Do Brits Love This Puzzle? Let Them Count the Ways

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Times Staff Writer

The rules are simple: “Fill in the grid so that every row, every column, and every 3-by-3 box contains the digits 1 through 9.” But from that brief description, aggravation sets in.

Sudoku is a Japanese word that, roughly translated, means “unique number.” In Britain, in little more than six months, it has gone from obscurity, to fad, to mania.

The innocuous-looking logic puzzles, first introduced in November by the Times of London and then taken up by almost every other major newspaper here, are causing commuters to miss their stops and students to skip their homework.

Their runaway popularity has stunned almost everyone involved. And the hero (or villain) who brought the game to Britain is an unlikely figure: a longtime judge in Hong Kong who was looking for an interesting diversion in his retirement.

Wayne Gould, 59, a New Zealander, who had given up his seat on the criminal court bench when the territory was handed back by Britain to China eight years ago, picked up a copy of a Sudoku magazine during a vacation in Japan. Even though he could not read the language, he was curious about the puzzle book he said was flying off Japanese store shelves.

The puzzle is composed of a 9-by-9-square grid, divided into nine smaller grids with nine squares in each. Some of the squares are already filled, providing the only clues to solving the puzzle. Depending on the generosity or the paucity of the clues, the puzzles can be easy, challenging or mind-numbingly difficult.

Gould figured out how to work the puzzles by comparing them to the solutions printed in the back of his Japanese book. And after that, he was hooked enough that he used his hobbyist skills in computer programming to write a program that would generate a lifetime’s worth of puzzles.

From there, he set out to sell Sudoku to a skeptical world.

“I had two objectives,” he recounted in a telephone interview this week from New Zealand. “One was to spread the word about the puzzle.

“I thought it was astonishing that it was so popular in Japan and yet the rest of the world didn’t seem to know anything about it,” he said.

“The second objective was arising from the amusement of the fact that a judge could possibly sell a commercial computer program, and earn a little bit of money from doing it. You don’t normally associate judges with being computer programmers.”

Gould, who frequently travels to Britain, set his sights on the Times of London, but he knew it was going to be hard.

“If you phone up someone in the Times and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a puzzle to show you,’ you can probably hear the groans from the other side of the world,” he said. “But I had done a little bit of homework. I had prepared a mock-up of what the puzzle would look like in that day’s paper ... so when I showed the paper to the features editor he could see immediately what I was talking about.”

Features editor Michael Harvey was sold, and the British daily launched the game as So Doku with a two-page spread on Nov. 12. Britain’s hyper-competitive national newspaper scene being what it is, the Mail came out with its own version within three days, and before long all national newspapers except the Financial Times were on the bandwagon, each loudly hyping their puzzle as the best.

In a sly parody, the Guardian newspaper one day ran a Sudoku puzzle on every page of one of its supplement sections, announcing that it was the only paper whose puzzles were handwritten on the slopes of Mt. Fuji.

The puzzles are also available on the Internet and can even be downloaded on mobile phones. Several newspapers are organizing nationwide competitions, and the bug is spreading from Britain to Australia, South Africa and the United States. (The Los Angeles Times is among the U.S. newspapers planning to add Sudoku. It is scheduled to start next week, running Monday through Saturday on the same page as the crossword puzzle.)

Some newspapers are using Gould’s program; others are creating their own puzzles or using other syndication companies or buying them from Japanese publishers.

Tim Preston, publishing director of Puzzler Media, Britain’s biggest seller of crossword and cryptogram puzzles in books, magazines and syndication, said Sudoku itself can be traced to the work of a 18th century mathematician, Leonhard Euler.

The Basel, Switzerland, native, who spent much of his life serving the Russian court in St. Petersburg, enjoyed posing puzzles. His vast output included the Latin Square, arrangements of groups on numbers in grids that do not repeat vertically or horizontally. (Euler was said to be so brilliant that he was able to carry out complex mathematical calculations and construct his theorem proofs, using his memory, after he had gone blind.)

For many years, Latin Squares were solely the province of mathematicians. But in the 1970s, the U.S. publisher Dell put them in puzzle books in the United States, calling the puzzle “Number Place.”

“With a name like that it was also destined for obscurity,” said Preston, but it eventually made its way to Japan, picked up by a publisher called Nikoli, which renamed it Sudoku.

In Japan, he said, “they’re all made by hand, which is slightly curious. They have a lot of authors. It is a matter of great pride to get your puzzle into one of Nikoli’s magazines. You’d think a high-tech nation like that, the Japanese, would have probably come up with programs to do these puzzles.... But they claim that handmade puzzles are much better.”

Although Preston’s company had been buying Sudoku puzzles from Nikoli for several years and publishing them in some of its 36 puzzle books and magazines in Britain, he concedes that it is was Gould’s venture into newspapers that really set the Sudoku market on fire.

“The thing about most puzzles, once you get inside them and you know how to do them, they can be quite addictive,” Preston said.

Pass through the aisle of almost any London subway car or red double-decker bus during rush hour, and one or more people will be staring intently at a Sudoku.

Nicola Markham, 40, said her husband seemed addicted. “He’s doing it all the time.... Walking around the kitchen doing it and asking me to help.”

“It’s the kind of thing that makes his brain work. He’s a lawyer; he needs another outlet I think for his intellect.”

Gould, who has been giving his puzzles to newspapers to generate Internet sales of his computer program, was coy about how much money he expected to make. Moving between homes in New Zealand, Hong Kong, Thailand, and New Hampshire (where his wife is a college professor), he allows only that he is “wealthier than I was.”

“It makes life interesting,” he said, “if you can change direction every couple of decades.”

Times staff writer Sarah Price Brown in London contributed to this report.