Sudoku National Championship

Sudoku has become a big pastime in the United States. This year, Philadelphia is host to the nation's first ever Sudoku National Championship, where the little puzzles are the focus.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

As you just heard, Will Shortz was a busy man this weekend. He was the host of the National Sudoku Championship in Philadelphia.

Until a few years ago, you probably never heard of Sudoku. Now, it seems just about everyone's hooked on the number puzzle and it's gone big time. There's an annual world championship. And as of this weekend, there's an annual national championship. The Philadelphia Inquirer sponsored yesterday's Sudoku competition and it was a hit. Organizers say it was the largest live puzzle tournament ever held.

Joel Rose of member station WHYY has the numbers.

JOEL ROSE: More than 800 players competed in the daylong championship. They range in age from 6 to 87. But the only thing they had in common was a love of Sudoku.

Unidentified Man #1: When I first tried it, it blew my mind just trying to solve it. Once I had then I was hooked.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's a mind game and it's me against the puzzle and I'm going to win. I do them until I'm finished. That doesn't matter how long it takes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: Once you start the puzzle, you want to finish it. And then when you finished it. And then, once you finish it, you want to see if you can do harder ones.

Unidentified Woman #2: I've spent a year and a half working on my technique. So, yes, it is an addiction to get better. It's a lot like golf because you have to beat your self.

ROSE: The object of the game is to fill in an 81-square grid with numbers, not just any numbers, of course. The grid is broken down into nine smaller boxes of nine squares each. Some of the squares are filled at the start and some of them aren't. The player has to find a way to plug each row, column, and box with the numbers one through nine as quickly as possible.

Sudoku has been around for years, but it didn't take off until 2004. That's when a London newspaper started publishing Sudoku puzzles. Now, it's a daily habit for millions of Americans including Bryan Quin(ph) of Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania.

Mr. BRYAN QUIN (Resident, Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania): I am constantly doing this. I do a couple every day. And I said, you know what, if I can compete against myself, but now I want to go and see how do I stuck up against other people that do it on a routine basis.

ROSE: And what do you find out?

Mr. QUIN: It has been a very humbling experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUIN: I'm not as fast as I thought I was.

WILL SHORTZ: All right, we're up to the advance playoff for $10,000 and a trip to the World Sudoku Championship.

ROSE: By the afternoon, most of the participants were reduced to spectators. The best players took the stage for the final round of the championship. Puzzle master Will Shortz called it the hardest puzzle of the day.

SHORTZ: It will be Thomas in the middle, Tammy on the left, Sarah(ph) on the right. And if everyone's ready - 20 minutes. Ready. Set. Solve.

ROSE: Tammy McLeod of Los Angeles jumped out to an early lead. But it was reigning world champion Thomas Snyder of Palo Alto, California who wound up on top.

SHORTZ: He's done in 7:07.

(Soundbite of applause)

ROSE: With that, Snyder took home the $10,000 prize and the ticket to Goa, India for next year's Sudoku World Championship. He says there's a lot more pressure on you when you're solving puzzles on a white board at a tournament than there is when you're sketching it out in the privacy of your own home.

Mr. THOMAS SNYDER (Winner, The Philadelphia Inquirer Sudoku National Championship): The context you're used to solving a puzzle is on a piece of paper in front of you, no one is watching, you know, every move you make. It's like, oh my god, if I make a mistake, you know, I wrote the wrong seven, you know. So you have these thoughts racing in your mind.

ROSE: Thomas Snyder didn't make a mistake. He finished more than three minutes ahead of the runner up. Will Shortz was impressed by Snyder's performance and by the turnout of the event.

SHORTZ: The craze was in 2005 and '06. Most crazes just die after the craze is over. I think Sudoku is an exception. It's here forever. It's like a crossword puzzle. It's going to become a permanent part of our culture.

ROSE: The Philadelphia Inquirer has announced it will host the 2nd National Sudoku Championship next year.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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