Who Needs Sudoku?

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Every decade or so, a fad comes out of nowhere and sweeps the world. It helps if it's inane: Frisbees and hula hoops (the '50s), polyester pant suits ('70s), the Macarena ('90s). Then the fever subsides and disappears, leaving parents to explain to their kids what the commotion was all about. The usual lame response: "It was...fun."

The latest fad is Sudoku, a number game in a box, In less than two years, the puzzle has won a popularity that verges on the epidemic. It now appears daily in newspapers on all six inhabited continents and has spawned hundreds of magazines, not to mention dozens of books that elbow traditional puzzle volumes off the Barnes & Noble shelves.

What might give Sudoku brain cred to a veteran puzzle-solver like me? Two things. About a dozen of the book versions of the game carry the august authorship of Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword, and star of the spiffy new documentary Wordplay, which opens this weekend in select cities. And among Sudoku's greatest fans is my sister-in-law, Pat Thompson Corliss.

Pat, who next Tuesday celebrates her the 45th anniversary of her wedding to my brother Paul (note to readers doing math computations: he is waaaaaay older than I am, though it's said he looks younger), was the person who introduced me some decades back to the crossword magazines put out by Dell. At the time, Dell was the gold standard in puzzle publications (as well as a leader both in mass-market paperbacks and in comic books, especially those produced by Disney). I was hooked, instantly and eternally, not so much by the crosswords as by the number and word games that filled out the Dell pages. So I figured I owed her, and Shortz, a grudging attempt to get with the Sudoku program.

Based on a Japanese phrase for "single numbers," Sudoku is actually an American invention. In 1979 Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games featured a puzzle called Number Place: nine boxes of nine boxes —imagine a big tic-tac-toe board with a tiny tic-tac-toe board in each square. The object is to fill in the numbers 1 through 9, nine times, so that no number is repeated in a horizontal or vertical line, or in any of the small boxes.

Number Place (whose unacknowledged constructor, Shortz later determined, was Howard Garns, a retired architect from Indianapolis) ran once in a while in the Dell magazines, as well in the much slicker, savvier Games magazine, of which Shortz was an editor. The puzzle also ran in the magazines of Penny Press, a Norwalk, Ct., outfit that had the smarts to hire as editors some of the bright young folks from Games. The Penny Press magazines contained a more attractive mix of posers, and I found myself spending much more time with each issue of, say, Variety Puzzles, than with Pencil Puzzles & Word Games. (Apparently, others did too. A few years ago, Penny Press took control of Dell — another example of an upstart engulfing and devouring a staid old American institution.)

Those of us who wasted fruitful hours filling in the blanks in all these publications determined that Number Place was a pleasant enough diversion, if not nearly so demanding or compelling as Cross Sums (aka Sum Totals), a crossword with numbers, or that sublimely torturous form of the crossword known as the Cryptic, about which more later.

Then the Japanese picked up the puzzle; a New Zealander named Wayne Gould put them into his own magazine and peddled the idea to the Times of London. In a trice, like home electronics, and autos and anime, this Japanese imitation overtook the American original, making Sudoku the Toyota of puzzles.

Lady Pat wants to convince me that Sudoku is the caviar of puzzles, an ideal mind expander, opening a world of numerical possibilities with a minimum of means. All right. I acknowledge the game's elegance. And, heaven knows, I'm a number freak. Attach a few of them to a pitcher's or batter's record, and I'm off in Rotisserie or SABRmetrics dreamland. Ahh, slugging percentage! Oooh, WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched)! Those numbers have meaning, personality, clout. They lend biographical nuance and historical comparison to the game of baseball.

But what do you learn from Sudoku? Where's the allusive fun? The numbers in a Sudoku box are dry, curt, numbing; they live only in their own, square, self-contained universe; they refer to nothing but themselves. Numbers lack the allusiveness of words, their reverberations, their playfulness — how they rub up against one another and transform themselves. Add an S to comic and get cosmic; add one to laughter and get slaughter. You don't get this alchemy with numbers.

Playing with numbers is the job of Nobel Prize-winning mathematicians. Wordplay is more like an obsessive hobby, a benign infection, a sweet kink of the mind, a kind of delightful dyslexia, In Wordplay, puzzle creator Trip Payne recalls that, when he moved from Manhattan to Fort Lauderdale a few years ago, he couldn't help mentioning to his new boyfriend that Intercoastal (the word for Florida's inland waterway) is an anagram for Altercation. In the movie, we see veteran constructor Merl Reagle driving past a Dunkin' Donuts shop and saying, "Put the D at the end, you get Unkind Donuts, Which I've had a few of in my day." Spotting a Noah's Ark, he says, "You switch the S and the H around, that's 'No! A shark!'" From ark to shark, Genesis to Mi>Jaws, in one flick of an agile brain.

When Humbert Humbert sadly apostrophized his absent inamorata by crying, "Oh my Lolita, I have only words to play with!", he was selling words short. Vladimir Nabokov, the verboleptic who dreamed up Humbert, surely knew this, as do his readers: Lolita is the wordplay lover's favorite novel. Numbers have their power; they can be squared, cubed, extended to infinity. But they can't match the universe of ideas and feelings that come into being when letters collide. Words create worlds.

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