The rise and rise of Sudoku

As The Independent launches its second Soduko Championship, Adrian Turpin celebrates the phenomenal puzzle that has transformed the way we live
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The year 2005 was not a good one for anyone who believed the Sudoku craze, like the First World War, would all be over by Christmas. National passion for the Japanese puzzle - which involves trying to arrange the numbers one to nine across a nine-by-nine grid so that no two numbers appear in the same row, column or designated three-by-three square box - has shown no sign of stopping since The Independent organised the first British Sudoku championship last year.

Sudoku widows remain condemned to silence at the breakfast table. Fearful employers watch their productivity graphs taper downwards like Davina McCall's chat show ratings. Then there are the commuters, such as Tony Flanaghan from Salisbury, who pleaded with The Independent: "Sir" I have a train journey of one and a half hours. Before you started to include Sudoku I could read a newspaper for an hour and sleep the last half-hour. You introduced Sudoku - I would read for an hour, do the puzzle in 10 minutes, sleep for 20 minutes. This week you put in three Sudokus; I didn't get any sleep. Today, there were four Sudokus - I am in danger of falling asleep in the office. When is this proliferation going to stop?"

He shouldn't hold his breath. The classic Sudoku grid contains a possible 5,472,730,538 unique combinations of numbers which, even allowing for repeats, makes it unlikely that setters are going to run out of new material soon. And that is to ignore the variations - circular and "jigsaw" varieties and puzzles based on letters, such as The Independent on Sunday's Godoku.

Mr Flanaghan may lose the little sleep still left to him when he learns that sales of pencils in Britain are reported to have risen 700 per cent on the back of the Sudoku boom. Or that, in November, British Airways issued a memo to its 13,000 cabin staff, forbidding them from attempting the puzzles during take-off and landing (a directive that, you pray, wasn't aimed at pilots). Or that the craze - until recently the preserve of Japan and Britain - has been embraced by the US in the past 12 months to the extent that no US newspaper is complete without a piece about how it is sweeping the nation.

He is also unlikely to find comfort in Channel Four's claim that Sudoku is the seventh most popular search term on the internet. And we should all probably be nervous that one particularly fiendish toymaker has just launched Rubik's Sudoku, an attempt to merge the obsessive power of cube and grid. This may require a government health warning.

In July, the world's largest Sudoku grid - 275ft by 275ft - was carved into a chalk hill near Chipping Sodbury. Sensibly, it was beside a section of the M4 with a 40mph limit. Less sensibly, it allowed 1,905 possible solutions rather than the single one Sudoku demands, rendering it almost meaningless as a puzzle.

Archaeologists may one day mull this work of public art, just as our culture mulls the white horse at Uffington or the priapic giant at Cerne Abbas. What, they will ask, was important enough for a long-dead culture to commemorate in this way? Being archaeologists, they will probably scratch their heads privately before declaring with complete confidence it is an expression of something sacred. Fortunately, no one will know it was commissioned to promote a Sudoku special on Sky TV.

That Sudoku is sustaining its popularity has a lot to do with its simplicity and democratic appeal. If football is the people's game, then Sudoku can claim to be the people's pastime. All you need is the puzzle and a pencil: no batteries, no board, no paraphernalia. Instructions are few and, unlike cryptic crosswords, a working knowledge of classical civilisation and an intimate acquaintance with the backwaters of the dictionary is not required. Indeed, to do Sudoku, you don't even need to be able to count above nine - although this fact appears to have escaped the Training and Development Agency for Schools when, last month, it took Carol Vorderman and a giant Sudoku grid to London's Liverpool Street station to recruit more maths teachers.

Yet, as football shows, being democratic doesn't preclude a pastime from having stars. It has taken just 18 months for the puzzle to transform itself from foreign curiosity to part of the British cultural landscape, but during that time we have seen the rise of an elite: what one might call the Sudokurati. They may not be household names such as Messrs Beckham, Zidane or Ronaldhino but for the fans who visit Sudoku websites the Sudokurati's skills are no less silky, and the trivia about their lives just as fascinating. Curiously, even the most logical of puzzlers have a desire to find faces behind the numbers.

Sudoku's undisputed high priest is Wayne Gould, a retired Hong Kong judge who has done more to popularise the puzzle in the West than anyone on the planet - which makes a change from judges asking: "What is this Sudoku?"

On a trip to Tokyo in 1997, the New Zealander (described by one interviewer as "a supremely happy nerd") came across a Sudoku book in a shop. The puzzle, first published as "Number Game" in New York in 1979, had been imported to Japan and renamed Sudoku ("single number") in 1984. But Mr Gould knew nothing of this. Not speaking Japanese, he thought it was some kind of crossword.

As a lifelong puzzle addict, he was intrigued, buying the book to take with him on a flight to Naples, where he was going to meet his wife Gaye, a professor of linguistics. When he arrived in Italy, she became the West's first Sudoku widow.

It probably helps that the couple choose to live on opposite sides of the world - Wayne on Lantau island in Hong Kong and Gaye in New Hampshire. Is he obsessed? "Mmm ... aah, well, I suppose that would be a fair comment, compared to most people I suppose," he has said.

For six years, Mr Gould worked on a computer programme to write the puzzles. His first published Sudoku grid appeared in September 2004 in New Hampshire's Conway Daily Sun. But it was only after he gave it for free to UK newspapers - reasoning he'd make money from people downloading his computer program at $14.95 (£8.60) a pop - that the game took off.

But being "Mr Sudoku" does not mean Mr Gould is among the quickest solvers: he says he takes an impressive 20 minutes for the hardest puzzles and four minutes for the easy, but that Gaye - his tester - is quicker.

