World Sudoku tour


It is the year 2009. The streets are quiet, as most have long deserted the open air for their spots around the plasma screen.

The anticipation is electric. Tonight is the championship round to determine the Cardinal of Numbers, the Dictator of Digits.

Who will be crowned the world’s greatest Sudoku champion?


• • •

While my friend Ginny dreams of conquering the poker circuit (so-o-o 2002), I have but one aspiration: to tour on the Sudoku circuit.

Poker, a game that’s been around for centuries, managed to be both compelling and profitable in a new gladiatorial arena: television. Who’s to say that a 9-by-9 grid can’t attract a mass TV audience, too? After all, it’s the hottest thing to hit newspapers since Ziggy.

Naturally, I’ll need sponsors to play professionally. The patches adorning my custom-tailored satin jacket could promote accounting firms, HP calculators, inkjet pencils and TV shows (“Numb3rs” on CBS, naturally, and “4 8 15 16 23 42” for “Lost”). My ballcap would prominently herald the services of NetZero, which stands out, since zero isn’t actually part of the game.

• • •

The nine finalists enter the pit. Heavily favored is Andy “Abacus” Thornton, who sports his trademark oversize binary clock dangling from a braided gold chain around his neck. Defending champion Chandrashekhar Singh is also here, back after recovering from a severe hand cramp in the early rounds.

The oddsmakers and numerologists think Thornton is the pencil pusher to beat. But in Digitdome, whoever’s got grid tonight will be No. 1.

• • •

I’ve been working these addictive little puzzles nonstop for months, usually at bedtime. I can do them with the TV on, but I work faster without distraction. The worst is when I’m working through a section, and the phone rings. Trying to pick up later is almost like starting over.

Boggle may be over in three minutes, but a tricky puzzle can nag at you for hours. (I had one puzzle I couldn’t crack for weeks, but I never gave up on it, or me. Except, I gave up on me long ago.)

The easy puzzles are simple warm-ups for me. I test myself by doing them without filling in dots as guesses, an absolute necessity on the tough puzzles. If one proves too challenging, I skip to the next puzzle and come back later.

I always return. I am a completist.

That’s one of the little highs, having all 81 squares filled with the only solution possible. But one of the lows is that if you did the same puzzle in a week, you wouldn’t remember anything about the solution. (I bet if you did the same crossword puzzle a second time, it’d go much faster.)

• • •

Fans at home are screaming at their sets. “Three! Three!” “No, seven, you idiot!” “Why isn’t he filling in that ninth box? Doesn’t he see it’s wide open?!” “What is that, a two? A seven? You call that a two?”

The frenetic pace is killing them, while the players themselves appear calm, methodical, tuning out everything but the lattice of integers. Thornton’s early burst has stalled, as he hovers over the lower right corner. Singh is still filling in boxes steadily.

• • •

You often go backwards. As a row or column or section fills in, you revise your guesses. You don’t usually do that in crosswords or word searches or Jumble.Over and over, you count one through nine, up and down. You track combinations in your head: 1-4-5-7-8, 2-3-5, 6-8-9-3. You look for patterns in the dots, because there are no coincidences in Sudoku.

Who really wants to watch a bunch of nerdy number jockeys fill in a grid? But, they said that about a bunch of grimy cocky card sharps looking at kings-over-jacks while tallying their piles of chips.

If I don’t burn out on the game, I’ll turn pro next year and hit the circuit.

• • •

No one can believe it. This kid, this no-name from Alabama is heading toward the finish. Even Thornton, who led most of the way, is panicking.

Wade the Wonk is scribbling furiously, clinging to a busted pencil to the bitter end. Three, eight, eight, three, five, NINE! He’s done it! The referee confirms it. Wade has won the Sudoku crown!


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