Maki Kaji, known as the "Godfather of Sudoku," passed away at the age of 69

Posted on Aug 17, 2021
Maki Kaji, known as the "Godfather of Sudoku," passed away at the age of 69

Maki Kaji, a university dropout who transformed a numbers game into one of the world's most famous logic puzzles and became known as the "Godfather of Sudoku," died on August 10 at his home in Tokyo. He was 69 years old at the time.

His death was announced on Tuesday by Nikoli, the puzzle business he co-founded. The firm said in a statement that the reason was bile duct carcinoma.

Mr. Kaji said in a 2008 address that he initially "fell in love" with the game Number Place in 1984. He called it Sudoku.

“I wanted to make a Japanese name,” he said. “I made the name in approximately 25 seconds.” He was in a hurry to go to a horse racing. He said that he had not anticipated the moniker to endure. (“Sudoku” approximately translates to “single numbers.”)

By then, he and two boyhood friends had founded the business that would eventually become Nikoli, which claims to be one of the most prolific worldwide producers of puzzle magazines and books. In the mid-2000s, Nikoli helped launch Sudoku into the public by publishing what it claims was Japan's first puzzle magazine.

The business does not develop many new problems; for example, an American is said to have created an early version of Sudoku. However, the actual roots of the game remain unknown. Some attribute it to Leonhard Euler, an 18th-century Swiss mathematician. Others believe that the concept originated in China and spread to the Arab area through India in the eighth or ninth centuries.

Mr. Kaji's business popularized Sudoku and other similar puzzles worldwide, regardless of how the problem was developed. Nikoli's secret, he revealed to The New York Times in 2007, was that it mainly evaluated and improved existing problems.

“I want to make Nikoli the world's source for puzzle games,” he added. “We have a lot more puzzles where Sudoku originated from.”

He was unsuccessful in pitching the Sudoku problem to publishers in New York and London in the late 1990s, he told The Times. However, within a decade, the problem had been reprinted in hundreds of newspapers across the world, earning millions of dollars.

According to Nikoli, an estimated 200 million individuals in 100 countries have completed the puzzle, which includes filling in a numbered grid. Each year, a global championship is held.

According to the business, in 2017, an elderly man living in temporary accommodation in Otsuchi, a town in northern Japan, following the catastrophic 2011 earthquake, contacted Mr. Kaji to tell him that his riddles were too tough. Mr. Kaji was motivated by this to develop puzzles that are more accessible to youngsters and the elderly.

Mr. Kaji was born on October 8, 1951, in Sapporo, Japan. According to a book he authored on the Sudoku global craze, his father was an engineer at a telecom firm and his mother worked at a kimono store. He graduated from Tokyo's Shakujii High School but dropped out of Keio University.

He is survived by his wife, Naomi, and two children.

Mr. Kaji was lauded by puzzle specialists for imbuing their universe with personality.

“His most significant contribution to the field of logic puzzles is subtle and underappreciated,” Nick Baxter, leader of the United States team competing in the World Sudoku Championship, said in an email.

Mr. Baxter noted that, in an age when most Sudoku and related problems are machine produced, Nikoli has maintained to create riddles created by people.

In an interview with the BBC in 2007, Mr. Kaji said that the key to creating a successful puzzle was to make the rules “simple and straightforward for everyone, even beginners.”

He resigned as CEO of his business in July due to poor health.

Despite the millions of dollars earned by Sudoku, Mr. Kaji said in a 2007 interview with the New York Times that he had only gotten a tiny portion of the money, in part because he had been late in trademarking the problem.

But, he added, he had no regrets.

Mr. Kaji said, "We're prolific because we do it for the love of gaming, not for the money."

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