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Your number’s up

There is a monster on the loose, and it is out to eat your brain. Pitiless in its advance and deadly in its cunning, sudoku, a seemingly simple numbers game, has become the biggest puzzle craze to hit the world since Rubik’s Cube.

It’s all over the newspapers, spreading across the Internet and heading for television in Britain, yet its phenomenal popularity raises some puzzling questions.

Such as why, in a high-speed, hyper-technological age — without noticeable fanfare or promotion — would millions of people become addicted to a game invented more than 200 years ago by a blind Swiss mathematician?

Has math phobia, so widespread among old and young, gone taken a jump? Can sudoku interest kids in numbers, doing for school math what Harry Potter has done for reading in the age of TV and computers?

“Sudoku is bound to make kids interested in math, even those who run away from the subject, as it is very enjoyable,” says Amal Bhaumik, former senior math teacher, South Point High School.

“A child needs to juggle a lot of factors simultaneously to solve a sudoku puzzle. So it sharpens his reasoning and computation skills.”

“Puzzles are a very interesting way of making a child discover underlying patterns in things, which is what math is all about,” says Debkumar Mitra, research director, Derek O’ Brien & Associates.

“Unfortunately, in India, we encourage children to learn by rote. Sudoku is just one way of getting a child interested in numbers as he unknowingly discovers a lot of underlying patterns.”

The National Council for Educational Research and Training, involved in a syllabus revamp to make learning enjoyable, might take note.

Why is sudoku fun? The simple answer might be that puzzles are fun and new puzzles even more fun. But the truth is more complicated.

Humans have been puzzling since the dawn of time, and the ability to think logically has long been recognised by science as a key element of natural selection. All societies puzzle but, as a rule, the most successful ones puzzle more.

“You cannot find a culture, no matter how technologically primitive or advanced, that does not have puzzle traditions,” says Marcel Danesi, professor of semiotics at Toronto University and author of The Puzzle Instinct.

In this sense, sudoku is neither new nor old. The game requires you to fill in a 9x9 square grid (broken down into nine mini grids) with the numbers one to nine, arranged in such a way that each line, column and mini grid contains one of each number. The objective is childishly simple, yet infuriatingly difficult to achieve.

Yet ominous reports pour in of “sudoku seizure”. In workplaces in Britain, stories are circulating of people unable to make their children’s breakfasts, leave for the office or go to bed at night until they have solved their sudoku.

“I don’t think it will be a problem as long as it remains an enthusiasm and doesn’t become an addiction,” says Prof Mark Griffith, a psychologist from Nottingham Trent University. “An enthusiasm gives you something. An addiction takes something away.”
Sudoku — or something very similar to it — was invented in the 1780s by Leonhard Euler, a mathematical virtuoso from Basle. When he lost his sight in early middle age and was unable to work from books, he developed the ability to compute complex sums in his head and a talent for composing puzzles.

He invented a grid-based puzzle and named it “Latin squares”. It was, in all material aspects, identical to sudoku, yet it remained barely noticed until it turned up — renamed the “number place game” — in America in the 1980s.

It was spotted by Nobuhiko Kanamoto, employee of a Japanese puzzle magazine. The Japanese made the game slightly more difficult and renamed it sudoku, meaning “number single”. Today there are at least five Japanese sudoku magazines with a total circulation of 660,000.

It began appearing in The Times, London last November and has since spread to every newspaper. A mobile phone version is up and running. TV pilots are being planned. Certainly nothing comparable has been seen since 100 million Rubik’s Cubes were sold in the early 1980s.

Crime writer P.D. James has suggested that puzzles ultimately serve our desire for “a restoration of order”. We want, she says, to know that things have a core logic and a definitive answer.

So they are out there, in every home, on every Metro train, in every office. Scribbling, scratching, swearing... sudokuing. Will it be the puzzle that ate the world?