It’s tempting to claim that this 25-minute video of a man methodically solving a sudoku puzzle is a phenomenon particular to the pandemic era. We’re stuck at home, finding small pleasures in strange corners of the internet, or something like that. The truth, however, is that this 25-minute video of a man methodically solving a sudoku puzzle would have been dynamite viewing no matter what else was going on in the world. It is admittedly a small pleasure. But it is also objectively riveting entertainment.
This tweet by former Slate editor-in-chief Julia Turner first alerted me to “The Miracle Sudoku,” an installment on a YouTube channel hosted by two affable British puzzle pros, Simon Anthony and Mark Goodliffe. The format for each video is simple: An unsolved puzzle grid appears on-screen, and the host narrates his process of solving it. Think of it as Twitch for puzzle geeks. Cracking the Cryptic declares itself “YouTube’s most popular Sudoku channel.” Its most popular video (“A Sudoku With Only 4 Given Digits?!”) has racked up more than 3.5 million views since mid-April.
“The Miracle Sudoku,” posted to the channel last week, starts with a seemingly impossible puzzle. The video opens with a blank standard grid consisting of nine three-by-three squares, or 81 squares in all. Anthony then sets up the rules for the particular puzzle, which add several layers of difficulty to normal sudoku guidelines. Like all sudoku puzzles, there is exactly one correct solution. In a standard puzzle, the goal is to fill in the grid so that each row, column, and three-by-three section contains the numbers 1 through 9, with no repeats. This particular puzzle also mandates that any two cells separated by a “king’s move” or a “knight’s move” in chess rules cannot contain the same digit, and any two orthogonally adjacent cells cannot contain consecutive digits.
Actually, never mind. Do not worry about these rules. Put them out of your mind. The point is this puzzle has more restrictions than a typical sudoku grid, which makes it seem very daunting and more exciting to a casual viewer. (In fact, these restrictions make the puzzle easier to solve, but again—stop thinking about these rules.)
With that, Anthony clicks to view his starting cells, which will give him his starting point. A sudoku rated “easy” typically starts with 38 cells filled in; “hard” puzzles may have 25 or so filled in. The Miracle starts with two.
“You’ve got to be joking,” Anthony sighs when he sees the grid. “There’s no way that this—well, it might have a unique solution, but it’s not going to be findable by a human being.” Constructor Mitchell Lee is trolling him, he speculates. He says he’ll give the puzzle five minutes, then turn off the camera “and you’ll never see this.” If it somehow works out, he says, “this will be a work of sublime genius.”
I don’t want to spoil the elegant narrative arc of the video and the puzzle itself. Suffice it to say, Anthony is not just an expert solver, but a masterful sportscaster (gamescaster?), moving from frenetic but clearly narrated action to awed pauses to climaxes of awe. At the 12-minute mark, he’s still insisting the puzzle cannot be solved. As the puzzle starts to cohere, he gasps in wonder. “This is just staggering,” he says. “I don’t believe this. The threes are placeable from that absolute gibberish we had in the grid. This is magic. We are watching magic unfold here.” Later the puzzle drives him to even greater heights of ecstasy at what he sees unfolding before him. “I’m not sure I’ve got the adjectives to describe what is going on here,” he murmurs. “It’s like the universe is singing to us.”
The pleasure of watching all of this unfold is total: an impossible task, elegantly and efficiently completed by a good-humored expert who has not lost his capacity for joy. The universe is singing to us, indeed.