If the first week of May 2005 will be remembered for the general election, the second week will be remembered for Sudoku. National newspapers rushed to put the mystery on their front pages, while websites devoted to it sprung up and TV and radio stations picked up on the new worldwide craze.
Numerous publications have linked the Japanese-named riddle to the mysteries of the Land of the Rising Sun. But its actual contemporary beginnings may be traced back to a group of puzzle builders in 1970s New York, from where they embarked on a 25-year odyssey through Tokyo, London, and back to New York. Sudoku has been recognized by scientists as a classic meme- a mental infection that spreads from person to person and across national boundaries. 'This problem is a great study in memetics,' remarked Dr Susan Blackmore, creator of The Meme Machine. It uses our minds to spread itself around the planet like an infectious virus. '
Sudoku, which is pronounced soo-doe-koo, does not require broad knowledge, language aptitude, or even mathematical proficiency. It's been dubbed the Rubik's Cube of the twenty-first century, and it's made up of an 81-square grid divided into nine blocks of nine squares each. A figure can be found in some of the squares. The aim is to fill up the empty squares so that each row, column, and individual block only has the numbers 1 to 9 appear once. The prerequisite is logic, or, for those prepared to participate in a devilish game of trial and error, pure patience.
The Sudoku tale begins in 1783, when Leonhard Euler, a Swiss mathematician, invented 'Latin Squares,' which he characterized as a "new sort of magic square." Euler designed a grid in which each number or symbol appears once in each row or column. The difference for Sudoku players today, more than two centuries later, is that the grid is partitioned into blocks of nine.
Dell Puzzle Magazines, which has been publishing crosswords and other puzzles since 1931, saw that this might become a big phenomenon in Manhattan, New York in the late 1970s. 'No one knows precisely when it originated or who developed it, but the earliest edition I can locate in our collection is 1979,' said Abby Taylor, the magazine's editor-in-chief, who joined in 1980. 'We named the puzzle Number Place, and we still do.'
Dell continued to produce Number Place, as well as a variety of other brain teasers, for many years. 'It was only about five or six years ago that we started getting a lot more letters from people who indicated they liked it,' Taylor recalled. We decided to highlight it more and created a full book of Number Place puzzles. But we had no idea it would become a worldwide sensation. '
'I enjoy the puzzle a lot,' she added. It's approachable for the majority of people, which adds to its allure. Although some are more complex than others, the principle is simple to understand and the solution does not take forever. It has a global appeal and may be addicting. '
As Dell silently churned out Number Place throughout the 1980s, it was noticed, mimicked, and welcomed in puzzle-obsessed Japan. Nikoli, the publisher, made two minor changes to the concept and called it Sudoku - in Japanese, Su means number, and doku approximately translates as solitary or unique. It created a phenomenon in a country where the alphabet was unsuitable for crossword puzzles after its debut in 1984.
For the next 20 years, the new Sudoku craze was mostly limited to the Far East. However, a guy from Matamata, New Zealand, was to be blamed for a global pandemic. In March 1997, Wayne Gould, a judge who had relocated to Hong Kong, went shopping in Tokyo. He browsed at a bookshop while waiting for a business to open. 'I was tempted to fill in the empty squares as soon as I saw the grid containing them.' 'Over the following six years, I created a computer software that generates Sudoku problems on the fly.'
Gaye Gould, Gould's wife, is a linguistics professor in New Hampshire, United States. Gould was successful in publishing one of his riddles in the local newspaper, the Conway Daily Sun. Then, in October of last year, Sudoku expanded to the United Kingdom. 'I was on my way to Hong Kong through London,' remembered Gould, 59. 'I showed up to the Times unannounced, like an old-fashioned traveling salesman, and got my foot in the door.' The puzzle was released the next month, and it quickly became popular. This is a simple stress-reduction technique that anybody, especially immigrants who do not understand the original language, may perform. I've gotten better, but my wife is much faster and completes them in around half the time. I'm astonished and amazed at how popular it has become, and I'm not sure why. '
Gould offers puzzles on his website, www.sudoku.com, to clients ranging in age from seven to octogenarian. Newspapers were eager to jump into the Sudoku frenzy, with some claiming to have invented it first under a different name. On Friday, the top page of the Guardian stated, 'G2 - The only newspaper section with Sudoku on every page!' 'Mobile Su Doku; The game everyone's talking about - now on your mobile phone,' the Times claimed. The possibility of becoming a 'Grand Master' in the first Sudoku Championship of Great Britain was dangled in yesterday's Independent, while BBC Audio 4's Today read numbers aloud in the first radio edition.
Sudoku Selection, the first monthly magazine devoted to the obsession, debuted last week, and there are numerous Sudoku books available. Celebrities ranging from the intellectual Carol Vorderman to Big Brother's Jade Goody have attested to its mental health advantages. Sudoku has been suggested as a brain workout in classrooms by the government-backed Teachers magazine. It has even been proposed that it could delay the growth of diseases like Alzheimer's.
Sudoku has appeared in publications from France to Slovakia, and the card game has taken over American high schools. Last month, the puzzle returned to Manhattan as a regular feature in the New York Post, completing its circuit of the world. 'We were a little shocked to see that in the Post,' Dell's Abby Taylor remarked. If people see it there, I'm sure they'll want a full book of it, which is where we come in. We haven't sold millions yet. '