only person I’ve met who knew what made him happy and didn’t need external validation. If Zach wanted to he could have been extremely successful academically or financially, but all Zach wanted was to have fun and do puzzles and make puzzles and be with the people he loved. It takes most people a long time to understand what Zach knew intuitively about how to be fulfilled and happy. Zach was an extra ordinary person….I think for a lot of us, Zach was one of our favorite people….To others it might seem strange to be as obsessed with your friend as all of us were with Zach, but I think anyone who met Zach understands.…Zach had a huge impact and won’t be forgotten…To Zach, moving back home after college, being with the people that made him the happiest, was a no-brainer. He was never away from home longer than he had to be, because he truly adored you all (his family.)

talking in reverse

…When you’re in computer science you expect to meet a lot of very nerdy, intelligent people; Zach was on a whole other level. He was brilliant, but he was also charismatic, goofy, hilarious, witty, and surprising…..One time Zach let us know he had acquired a new skill while walking to his internship: he could say a sentence backwards. He asked me to give him a sentence so I said “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” and with little hesitation he recorded himself on his phone saying some nonsense and when he played it backwards you can hear the original words. I would show the video I have of him doing that when I try to explain Zach. He was intelligent in all the usual ways, but there was always something very special and unique about him….He and I bonded over both being unashamed to consider our family to be some of our favorite people in the world.

just because it was the last thing any of us expected him to do

…Jack Lance (or as I knew him, Zach) was my closest friend throughout college, and I’d like to believe that I was his too. … It is easy to see from all of the puzzles he left behind how special his mind was, but what’s harder to capture is his innate spirit to explore and the effect he had on people. Whether his audience was thousands on Twitter or just a single friend, his brilliance, effort, and desire to delight stayed the same.. … He set up an elaborate escape room in his sophomore dorm that was only experienced a single time by me and two friends. I remember practicing for hours and analyzing spectrograms with him because he wanted to see if he could learn to recognize which letter of the alphabet was being written on a whiteboard while blindfolded, just from the sounds the marker made. He spent hours speedrunning a small game our friend made, crafting routes using insane glitches he found. He wanted to get the “checkers world record”, so he came up with the shortest possible checkers game and we memorized and practiced it. He spent 12 hours straight playing a mindless Candy Crush clone Facebook game to surpass my sister’s level, just because it was the last thing any of us expected him to do. He was a world-class competitor in mathematics and programming competitions, despite spending a fraction of the time that others at his level did on those specifically. We won a cup-stacking competition together. He was down to do anything at 110% and find his own joy in it. I’ve joined the most random bingo tournaments, trivia teams, scavenger hunts, public speaking events, in-person competitions, etc that I never would have otherwise, just because he was always looking for the uniqueness in every experience and I had the honor of tagging along with him. He was incredibly humble about his abilities, never drawing attention to the fact that it was HIM who created what he did, but only his own awe at the beauty of the thing itself, like it was there all along waiting to be discovered. His mind moved so fast, even just in raw calculation speed and working memory, that I can’t imagine how the rest of us looked to him. But despite this, he was so incredibly humble and never made a single person feel less than himself. I’ve met a few geniuses, and he was a league beyond that threshold…

brute force elegance

Zach was a force in the department’s student’s life since he arrived in fall 2015. He immediately joined the ICPC (International Collegiate Programming Contest) team…The ICPC team’s highlight was an excellent 20th place in the ICPC 2017 World Finals. Zach also participated in the maybe-a-little-less-competitive and maybe-a-little-bit-more-fun CS games spreading the joy of problem solving broadly…..I also had the fun of interacting with Zach over many courses: from Advanced Algorithms, [here is] a story from the course reminiscent of the “Von Neumann fly puzzle legend”: There was a (misplaced) problem on the first mid-term that had a trick solution and a brute force solution. Zach was the only student to solve the problem and he solved it in an impossible way – a clean brute force solution covering a full page of calculations. Very Impressive. [In} Independent Research/Writing, he wrote a nice exposition of quantum algorithms, the depth of his understanding of the material manifested itself in the 3rd place win in ICPC quantum computing challenge in 2021.

better by challenge

There are some special students that educators always remember and who become “a part of us.” Zachary was one of those for me…the kind of kid I always loved most because those are the students that challenge us and make us better teachers…I thought specifically of Zachary when planning many lessons, and one of the most gratifying moments of my career was when he told me he liked humanities…


I barely believed that Jack was, like, a person before, and not a pseudonym for a large group of incredibly talented and kind puzzlemakers.

creativity was Jack's bread and butter

…. Zachary (or Jack, as I knew him) was the special kind of brilliant gifted genius that I’ve met only very rarely. He was exceptionally multitalented—in addition to being a well-known puzzle constructor, he also scored highly in math competitions, programming competitions, and competitive puzzle solving. Jack won the US puzzle championship last year, and was on his way to a top score in the WPF Grand Prix, which is a grueling global competition that is pretty much the epitome of competitive puzzle solving. He scored top 5 finishes in 2 of the first 3 rounds of the 2023 season. I’m 100% sure he hadn’t peaked yet and would be among the greatest competitive puzzlers had he kept going. … Jack also finished the 2022 Galactic Puzzle Hunt while working completely solo. GPH is a contest designed for teams of 10 people! Most teams (including mine) never finish at all.

I first met Jack around December 2018 during a puzzler Secret Santa event. Jack was assigned me, which meant he had to make me a secret holiday puzzle. He ended up making me a set of 15 logic puzzles! They were brilliant puzzles of course, but more brilliant was the fact that Jack managed to make 5 original hybrids that merged puzzle rules themed after the letters in my name. That kind of creativity was Jack’s bread and butter, and it found itself into everything he made. It was like it was easy for him.

