On your grids. Get set. Go!

It has taken the country by storm, and now Britain has a first Sudoku Grand Master. John Walsh reports from the championships
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Livery Hall is the largest and grandest room in the Stationers' Hall, London, a place redolent of ancient British tradition - oak, stained glass, armorial banners - and the self-importance you'd expect from a 16th-century livery company of printers and booksellers. At one end, a stained-glass picture shows an early printing-press and a typesetter displaying a page of the new-fangled system to a visiting grandee. It cries out for a caption reading: "And here in the top-left corner, we thought we'd print a little numbers game, to amuse the readers on their morning journey..." For what would be the point of a newspaper without a sudoku section?

Last Sunday, in the hall, the search was on to find the game's best player - its Tiger, its Ronaldinho, its Federer. It was the climax of the crazy sudoku-worship that gripped the country this spring. Though the game is two centuries old (invented by a Swiss maths teacher called Leonard Euler) it was greeted in 2005 Britain as an irresistible new thing. Four national newspapers carried daily puzzles. Collections of grids sprang on to British publishing schedules and the shelves of WH Smith. A Sudoku Live quiz show was launched, starring the TV Countdown queen, Carol Vorderman. Tabloid newspapers invented "compulsive sudoku syndrome", a condition that allegedly stops ordinary men and women from getting to work in the morning unless they've completed a nine-by-nine square grid of figures. The British obsession with crosswords, anagrams, TV quizzes and similar self-administered tortures had a new toy.

The Independent was an early adopter of the game, and the first to propose a national sudoku championship. We asked readers to apply, expecting maybe 300 to 400 entrants, and watched as 2,000 applications came in. After weeks of regional heats, the final 100 came to the Stationers' Hall to do battle. A hundred people in skimpy summer attire crowded the ante-rooms, the stairs and corridors with their friends, supporters and relatives, all drooping in the heat, drinking tea or cranberry juice, fanning each other as if priming a house-ful of prizefighters.

Lucy Bye-Jorgensen, 25, an architect's assistant from Camden, came with her mother, Mary. "I do all four puzzles in the Indy every morning on my commute, which takes about 40 minutes," said Lucy, "I didn't know if that was good or not. But some of my friends said, 'You do that so fast', so I thought I'd give this competition a try." Her mother doesn't share her skill. "I've never finished a single one," she said. "I think either you're committed to it or you're not."

They trooped into the Livery Hall and its sister hall, the Stock Room, took their seats (spaced well apart to discourage peeking), wrote their names on one side of the answer paper just like in school exams and then, under the stern gaze of three noble Williams - Tyndale, Caxton and Shakespeare - turned over the pages and began: five puzzles in 45 minutes.

Sudoku is not a hot spectator sport. In fact, after "bumps" rowing at Oxford, it's probably the worst. It's 100 people bent over pieces of paper, jabbing at numbered squares with a pencil, adding more numbers of their own, rubbing them out with an eraser and starting again; while behind them, menacing prison-warder invigilator types in white T-shirts patrol the room, as though anticipating a riot or breakout. The silence is amazing. You could hear a visiting bee adjusting the honey in its sacs.

When, after 20-odd minutes of scribbling, the first answer was handed in, and the time of its delivery confirmed by the ding of a mechanical stopwatch, a murmur of anxiety circled the room. ("Who the hell? How did he do it so fast? Is this square a four or a seven?") You can imagine, but thankfully not hear, 90-odd abdominal and groinal muscles tightening with alarm.

One of the first out of the traps was Anthony Williams, 24, a genial, shaven-headed, roll-up-smoking maths graduate from Royal Holloway who is doing a postgraduate degree in music at the Royal College. "I'm not a big games player," he confessed, "and I don't work with numbers, I work in a pub, the Islington Tap. But being good at sudoku is about spotting patterns and being able to see things in three dimensions." Williams plays the double-bass, and claims to be able to identify the different signatures of the sudoku in different newspapers.

It wasn't all 20-something males with maths degrees. Pia De Souza, 33, lives in Brighton and works in the National Theatre press office. "I did one wrong," she complained. "In the fourth puzzle, I transposed two numbers." Is she a maths graduate? "I'm rubbish at maths," she said, with heat. "I count on my fingers. My degree was in anthropology. But I like puzzles. We get all the papers at work, and I suppose I got keen on them."

Peta Brown, 37, a training consultant from Leeds now based at Milton Keynes, said she listened with fury for the bell that announced early finishers. "Of course I'm competitive - I'm in it to win it," she said. She plays sudoku every day ("I do it in my lunch-hour, over breakfast, when I'm getting ready for bed...") and, to feed her obsession, "my partner has designed a pretty advanced website."

I was clearly among the zealots. By 6pm, the papers had been marked, and the hot hundred numerical logicians were eating egg sandwiches, drinking tea and trying not to look over-confident while waiting for the final. Then a short list was announced that would eliminate 90 per cent of them. The victims took it on the chin, collected their commiseratory party bags and headed for home.

The final 10 waited for the last showdown. They were due back in the hall (now decked with black posters and oak tables as though in preparation for human sacrifice) to complete six final puzzles of fiendish complexity. Fiona MacPherson, 33, one of the finalists, looked on apprehensively. "I came down this morning from Perth, and I'm heading back again tonight. I didn't expect this," she said. "I only came second in my heat." McPherson is not, she said, a natural anorak or typical quizzer. "My degree was in hospitality management and I run a restaurant called the Café Biba. But I do like crosswords, particularly the cryptic ones."

She was one of only two women in the final, which a man finally won. Edward Billig, 23, the new star in the quiz firmament, is a tall, ursine youth with close-cropped hair and beard, who resembles a Motörhead roadie. He is, in fact, an audio technician who lives in Wapping and works in Fleet Street. Maybe there's something in his pedigree - the fact that his father was a maths teacher who did music and sound recording - that explains how he can finish six hard sudokus in only 22 and a half minutes.

He doesn't have a secret plan. "You just look at groups of numbers and work out what's missing," he said. He practises by timing himself at work. "Carol Vorderman says she can do a pretty fiendish one in 19 minutes. I can manage it in about 10." He seemed a little stunned by success. "My head's hurting a bit now," said The Independent Sudoku Grand Master 2005, as he left, bearing his Waterford crystal trophy, his champagne and other paraphernalia of victory. "I think something's broken inside it." I'm hardly surprised.

Comments