Sunday, October 09, 2005


Nine numbers and 81 squares

Human beings are a famously diverse lot. We come in different colors and sizes, speak a Babel of tongues, worship a pantheon of gods or no god at all, eat our foods bland or spicy, vote or not, and are sorely divided over the value of poetry. But those distinctions pale compared to the big one: the gulf between those who enjoy parlor games and puzzles and those whose eyes glaze over at the very thought of such abstract mental diversions. If the talk of the day is to be believed, there are more of the former than the latter, and they are currently all buzzing around a single big honeypot: sudoku.
This deceptively simple-looking logic game used to be limited to Japan, even though it originated either in the United States in 1979, under the name Number Place, or in medieval Europe, where it was known as a Latin square.
However, Japanese were the ones who took to it and gave it the name -- sudoku, or "single number" -- under which it has won renown. (For the shut-ins who don't already know, sudoku features a nine-by-nine-square grid in which some of the spaces are filled in with digits from one to nine. The object is to fill in the blank squares so that each column, row and three-by-three grid contains all nine numbers just once. It is simpler, though not easier, than it sounds).
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Japanese puzzle-lovers were busily chewing their pencils and scratching their heads over those deeply frustrating grids while the rest of the world still yawned over crossword puzzles or wasted their time exploding digital bombs on Minesweeper. Today, reportedly, there are more than 600,000 copies of sudoku magazines published in Japan alone every month.
It wasn't until November 2004 that a British expatriate who had stumbled across a Japanese sudoku book in Hong Kong persuaded the Times of London to start publishing the number puzzle and see what happened. It flared up like a match struck in oxygen. Times readers embraced sudoku so passionately that before long no self-respecting British newspaper could afford not to run a daily puzzle. By this year, the wildfire had spread around the globe, catching on even in its modern birthplace, the United States.
Scores, if not hundreds, of newspapers worldwide now feature the game, and puzzle books -- including guides such as "Sudoku for Dummies" -- have climbed global best-seller lists.
All this happened inside a year. Obviously, there was a vacuum waiting to be filled. Crosswords, while still popular, were past their heyday; how many young people do them? Rubik's Cube, perhaps the last big puzzle fad, seemed so '80s -- although when you think about it, sudoku is a kind of one-dimensional version of the maddening cube. Eventually, sudoku, too, will run its course, if only because the number of unique puzzles that can be generated is finite, though unimaginably enormous. More likely, people's interest in it will be exhausted long before the supply. But nothing is more certain than that some new whimsy will then take its place.
The question is: What is the vacuum, the mental need, that such pastimes fill? Naturally, the deep thinkers have weighed in. It's about diversion, the human need to be distracted from the emptiness, boredom and futility of everyday life, say the philosophers. The game gives people an illusion of meaning. No, say the psychologists, it's about the satisfaction to be derived from solving or completing something difficult. It gives people an illusion of competence or control.
No need to be so heavy, say sudoku fans. We do it for fun! As one wrote in Britain's Daily Mail newspaper in May: "There is no adding up, subtraction, multiplication or division in sudoku. You do not even need to know that two plus two equals four. But, boy, can it make your brain ache, your pulse race and knuckles whiten as you grip your pen in exasperation or, finally, ecstasy!"
On one level, there is no arguing with such enthusiasm. And yet there are many people -- a big chunk of humanity, in fact -- who cannot imagine anything less fun than torturing recalcitrant numbers into a grid. Different strokes for different folks.
Will Shortz, the Briton who talked the Times into adopting sudoku, recently explained the game's popularity this way: "It's got empty squares. If a puzzle person sees empty squares, he can't turn the page until he's filled them in." There's the key: puzzle people. You either are one or you're not. Perhaps nonpuzzle people are happier, less bored or just plain busier than puzzle people. Perhaps they were born without a puzzle gene. Perhaps they just dislike things that resemble cages.
What's very likely, however, is that they have a thing for poetry.
The Japan Times: Oct. 9, 2005