Saturday, August 19, 2006

Sudoku's Roots Not What You'd Think

(MS) - There's a craze that has quickly swept across the United States in recent years. No, it's not where a trio of middle-aged music-industry veterans point out the foibles and successes of aspiring singers in front of a national television audience. It's a fad that is taking up space in newspapers, Web sites and Internet chat rooms all over the country, if not the world.

We're talking about sudoku, a puzzle that often sits right next to the crossword (or in close proximity) in your favorite newspaper. Though numbers-based, the game is not actually rooted in arithmetic (a misconception that probably scares off many more potential participants), but rather in problem solving.

At first glance, a sudoku puzzle looks like a crossword where the answers aren't made up of letters, but numbers. A sudoku grid consists of 81 cells (9 columns, 9 rows), some of which, called "givens," are already filled in, and the goal of the puzzle is to complete the grid in such a manner that every row, every column and every block has exactly one instance of each number between 1 and 9. Easy, right? Not exactly.

The puzzle's current and growing popularity is due largely to its difficulty - a brain teaser that tests problem- solving skills as opposed to one's knowledge of the obscure, which is often the case with crosswords. Though many seem to enjoy the puzzle and the daily challenge it presents, few know how and when it came about.

An Unlikely Origin

If participants think sudoku comes from some mystical Far-Eastern origin, they're only about half right. The name "sudoku" is Japanese. "Su" means "number" in Japanese and "Doku" refers to the single place on the board where the number fits into. But the game actually has its roots in Europe and the mystical land known as . Indianapolis?

Though more associated with the Indy 500 or sports legends such as Larry Bird and Peyton Manning, Indiana is credited as the birthplace of sudoku as well. While it cannot be completely confirmed due to its presumed inventor's death nearly 20 years ago, sudoku's roots trace back to an Indianapolis man named Howard Garns, who began designing sudoku puzzles for Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games way back in 1979. The puzzles were based upon the concept of "Latin Squares" created by an 18th-century Swiss mathematician named Leonhard Euler.

Though Garns passed away 10 years later and was never officially credited with sudoku, a puzzles editor for The New York Times noticed the puzzles only appeared in certain Dell issues and not in others. A quick examination of who edited the issues when the puzzles did appear turned up Garns' name. The The New York Times editor assumed Garns was responsible and gave Garns credit for jumpstarting this latest puzzle craze.

The Far East came back into the picture when a Japanese puzzle giant Nikoli, Inc. printed a version of the puzzles, which occurred in the mid-1980s. From there, the puzzles really took off when they hit the United Kingdom, a process that was thanks largely to a former judge named Wayne Gould. On a visit to Japan, Gould saw the puzzles and later persuaded the editor of The Times of London to publish puzzles Gould himself created on a program he developed. The editor's decision to publish the puzzles in 2004 proved a landmark decision, as the puzzles' instant popularity in Britain. They traveled across the pond in 2005 and have been a phenomenon in the U.S. ever since.

There's no guessing as to how sudoku will develop further. Currently there are variants on the 9 by 9 grid, and some puzzle publishers have used letters and symbols in lieu of numbers. There are also 4 by 4 grids to provide easier problem solving.


Sudoku Puzzle

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