Saturday, October 22, 2005

The wordless wonder

Sudoku is not the first number craze the world has known. Aditya Rishi figures out the puzzles that have driven "the whole world crazy" at different points of time.

A whole world is working on Sudoku, even if you havenít got the whiff yet. Never tell your boss that he is wrong, especially if he insists that Sudoku has become popular. Still, if you were I, make sure that he doesnít have a pencil in his hand.

Sudoku, the wordless crossword, was born yesterday. Everyone loves to koochi-ku an infant, especially when the name comes from a foreign phrase, like the Japanese "suji wadokushin ni kagiru", meaning, "only single numbers allowed". First, you solve it for kicks and, soon, it becomes tough to live without your daily dope.

Sudoku is not the first number craze the world has known. In 1878, Europe shut down its businesses for the first time since the invasion by Mongol King Genghis Khan. Sam Lloyd, Americaís greatest puzzle expert, "drove the whole world crazy" with his 14-15 variant on the "Puzzle of 15".

This puzzle comprised 15 square pieces that you could slide around in a square box that was big enough to contain 16 pieces. You were required to sort the numbers in ascending order without taking the pieces out of the box (sliding was the only option). In Samís 14-15 puzzle, the empty square was positioned bottom right.

The pieces were numbered in order from left to right and from top to bottom; only the pieces numbered 14 and 15 were in reverse order and you had to restore the order. For the correct solution a prize of $ 1,000 was offered, but Sam kept that money in his pocket till he died. It kept soldiers so occupied that they refused to march against the enemy and wars were put on hold.

As Rubikís cube turned the 1970s around on its head, a world championship had to be introduced for the Rubikomanics. In the 1920s, when the crossword puzzle came across in India, few suspected that work would suffer down the order in offices.

A crossword puzzle can have not only an unlimited number of arrays and themes, but also personality, where a setter could cheer you up with a careful selection of clues and answers.

Numbers may not have a character, but these are part of the universal language of mathematics. The Sudoku grid is easy to form: nine squares, three in each row and every square should have further nine squares, three in each row, and some of the squares would contain numbers. Creating a crossword puzzle grid, though, is difficult; you have to follow all the rules and make sure the clue-numbering is right, which is as tedious as it is unsatisfying.

Lately, you get crosswords where you have clues like "The Sound of" and the answer is "Music", dumbing down that has led the world to rediscover Sudoku, which also lends itself so well to speed competitions.

Sudoku puzzles first appeared in Dell Pencil Puzzles and Games Magazine, in May, 1979, and the inventor was said to be Howard Garns, an architect from Indianapolis, who was 74 when he sold his first puzzle (then called "Number Place"). The editor of a Japanese magazine took the puzzles back to his country and published these under the name of Sudoku and in the last year, it spread around and became a money-spinner for newspapers around the world.

The Sudoku story, actually, begins in 1741, when Professor Hans Sudoku, regarded by his contemporaries as the most boring man in the world, attempted to liven up his dinner parties by placing versions of todayís Sudoku puzzles beside guests on the dinner-table. The dropout rate after the first course fell by 31 per cent. It took 261 more years before the puzzles caught on.

Leonhard Euler was blind, but he had a third eye, with which he discovered hidden mathematics. However, his Latin Squares were a simple 9x9 grid without the secondary grid we see in classic Sudoku puzzles. If these were original, no one knows, but the grid sure did travel around the world, and to Japan.

It takes you barely half an hour to solve a Sudoku puzzle categorised as hard; with practice, though, you may take longer to solve an easy one, but the challenge may lie in writing a computer program to solve Sudoku. Even more challenging is if you create your own Sudoku. Side effects: chewed pencils, scratched head and a slight hair loss.

Tailpiece: David and Victoria Beckham announced in May that their new baby, due out soon, was to be called Sudoku Beckham. Associates say the baby is named after what the couple was doing when the baby was conceived. "Koochi-ku, Sudoku."