Jack and I shared many interesting conversations about puzzle games and puzzle design, particularly on the topic of algorithms for puzzle creation and puzzle solving. I once made an off-handed comment that somebody should make a puzzle game that’s interesting for the same reason that string and wire puzzles are interesting. Jack then went a made a game (called “proof-of-equivalence-via-explicit-construction-of-an-ambient-isotopy”) that was, unexpectedly, a much more brilliant and elegant implementation of that idea than I could have imagined.

Jack was unafraid of taking crazy ideas and running with them….. When you do a lot of somebody’s puzzles, you start to feel like you know their mind a little. Jack’s mind was just so incredibly clever and witty, and he loved sharing that cleverness and wit with others. …

how-is-this-possible puzzles

I interacted with him on Discord. I solved some of his puzzles. I read some of his wordplay finds. And I was constantly blown away by how creative and unique and how-is-this-possible they were. He just felt like a wizard.

an ex-Lance world

Jack Lance noticed that if you say X followed by the consonants in his last name, you get “excellency.” I think it’s a fitting description. But that letter X now feels so grim. We now inhabit an ex-Lance world. It’s awful.

buckwildly elegant puzzles

he really was a unique soul (there was a reason he is the only person to get his own section in puzzler’s gothic…), and it was always a treat when he dropped either small fun observations or buckwildly elegant puzzles. Without him this community wouldn’t be as special as it is. He created so much and it’s genuinely surprising he is so young, even several years ago when I first joined I thought he was older, on account of both how he conducted himself and how brilliant his output already was. 

effortless brilliance

it took serious restraint not to go on and on and on about how mind-blowing Jack was. it was like he could materialize brilliance effortlessly—there was effort of course (i assume?), but the pace at which he would suddenly come up with some new innovative game or little puzzle or tiny anagram find was (and remains) pretty incredible.

his puzzles were so creative and mind-blowing in so many different ways, and he was kind and thoughtful. i think he’s the most creative person i’ve met.

one of his most mind blowing creations was a short snippet of code that anagrammed into a description of what it did… like, come on, really!?

by his mom, Susan V. Polansky

I’ve always said that Zachary was born under a happy star. That light is extinguished now, but, boy, did it shine brightly. Twenty-five years were not nearly enough to have been with him, as each and every day he added to our lives. Hari and I had the honor of bringing him into the world to join his brother, Daniel and his sister, Allison. We became a beautiful family, traveling independent and unique lives, but bonded through explorations, difficulties and celebrations.

If there was fun to be had, we were all in, and Zachary was a whole-hearted participant in any activity that might come up. He never said no to any zany idea – and there were plenty of them. Eating ice cream for dinner with his grandparents, wearing crazy wigs to a restaurant – where Allison’s boyfriend was a waiter, – rappelling down a waterfall in Costa Rica, or scuba diving in the frigid waters of Iceland, or – – even proving his skill at our backyard hot-dog flinging contest. He loved being in the mix with us, adding colorful sprinkles of insightful observations and unexpected bits of humor onto even the most mundane of Sundays.

Zachary had amazing skill with language, as we discovered early when he taught himself to read in his crib. His favorite books were alphabet ones, so it was no wonder that linguistics and wordplay were always in his mind. He learned Latin, Spanish and Chinese. Hari, his dad,  who is learning Spanish now, would have a “Spanish word of the day” to see if he could stump Zachary on a language he had learned long ago, – Hari rarely got the satisfaction.      Zach pointed out amusing anagrams (variations of words and letters) and challenged himself to make palindromes of sentences that would read correctly both backwards and forwards. In elementary school, he played school Scrabble and was a national champion. He then went on to crush unsuspecting adults  – with friendly competition that certainly wasn’t child’s play.

Competitions were fun, be it with words, or math, or later, computer programming. He excelled in prestigious math events like the USAMO, the AIME, and the ARML (see, he was good with letters!) – He was among the top ten winners of the Harvard-MIT Math Contest before he was in high school, eliciting quite a few remarks of wonder as he skipped to the front of the stage with his colorful, stuffed lucky ducks.  – He went to his first MIT Mystery Puzzle Hunt as a ninth grader, and looked forward to it as a highlight of each year thereafter. In 2013, he began posting logic puzzles with the pseudonym “Jack Lance.” He’d work on preparing a new themed set for each Pi Day – practically giggling with glee when he devised an especially clever or tricky unexpected twist or turn. He filled our shelves with trophies and awards, won prizes, money and t-shirts  – (practically his complete wardrobe), –  but none of that mattered. He was, as he liked to say, “in it for the cake,”  –  Just the sweet enjoyment of the experience.

Zachary was a true mathematician. He used his understanding as underpinning for computer programming and logical game design.  I think it was at the age of 7 or 8, that the two of us were sitting on his bed, reading.    He was beginning to see how math was being presented at school, and was already disillusioned, – identifying completely with a sentence from “The Mathematician’s Lament” by Paul Lockhart:  “In place of discovery and exploration, we have rules and regulations.” I’ll paraphrase some more from that essay as it expresses so clearly what he continued to feel throughout his life…

Mathematicians enjoy thinking about the simplest possible things, and the simplest possible things are imaginary…. math is— wondering, playing, amusing yourself with your imagination…. things are what you want them to be. You have endless choices; there is no reality to get in your way… an example of the mathematician’s art: asking simple and elegant questions about our imaginary creations, and crafting satisfying and beautiful explanations… Mathematics is the music of reason…. A good problem is something you don’t know how to solve. That’s what makes it a good puzzle, and a good opportunity. A good problem does not just sit there in isolation, but serves as a springboard to other interesting questions. It is the story that matters, not just the ending.”

I’ll finish with some words from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first – keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you

Classic Zach tackling a challenge. I love what  he says at the end.