My Days Are Numbered

I’m addicted to a Japanese logic puzzle. You will be, too.

When Slate asked me to write about “sudoku”—the number puzzle that’s taken Britain by storm (and seems poised to conquer the United States, too)—I thought it might be a pleasant little assignment. After all, I like puzzles. I’m always up for trying a new one.

And now it’s 2 a.m., my deadline is looming, and (as you can see) I’m only on my second paragraph. All because, damn it, I can’t stop playing sudoku. I’m a full-on sudoku addict. Thanks, Slate. This assignment is like when the New Republic got that dude to try crack.

But, let me back up. Sudoku is a logic puzzle. You fill numbers into a grid, using deduction (or, failing that, plain old trial and error). Each row and column must contain the digits 1 through 9, with each digit used only once. The best way to understand is probably to visit, where there are clear explanations and some sample games. It’s incredibly easy to learn.

Which is at least partly why it’s spread so quickly. It takes just a moment to feel the rush and become addicted (sort of like crack). Also (again, like crack), sudoku is cheap to obtain and widely available. There’s an ongoing sudoku war in Great Britain right now, with several newspapers competing to be the hot sudoku spot. Sudoku books are flying off the shelves. And it’s all about to hit these shores. The New York Post has started printing sudokus. According to the Economist, the New York Times is pondering a sudoku offering. Right next to the Sunday crossword, no less. It’s a sudoku epidemic!

Sudoku is not new. This sort of puzzle has been around forever, all over the world. (The really nice thing about number puzzles is that they work in any language.) Sudoku is often called “Number Place” in the United States, and it’s popped up in puzzle magazines here for years. So, why is it suddenly so popular?

The current British fad stems mainly from the efforts of a single man: Wayne Gould, the guy behind the Web site. A retired Hong Kong judge, Gould first spotted sudoku in Japan and was instantly hooked. He created a computer program that will compose new sudoku puzzles on demand. Then he walked into the Times of London offices without an appointment and convinced them to run his puzzles. Gould syndicates his sudoku grids for free, on the theory that he’ll rake in money from books and the computer program. The Economist quotes him guessing he’ll make $1 million in sudoku revenues this year.

Being a crossword nut myself, I understand how folks can get excited about puzzles. I actually subscribe to a newsgroup for professional crossword constructors (please, go easy—I can’t tell you how reluctant I was to admit this), so I sent out an e-mail asking the crossword pros for their thoughts on the sudoku craze. One crossworder suggested that it’s mostly about clever marketing. Gould presented the puzzle to newspaper editors in a clear, understated way (his Web site is a marvel of clarity). And by providing the puzzles for free, he relied on word of mouth to build all the hype for him.

But there’s got to be more to it than that. Why all the fuss? Despite solving sudoku puzzles fairly nonstop for the last 36 hours, to the great detriment of my work, I still can’t fully explain their appeal. The best I can do is to compare sudoku to crosswords. Here’s what I like about crosswords, and how sudoku matches up:

  • I like the feeling of accomplishment. With each square I fill in the New York Times crossword, there’s a tiny sense of completion. At about 200 squares a day (and more on Sunday, when the puzzle is bigger), that’s a whole lot of completion to go around. Sudoku offers the same feeling—there are just fewer squares.
  • I like to feel smart. Knowing that “Humorist Bombeck” refers to “Erma” makes me feel like a genius. (Please don’t ask me why. I know that I am in fact an idiot.) Unraveling the painful puns in a crossword’s theme entries is even more of a thrill ride. Man, I love an awful pun. By contrast, sudoku offers no clever wordplay and no head-scratching trivia. Just cold, hard numbers. Also, the fact that, with enough time, anyone could solve a sudoku puzzle (if only through trial and error) makes it seem like less of a feat. Some crossword puzzles are near unsolvable (without an Encyclopaedia Britannica nearby).
  • I like the act of writing on a newspaper. There’s something transgressive about scrawling on the page—right beneath Michiko Kakutani’s turf. Also, I solve in pen (because I’m a badass), and the blue ink really pops from the dull gray newsprint. I find calming beauty in the look of a finished grid. You can fill in a sudoku grid on newsprint, but you need to use pencil to avoid a total mess (unless you’re Rain Man and can hold complicated number sequences in your head). This is annoying, both because pencil looks less cool and also because who carries around a pencil?

I guess the most basic difference is that sudoku is a puzzle of logic—not a puzzle of esoteric knowledge and literate playfulness. Logic is less my bag. And I’d rather interact with someone’s precious, painstaking creation than with a set of numbers spat out by a computer program.

Still, sudoku has its charms. There’s a tiny joy in spotting a number pattern, making a deduction, and unlocking a tough puzzle. Last night I actually dreamed about playing sudoku, which suggests I’ve got the fever bad.

I’ve been doing sudoku mostly on my computer, using the program at The real fun with this is the clock function. I try to beat my own times and solve the puzzles faster. (So far, I’ve gotten down to 19 minutes on the hardest setting.) When played this way—rapidly clicking your mouse on tiny numbers in an array of boxes—sudoku starts to feel exactly like… Minesweeper.

And just as I got addicted to Minesweeper for a week, then gave it up entirely, I predict my addiction to sudoku will be short-lived. The puzzles all start to look the same. Yes, there are advanced techniques—you’ll find message board postings about how to deal with “x-wing” and “swordfish” patterns. But you’re essentially doing the same thing over and over.

Granted, writing “oleo” and “aria” into crossword grids for the 9,000th time doesn’t feel so new at this point, either. But I know there’s always another bad pun out there somewhere, waiting for me.