Wed, Aug 13, 2014 - Page 5 News List

Sudoku players vie in solemn silence

The Guardian, LONDON

In an ornately decorated conference room in Croydon, 180 heads are bowed.

“Everyone’s got a script?” the invigilator asks. “You may begin now.”

As booklets are turned over in unison and concentrated silence fills the room, interrupted only by the frantic scratching of pencils, one thing becomes clear: Sudoku is very a solemn business.

This is the ninth World Sudoku Championships, this year being held in the UK for the first time. Teams of four from 34 different countries, from Taiwan to South Korea, Greece to the US, have traveled thousands of kilometers to a suburban hotel in Surrey to compete for the glory of the title of world sudoku champion.

Held over two days, the competitors will take part in 11 45-minute rounds, grappling with more than 60 different varieties that — with names such as killer sudoku, thermo sudoku and even sandwich sudoku — are a far cry from your garden-variety newspaper puzzle.

Eight of the rounds are done individually, while in three others competitors work to solve the puzzles in their national teams. The top 10 individuals then enter the heated playoffs, where the winner was to be decided last night.

With no prize money, no controversies and no recorded incidences of cheating, this may be the most civilized competition in the world.

The gender ratio of this year’s competition is heavily skewed toward men, with women making up only about 30 percent of this year’s competitors and only one female world champion on record.

Competitors this year range from seven to 65 and upward.

The British team — made up of Mark Goodliffe, 48; Michael Collins, 41; David McNeill, 50 and eight-time winner of Countdown, Neil Zussman, 25 — looked dejected at a break. The previous round, it emerges, was “a total nightmare.”

“Between the first 20 minutes of the fourth round, Michael, David and me picked up zero points between us, which is appalling in the context of this game. It’s not just bad luck, it’s a big disaster and it’s gone all wrong,” Goodlife said.

They were not alone. Lu Pei, a 38-year-old elementary-school teacher competing for Taiwan for the first time this year, was also lamenting his own puzzle failures.

“I enjoyed it very much but now I’m a little sad because my scores were very low,” he said. “I looked around and I couldn’t believe people solve them so quickly — people around me solved them all when I had only done one or two.”

Shaking his head with a sigh, he added: “Maybe I need to practice my skills.”

Alan O’Donnell, chair of the UK Puzzle Association and organizer of this year’s championships, emphasized that the event was run purely by volunteers who simply loved puzzles.

“But we’ve got record numbers coming this year; China broke the records last year, but we’ve smashed that. This is the most-all encompassing sport in the world — we’ve got a mix of people of all ages, genders and nationalities competing at an international standard,” he said.

“People come here, not for cash prizes, but because they love the challenge of completing the puzzles and being part of the international puzzling community,” O’Donnell said.

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