The puzzling attributes of the CW pile-up

“Humans are the only animals who create and solve puzzles—for the sheer pleasure of it.” Will Shortz, Crossword Editor, The New York Times


I enjoy crossword puzzles, sudoku and those metal entanglement puzzles…you know, the kind where you try to get a ring separated from a pair of horseshoes, etc. Some psychologists believe that a puzzle’s primary function is to provide comic relief from unanswerable larger questions.

Yeah, okay…

Whichever misfiring nuerons are responsible for such a fruitless task are, I believe, also responsible for my addiction enjoyment of CW pile-ups.

Imagine being an outside observer of someone working on a puzzle – any type of puzzle. To someone unfamiliar with it, the person immersed in solving the puzzle may appear to be working at random without a strategy. In fact, if he’s a beginner at that type of puzzle, he probably is working without a strategy – just bulldozing his way through as best he can.

Over time, and with experience, he’ll develop a Method…something he’s found that will shortcut the process. Later, more strategies will emerge and be implemented that will speed up the process…but to the casual observer, those strategies will be indiscernable. It will appear that rapid completion of the puzzle – or perhaps its completion at all – is due to luck.

The observer may then try his hand at it. Luck notwithstanding, it will take ages and may end in frustration, cursing and heavy drinking.

Our whole life is solving puzzles. Erno Rubik


Pile-ups are puzzles if, and only if, they are CW.

No other mode allows strategy and methodology to be injected into the formula to the same degree as CW. A pile-up on SSB is usually broken by power. A “watt advantage” over your competitors counts for a lot. Power matters. Ditto for the digital modes.

In CW, power differences among pile-up participants matter much less. There is wiggle room – room in which to implement your Method. Nuances of timing and transmit frequency that are lost in the fat spectra of SSB’s bandwidth.

With CW, you can finesse your signal into the ideal spot amongst the other participants; on SSB you cram it. The not so subtle difference between those two verbs is exactly the difference between operating technique and strategy-ability between the two modes.

In an SSB pile-up, you’re hunting with a shotgun; in a CW pile-up, you’re playing chess.

Brawn vs. brain.



  11 comments for “The puzzling attributes of the CW pile-up

  1. January 17, 2012 at 6:39 am

    The interesting part of the “pileup puzzle” is that you have two “opponents”: (1) The station you are trying to work and (2) the other stations in the pileup. Choosing your strategy is matter of figuring out (1) and then adapting to (2).

    In CW, ERP still matters a lot if the pileup spread is narrow. A CW pileup spread over 2 khz is pretty much the same puzzle as a SSB pileup spread over 10 Khz. When multiple people end up with the same strategy, being loud is huge.

    Of course, it is an unbelievable amount of fun to get in and out of a pileup before others who you know are much louder than you are!

    • January 17, 2012 at 9:30 am

      I agree – the narrower the p/u spread, the more ERP matters. Fortunately, as entities get rarer, the spread widens.

  2. Tom
    January 17, 2012 at 7:58 am

    How about sharing some of the Method :). Great post OM, de Tom AB9NZ

  3. January 17, 2012 at 10:14 am

    What can be maddening, however, is when the “hunted” moves around in an incomprehensable manner. Most DXpeditions will either stay put at their listening frequency, or will go up in frequency in a somewhat predictable manner – even if they end up doing this in some sort of cycle. These of course, are “The Pros”. Sometimes, in the QRP Foxhunts, the “Fox” will just make heavy use of their RIT knob in very unpredictable ways. Listening here, then there, then there ….. seeming to change with each person worked. When you finally bag one of these, THEN you have a reason to pat yourself on the back!

    • January 17, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Maybe that’s where a panadapter would shine. Just keep throwing money at the hobby!

    • January 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      As one who is often piled-up on when I use CW (how would you get a pile-up in digital modes?), I can give you some insight to the hunted who is making heavy use of RIT. My ears are not so good that I can pick out a call clearly when there are 3 or 4 or more of them close together. I’m maneuvering my RIT just enough for one call to peek around the others and show its face to me. The pros probably have better ears than I do.

      • January 17, 2012 at 6:29 pm

        I *think* Larry was referring to when the DX moves his transmit freq…only done during the Fox hunts AFAIK.

        • January 18, 2012 at 1:05 pm

          No, I was referring to the way some Foxes use their RIT durning Foxhunts. If you’re going to start listening on a given frequency and listen there and then use your RIT to a listen a little higher, then a little higher, and then maybe even a little higher before going back to your main listening frequency and starting all over – hey, that’s fine, I can understand that.

          But I have seen QRP Foxes start listening at a frequency, use the RIT to go higher than where they started listening, then go LOWER than where they were listening, then go back up higher than where they started …. it can get to be a mess.

          I don’t mind when guys use their RIT to get a better tone (Lord knows I need to do that) or for even weeding out callsigns. All I’m saying is do it in an orderly manner. Jumping around all willy-nilly in a random fashion is frustrating to the chasing stations.

          • January 19, 2012 at 5:42 am

            My favorite “odd” strategy was a few months ago when someone was doing a vacation DXpedition to some where like FO or somewhere in the Pacific. I was tuning across 20 cw and heard FO/K6XYZ call CQ on 14.024 and heard them work someone simplex. I didn’t need them, so I kept tuning.

            Then I heard FO/K6XYZ call CQ on 14.030 – huh? They worked someone there and it was quiet for a few seconds and then FO/K6XYZ called CQ again. Huh?

            I left 14.030 in VFO A and put VFO B on 14.024 and used the K3 dual receive and sure enough, he was alternating CQs on two different frequencies! I answered him and said something like “TX diversity??” and he said “no, just having fun with VFOs.”

  4. Justin (AJ4MJ)
    January 18, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I feel the same way about circuits. I barely understand this stuff, but when I see a resistor and capacitor in parallel in a circuit and realize “oh, that’s to bias the transistor” it’s pretty cool!

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