There is no hiding place once you've signed your soul away to Sudoku

If it should turn out that tyrants, such as Genghis Khan, have always been puzzlers, I would not be surprised
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The Independent Online

Nice, the Indie's new look. I like the clean typography. Sun (serif) and Whitney (sans serif) happen to be my favourites, and Benton Two is a typeface to die for.

Nice, the Indie's new look. I like the clean typography. Sun (serif) and Whitney (sans serif) happen to be my favourites, and Benton Two is a typeface to die for.

I also applaud the decision to make that which was already compact more compact still. The newspaper supplement is one of life's irritations, the more so as the subjects it usually addresses are themselves already irritating, or at least made irritating by virtue of their exclusion from the main body of the parent paper. Why are arts and books relegated to a supplement - a something extra and therefore not strictly necessary - when politicians get the front page? Who says Blair is the business but Bellow only an addendum? One day, when God's kingdom is proclaimed on earth, it will be the other way around. Nothing but concert music and philosophy on the first dozen pages, the manifesto regurgitations of politicians consigned to a pull-out or a throwaway. We aren't there yet, but I see this as a move in the right direction.

I do, though, have one quarrel with the change. Sudoku. The puzzle which made its first appearance in last Tuesday's edition of this newspaper on a revamped "games page" in a section which I wish wasn't called Life and Culture. I have been going to great lengths to avoid Sudoku wherever else it appears, but now I have no hiding place. The Sudoku habit, which I thought I'd beaten, is back in my life.

Sudoku, for those fortunate enough to have escaped its horrid fascination - and who therefore still have friends and families and haven't lost the power of speech - is played on a grid: nine boxes containing nine squares, into which you have to put the numbers one to nine in such a way that every box, row and column, contain just one of each of those nine numbers. If the rating of the puzzle is easy, you get a lot of numbers filled in for you before you start. If the rating is hard, you don't. End of story. End of peace of mind.

So why the allure? Well you have to be a puzzle person to be even vaguely tempted in the first place. Show some people a half empty grid and they will walk away with a shrug; but for others the vacant squares exert a pull as inescapable as gravity or sex. You see a box empty of a letter or a number, and you have to fill it. The compulsion has nothing to do with mathematics or a love of letters. It is about the elimination of mystery. It expresses a need to occupy any vacuum with yourself. If it should turn out that tyrants have always been puzzlers - Genghis Khan a devotee of jigsaws, Stalin mad on acrostics - I would not be surprised. The solution of a puzzle is the exertion of your will on matter. You cannot sleep until you have unriddled nature - whether by signing your soul away to Sudoku, or de-peopling the planet.

I was a puzzle prodigy when I was small, going from house to house, like the baby Mozart, showing off what I could do. Later, I had to look on in irritation as new generations of prodigies solved Rubik's Cube, a puzzle which I held to be nothing other than a species of fidgeting. Real puzzlers don't fidget: they deduce.

And here's the terrible beauty of Sudoku - it is deduction, pure and simple; deduction removed from all distractions. Before Sudoku, whenever the hunger to fill a grid came upon me I would resort to crosswords, but always with a heavy heart, because a crossword, which of necessity expresses the personality and thinking processes of the person setting it, is only a higher form of mind-reading. Another person is pulling your strings, and no matter that you feel you have outwitted him when you solve his puzzle, in the end you remain his slave. All you have solved is him.

Whereas Sudoku, though a third-party must juggle the originating numbers like a bingo caller, is not a reflection of the caller's whims. It is a private, unassociated matter, between you and faceless logic - your intelligence pitted against the ineluctable, the inflexible, and the eternal.

That you will therefore have to face terrible suffering and hardship as a Sudoku player goes without saying. You can think long and hard and have nothing to show for it - a six in this column ruling out the possibility of a six in that, but even when you have the column you do not necessarily have the row. When success does come, it comes in a rush, the final numbers falling to you like the cities of Asia Minor to Tamburlaine. Yet fate can have a nasty surprise in store for you even then, since it is often only in the final push for domination, with as many as 70 or 75 of the 81 boxes accounted for, that you see you have no choice now but to duplicate a number and thereby fail. All those hours of obsessional labour and concentration - wasted.

Too late then to turn around and hope to re-ignite the joys of domestic conversation. Your children gone to join another family, your wife vanished without a note, you are reduced to going through your neighbours' rubbish bins in search of newspapers containing unsolved Sudokus.

I've read somewhere - in so far as Sudoku leaves me time to read - that the word is an abbreviation of the Japanese phrase "Suuji wa dokushin ni kagiru" whose meaning, if you can call it a meaning, is "Number limited only bachelor". Students of 20th century art will at once be reminded of Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, a seminal work of what we now call Conceptualism - a movement if anything even more damaging to a grown person's mental health than Sudoku.

But what else would we do with life if we didn't waste it? Vote? Don't make me laugh. Sudoku may be many things, but it isn't delusional.

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