Byron Calver, left, and Dan Katz race to finish first in the championship round of the first Sudoku Smackdown in Stamford, Conn. “Sometimes I’ll do 30 sudoku or so in a week,” said Calver.
Make sense to you? Me neither.
But for more than 500 self-described sudoku addicts from 39 states, Canada and Europe, those sequences formed a natural progression as simple as tic-tac-toe at the first Sudoku Smackdown here last week.
Unlike other famous, sports-related smackdowns, the Sudoku Smackdown involved neither smacking nor downing. In fact, it curiously resembled a high-school math competition.
“As human beings, we have a natural compulsion to fill empty spaces,” said New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, whose puzzle runs in the Sunday Seattle Times. The author of several best-selling sudoku puzzle books, Shortz introduced the wildly popular mathematical game to the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a weekend-long event for crossword buffs that he hosts every year. Last week marked the first time sudoku ventured into the intense world of American puzzle competitions.
Ethan Friedman, one of Shortz’s book editors at St. Martin’s Press, said his company has published more than 20 sudoku books since last summer. “Right now,” he said, “sudoku is at a level that crosswords haven’t seen since the crossword craze in the 1920s.”
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Now consider this: For safety reasons, British Airways recently ordered its 13,000 cabin crew members to refrain from working on sudoku puzzles during takeoff and landing.
“You can enjoy the puzzle regardless of what you know,” said Wayne Gould, the New Zealander who ignited the sudoku craze after accidentally tripping across the game in a Tokyo bookshop several years ago. “It measures how you think, rather than what you know.”
Intrigued, Gould created a pioneering computer program that produced the handmade sudoku puzzles en masse. Today the familiar grid of numbers can be found in virtually any newspaper throughout the world.
Heads up, pencils down. When the smoke cleared after 25 minutes of sudoku-ing, three finalists emerged from the melee.
“I consider myself very, very good at sudoku,” said 20-year-old Byron Calver, who would go on to claim first place. “Sometimes I’ll do 30 sudoku or so in a week if I feel like doing it. Today I did about 10.”
Calver was joined by Thomas Snyder, a Harvard graduate student of chemistry, and avid sudoku player Dan Katz to battle for a grand prize of $500 during the championship round. A larger-than-life sudoku grid stared down at the contestants from three giant white boards propped onstage next to a blinking time clock. Whoever finished the complicated puzzle first would win.
It was a familiar sight for players like Snyder, who participated in the first-ever World Sudoku Championship two weeks ago in Lucca, Italy.
“It would have made great television,” Gould said. “Sudoku has become a spectator sport.”
“Probably because it’s not a vocabulary test,” said Mel Rosen, a crossword-puzzle judge from Marco Island, Fla. “You don’t have to know any trivia, Australian fishes, any mountains or Nova Scotias or any of that stuff. It’s culture-neutral.”
The object of the game is deceptively simple. Players fill in boxes with the numbers one through nine in a 9-by-9 grid. The catch: Each number must appear only once in each column or row.
It is the game’s very simplicity that has come under attack from crossword puzzlers — often referred to as “wordplay people”— who are irritated by sudoku’s meteoric rise to celebrity.
Eighteen-year-old Kyle Mahowald dismissed sudoku as repetitive and boring.
“They’re all the same, more or less,” said Mahowald, a freshman at Harvard University. “One of my classes (at Harvard) was required to create a computer program that solves sudoku.”
According to Sean Kennedy, a freelance puzzle constructor, the media’s attention to sudoku is what really drives the crossword puzzlers crazy.
“Because when you go to the bookstore, it’s all sudoku books,” Kennedy explained. “Like at Borders: You walk in and it’s like a shrine to sudoku. It’s crazy.”
Barry Spiegel, a puzzler from Arizona, went so far as to proclaim that five years from now, nobody will be talking about sudoku anymore.
“It’s unforgiving,” Spiegel complained. “You don’t learn you’ve made a mistake until the end. Then you have to start all over.”
Is Sudoku’s time up?
Veit Elser, a physicist at Cornell University, recently announced the discovery of an algorithm that solves all sudoku puzzles within a matter of seconds. Could this spell extinction for the game?
“Any student of computer programming could do that in an afternoon,” Gould said. “If you use brute force, if you use the power of the computer, (sudoku) is trivial. To me it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”
The destination was reached in 10 minutes by Calver, who ascended to the throne as Sudoku Smackdown champion. Calver hinted that his first sudoku competition will not be his last.
To the dismay of the word-play camp, more sudoku competitions are already lining up on the horizon. Shortz said sudoku might even warrant its own weekend-long competition next year.