Surviving Sudoku

Wayne Gould has gotten rich off Sudoku. I'm talking many millions rich, and it's all happened in the last two years -- but still, this past March, I had to feel a little sorry for the guy.

Will Shortz had just introduced Gould at the 29th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but the retired New Zealand judge received an embarrassingly tepid amount of applause from the audience of hardcore crossword solvers and writers. Why?

"There is a backlash against Sudoku," as Newsday crossword editor Stan Newman puts it. And, apparently, against Gould, who ignited global Sudoku mania by marching unannounced into the offices of the London Times in 2004 and hooking their features editor on his puzzle. I found Gould charming in a professorial, absentminded genius sort of way, but his talk bombed with the crossword crowd in Stamford, Connecticut. "British Airways sent a memo around telling flight attendants not to solve Sudoku during takeoffs and landings," he quipped, but almost nobody laughed.

Gould's appearance at the tournament nicely illustrated the love-hate relationship the U.S. crossword community has with Sudoku. First, a little love: "I don't solve crosswords anymore," top crossword writer Joe DiPietro says. "And for the first time in my life, if I am solving a crossword, I don't care about finishing it. I do care about finishing Sudoku, though."

And now, a little hate: "Right when they started passing out Sudoku, I headed for the bar," veteran cruciverbalist Rich Silvestri told me, regarding the Sudoku tournament Gould held in Stamford after his talk. Top crossword solver Amy Reynaldo wrote on her blog about Gould's contest: "I was most of the way through the first one when I made some sort of error and said, ‘Screw it. There's a bar in this hotel,' and went off to find socializing in lieu of Sudokuing."

There are two reasons why Sudoku drives so many crossword experts to drink. First, the artistic reason: Some puzzle writers view Sudoku as too boring, a mindless game you can practically brute-force a solution out of any time you want, like a word search. This criticism isn't entirely fair, though, since Sudoku, like crosswords, can be calibrated to very high levels of solving difficulty, and there is a certain mathematical elegance in the deep logic required to unravel key areas of a well-made, tough Sudoku.

The deeper reason for the backlash is sheer resentment: Many of us have spent serious chunks of our lives honing the craft of crossword-puzzle writing, and along comes this computer-generated fad that's winning the hearts and minds of the masses. If everyone loves Sudoku so much, who needs us anymore? With one click of his mouse, Gould -- who provides his puzzles free to 400 papers around the world as a marketing plan to sell his Sudoku-generating program -- quite possibly entertains more people than all the crossword writers in the United States combined. And because Sudoku isn't language-specific, Gould's reach is international to a much greater degree than ours is. Hence, the hurt feelings -- and the hostility. Pity the successful; they pay for it somehow.

How have American crossword pros reacted to this ego-crushing Sudoku tsunami? Some have utterly ignored it, hoping the fad will pass, but I can tell they feel like people who've rented during a real-estate boom. Others have used their crossword creds to ride the wave: Will Shortz's books of Sudoku have sold a mind-blowing 5 million copies and counting in the past year. They're books of high quality, to be sure, but high-quality Sudoku are easy to have a computer churn out, and anyone can put out a book of them (many have, including me). But in a suddenly popular field with no established gurus, Shortz's name, emblazoned in huge print on the books' covers, is the brand to which converting crossword fans have flocked in droves: One of his titles was the top-selling Sudoku book in the country last year.

In a recent New York Magazine profile, Shortz made sure to evince no ambivalence about his newfound cash cow. I wish I could do the same. The truth is, even though I've got two Sudoku titles of my own on the shelves, crosswords are still very much where my heart is. Even while hedging my bets, I catch myself secretly hoping that the recent theater release of Wordplay, a hit documentary about Shortz and the Stamford tournament, will put crosswords back in the limelight -- and shove Sudoku decisively to the back burner.

But Sudoku may not be ready to play second fiddle yet; if anything, in fact, the game's popularity seems to still be rising. This has led to a somewhat comical scramble in the puzzle biz to identify the next big thing in an expected post-Sudoku wave of Japanese logic puzzles. A Sudoku cousin called Kakuro seems the most likely candidate: "Hooked on Sudoku? Discover the Newest Puzzle Craze!" shouts the cover of a recent Kakuro book.

A personal story about this marketing mania: Earlier this year, my publisher said he wanted me to write a book of a well-known Sudoku/crossword hybrid puzzle. This specific variety of puzzle has been known for decades in the United States as "Alphacodes" or "Coded Crosswords." They've been a favorite of mine since I was a kid, so I eagerly agreed to do the book.

"But we need a Japanese name," the publisher told me.

It's a language-specific puzzle that's never been seen in Japan, I replied. It doesn't have a Japanese name.

"Then come up with one," he shot back. "Marketing wants a Japanese name. Can you have it to me by Tuesday?"

So I called my girlfriend, who's the director of a school that teaches English to visiting foreign students.

"Put a Japanese student on the phone," I told her.

She put a guy on named Take, who'd been in the States about two years and spoke halfway decent English. I asked him what the Japanese word for "codebreaking" was, since that's the best one-word English description of what Alphacodes are all about.

But no matter how I explained the meaning to him -- you know Take, in time of war you send secret messages, and the other side tries to understand them -- I couldn't get the idea across. So I asked him to hand the phone back to Lori.

She found a guy named Yuki, who'd been in the States six years and spoke lovely English.

"Codebreaking?" he replied. "In Japanese, that's kaidoku."

How perfect was that? It sounds so much like Sudoku that people just might start associating it with its better-known cousin. Marketing loved it. The puzzle now has its name -- will it be the next Sudoku?

No one knows, but we crossword pros are trying. The big guy to watch, though, may be Gould himself. He told me in March that he's confident he can replicate Sudoku's success, and that he's already doing early work in publicizing another logic puzzle (though he wouldn't say which puzzle it is). "I think Sudoku is only the first in what will be a series of popular logic puzzles," Gould said. Which means us crossword folk may be in for a few more body blows to our prestige and self-esteem.

Sudoku, we wish America knew how to quit you. But we realize it's not likely to happen.

Matt Gaffney is the author of Gridlock: Crossword Puzzles and the Mad Geniuses Who Create Them. His crosswords have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Slate. Portions of this article were adapted from Gridlock.

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