For Sudoku's speed kings (and queen), look no further than the first Sudoku world championship, held in the Italian city of Lucca last month. Two of the top-placed solvers are familiar names in the introverted world of puzzling. The fourth-placed contestant, Tetsuya Nishio, looks like a mild-mannered chap but has a reputation as one of Sudoku's hard men, which he has put to use training many of Japan's masters. To him, "logic is a knife that kills" and he is best known for inventing the appallingly frustrating Sudoku variation Samunamupure ("sum number place"), or Killer Sudoku.

Unfortunately, he seemed to have left his logical knife in its sheath during a final round during in which he let the title slip away. Pipping him to third spot was a Google programmer, Wei-Hwa Huang (a former world puzzle champion), who was so confident he had won in the final round that he was doing high fives with his friends - until it was pointed out he had mistakenly placed identical numbers in the same row. It's comforting to know it happens at the top, too.

Second spot went to a Harvard chemistry postgraduate, Thomas Snyder, 26 , who told reporters he spent 70 hours a week in the lab and most of the rest puzzling. (No, he doesn't have a girlfriend.) Mr Snyder appears to be heir apparent as Sudoku's godfather, although his clean-cut looks and slicked-back hair do not appear to have endeared him to everyone. In Sudoku terms, he's a sort of Sampras to the Japanese man's McEnroe.

But the world championship's surprise package was the winner - the pony-tailed Czech Jana Tylova, the only woman in the top 18. An economics graduate from the Czech Agricultural University in Prague, the accountant, 31, had already participated in the world championships for the Japanese game Go.

This time, she left nothing to chance: her husband, an IT manager, is her coach, leading her through four hours of practice a day. Such dedication may not leave her time to get out. Invited to kiss one of the judges as she received her prize, she did her best to stick her tongue down his throat.

It may come as relief to readers contemplating entering The Independent's Sudoko championship this year that becoming one of the Sudokurati doesn't have to involve dispensing with social skills.

Ed Billig, 23, the winner of last year's competition, seems a perfectly normal, wryly humorous chap, who manages to keep his Sudoku habit down to a relatively modest four puzzles a day in the office (he transcribes police interviews) and a couple on the bus to and from work. "I think I'm managing to keep it under control," he says.

Mr Billig is happy in the role of gentleman amateur, politely scoffing at the idea of hiring a trainer. He has other interests - he hardly had time to savour his triumph because he had to go to a rehearsal with his band.

His only regret at winning was being bumped off an appearance on Radio Five Live by the death of Edward Heath. But that was assuaged by an invitation to compete in Hong Kong against the local champion and 1,000 schoolchildren. For this he won the title "King of Sudoku" and "a trophy that looks a bit like the FA Cup". Who could want more?

The bad news for everyone else is that he's keen to defend his British title this year. "Any chance of a bye, do you think?" he asks. Sorry, but you're going to have to slug it out like everyone else. Just make sure you bring your logical knife.

COULD YOU BE BRITAIN'S SUDOKU CHAMPION?

Today, The Independent launches it's second Sudoku Championship of Great Britain. Participation is open to all, and the event will enable enthusiasts to pit their skills against each other - and against the clock - in a prestigious national competition, with the opportunity to win the coveted title Sudoku Grand Master of Great Britain.

Every day for the next fortnight, The Independent will publish a series of numbered championship Sudoku puzzles. To enter the Sudoku Championship of Great Britain, players must complete nine differently numbered puzzles and submit them to The Independent's Sudoku Championship committee.

Once their entries are verified, competitors will be invited to participate in a series of regional heats in cities around Britain, in which they will be asked to complete Sudoku puzzles against the clock. The fastest 100 competitors will be asked to attend the grand final in London, at which the winner will be crowned Britain's Sudoku Grand Master. He or she will be presented with a specially commissioned trophy and a cash prize of £1,000. The next championship Sudoku puzzle will be published in The Independent tomorrow, so don't miss it.

TERMS AND CONDITIONS

1. To enter, readers must complete nine of the 14 differently numbered Sudoku Championship puzzles that will be featured in the Mon-Sun editions of The Independent, between Monday 10 April & Sunday 23 April. 2. The completed puzzles must be sent to The Independent Sudoku Grand Master Championship, PO BOX 55705, Independent House, London, E14 1AQ. 3. Entries must be received by Friday 28 April 2006. They are invalid if they arrive any later than the first post on the specified closing date. Photocopied puzzles will not be accepted. 4. Proof of postage will not constitute proof of delivery and no responsibility will be accepted for any failure of receipt of entries. 5. Entrants who complete their nine puzzles correctly will be invited to attend a regional final at a time, date and location in the UK to be specified by The Independent, terms and conditions for which will be supplied. 6. The 100 fastest people to successfully complete the challenge in the regional finals will be invited to the grand final which will be held at a time, date and location in London to be notified. 7. Each entrant is responsible for making their own arrangements and for paying for all necessary travel and accommodation. No alternative arrangements will be made if any entrant invited to compete at a regional or the grand final invited is unable for any reason whatsoever to attend. 8. All entrants must residents of the UK. 9. Entrants who are under 18 must specify their date of birth on their entry and, if invited to attend a regional or the grand final, must be accompanied by a parent or guardian who are solely responsible for their safety and welfare at all times. Entrants under 18 must be able to prove their parent/guardian's consent to their entry and to their participation in any publicity as may be decided upon by The Independent. 10. Standard Independent News and Media competition rules apply ( www.independent.co.uk/legal) 11. The judges' decision is final, including the right to exclude any entrant whose conduct, in the judges' sole and unfettered judgement, is undesirable. 12. No correspondence will be entered into.

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