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Sudoku Fans Compete for First U.S. Title

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Players of the Japanese numbers game will square off this weekend in the Philadelphia Inquirer Sudoku National Championship. Puzzle master Will Shortz sets the scene.


Luke, there are two different kind of people in this world, you know, the dog people and the cat people, the red wine people and the white wine people, the Sudoku people and the crossword people.

I think I know where you stand on that.


Hung-over people?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: I got no energy for that - Sunday, Saturday morning.

STEWART: Stuff - I kind of like both.

BURBANK: Really?

STEWART: Yes, I've been converted a little bit. And for people who aren't really familiar with Sudoku, it became a really big craze in '05 and a lot of people doing Sudoku books every time we're on the subway. I was taught how to do it by three kids, 10, 11 and 12 who schooled me in a bad way.

Maybe they could take part in the first ever U.S. Sudoku Championship. It's happening in Philadelphia and one of our own is involved.

WEEKEND EDITION's puzzle master Will Shortz.

WILL SHORTZ: Hey there.

STEWART: Also New York Times crossword editor. Thank you so much for joining us. So you are going to be the host of this big Philadelphia Inquirer Sudoku National Championship?

SHORTZ: That's right. It takes place tomorrow at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia. Starts at 11 o'clock, goes through the afternoon. They're expecting about a thousand contestants. There's two 8-year-olds who are competing - registered to compete. And the oldest so far is 83. And there's a $10,000 grand prize.

STEWART: Literally, fun for all ages. Hey, for people who are like, what is this language they're talking about - the Sudoku thing? Can you briefly explain it?

SHORTZ: Yeah, it's in almost every newspaper except my own, the New York Times, but it's in virtually every other newspaper. And it's a - it's a little number puzzle, nine-by-nine grid. The object is to fill the grid - fill the squares in the grid so that every row, every column, and each three-by-three box contains all the digits from one to nine without repeating.

There's no mathematics involved, it's a pure logic challenge. And, you know, the traditional wisdom was - conventional wisdom was, a number puzzle would never be popular. And this one is as popular as crosswords now and I think it's with us forever.

STEWART: How are you feeling about that?

BURBANK: Yeah, is Sudoku the Facebook to your MySpace, Will, with the crossword stuff?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHORTZ: I'm crazy about it. I'm one of those people who is crazy about both. And the two puzzles exercise different parts of the brain. Crosswords connect with real life. You have to know vocabulary and all sorts of facts on everything. With Sudoku, you don't have to know anything. It's a pure logic challenge. And each of them has its own appeal.

BURBANK: I'm sure this is going to create a raft of e-mails, Will, angry that I even ask this question. But I've played - I've done Sudoku, played it, whatever, filled it out a few times, and it's kind of - I really like crossword puzzles because to me, each one is sort of different and there's language involved, as you said. It's a little bit of a mystery you're solving. I feel like - how interesting is that - this time it's an eight, but the other time it was a six.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: I mean, what is it - but I mean, there's no argument with the popularity of it. How is it that this is still new and interesting when people do hundreds and hundreds of these puzzles?

SHORTZ: Yeah, you know, if I let myself go, I could do Sudoku all day. If you pushed me, push - put my back against the wall and a gun to my head and said I had to choose one or the other, I'd pick crosswords because I like - there's just a little more variation in crosswords. But with Sudoku, it's really a complex puzzle. There is - even with such simple rules, there's a lot of complex logic that's needed to solve the difficult examples. To me, it never gets old.

BURBANK: Putting your modesty aside, Will, how good are you at Sudoku?

SHORTZ: Well, I'm a decent solver, but I'm not like the whizzes. There's an American, Thomas Snyder, who will be here at the championship. He's the reigning World Sudoku Champion. And he recently set his own personal record of 53 seconds on a Sudoku. I mean, his hand literally did not stop writing. Even the hardest Sudoku, he can do generally in five or six minutes.

STEWART: I understand also that the rise of Sudoku has a lot to do with computers.

SHORTZ: Yeah, I think - well, Sudoku has been around a few years. It was invented in the United States in 1979 under the name Number Place in a Dell puzzle magazine. Went to Japan in the 1980s, where it acquired the name Sudoku. Became a craze in Britain in 2004 when a man named Wayne Gould introduced it in the Times of London. It became a craze there in England, came back to the United States in 2005.

And I think yes, it - without the computer, it would not have been a craze because human beings cannot create enough Sudoku. It's very hard to make a Sudoku puzzle by hand and know exactly how hard it is. A computer can - was a good program, can turn out lots of Sudoku. And the computer can tell you precisely how difficult it is.

And, you know, when you're tackling a Sudoku puzzle, you kind of want to know how hard it is before you begin.

STEWART: I've noticed that there's easy, moderate and quite difficult in the bottom. I always go for the easy, I got to admit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I'm not advanced yet. So are people lobbying the New York Times…


STEWART: …to get Sudoku in there? What's going on?

BURBANK: You guys too classy for that?

SHORTZ: Well, I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHORTZ: Yeah, I think - I'm not sure what the holdup is. Well, first of all, the Times is not a newspaper that jumps on a fad, that's number one. Crossword puzzles were a fad in the United States - were a craze in 1924 and '25. And the newspaper didn't start crosswords until 1942. It was the last major metropolitan daily newspaper to start a crossword.

So, you know, the same thing may be true with Sudoku. They just want to make sure it's going to be around. Also I have a feeling, you know, if the Times does any puzzle, it's going to be better and clever and more sophisticated than anybody else's version. And the problem - question is, how do you make Sudoku more sophisticated than it already is?

BURBANK: You do it with your pinky out as you're filling in the numbers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHORTZ: That's it.

STEWART: All right. So Will Shortz, tomorrow - can people still enter into this championship in Philadelphia?

SHORTZ: Yes, there is online registration through noon today at, or you can sign up at the door tomorrow. And the first round starts at 11 o'clock at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia.

STEWART: WEEKEND EDITION puzzle master, New York Times crossword editor -potential Sudoku editor maybe - and host of the Philadelphia Inquirer Sudoku National Championship, Will Shortz. Thanks for being with us in THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

SHORTZ: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.

BURBANK: You know, if you're putting together a Boggle tournament, let alone, Sudoku or Scrabble, that is - that guy is the rock star.

STEWART: You know, so good a boggle Peggy Hill, my favorite thing from canyon.


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