Matt Gaffney

The Epic Battle Between Crosswords and Sudoku

Wayne Gould has gotten rich off Sudoku. I’m talking many millions rich, and it’s all happened in the last two years -- but still, this past March, I had to feel a little sorry for the guy.

Will Shortz had just introduced Gould at the 29th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but the retired New Zealand judge received an embarrassingly tepid amount of applause from the audience of hardcore crossword solvers and writers. Why?

"There is a backlash against Sudoku," as Newsday crossword editor Stan Newman puts it. And, apparently, against Gould, who ignited global Sudoku mania by marching unannounced into the offices of the London Times in 2004 and hooking their features editor on his puzzle. I found Gould charming in a professorial, absentminded genius sort of way, but his talk bombed with the crossword crowd in Stamford, Connecticut. "British Airways sent a memo around telling flight attendants not to solve Sudoku during takeoffs and landings," he quipped, but almost nobody laughed.

Gould’s appearance at the tournament nicely illustrated the love-hate relationship the U.S. crossword community has with Sudoku. First, a little love: "I don’t solve crosswords anymore," top crossword writer Joe DiPietro says. "And for the first time in my life, if I am solving a crossword, I don’t care about finishing it. I do care about finishing Sudoku, though."

And now, a little hate: "Right when they started passing out Sudoku, I headed for the bar," veteran cruciverbalist Rich Silvestri told me, regarding the Sudoku tournament Gould held in Stamford after his talk. Top crossword solver Amy Reynaldo wrote on her blog about Gould’s contest: "I was most of the way through the first one when I made some sort of error and said, ‘Screw it. There’s a bar in this hotel,’ and went off to find socializing in lieu of Sudokuing."

There are two reasons why Sudoku drives so many crossword experts to drink. First, the artistic reason: Some puzzle writers view Sudoku as too boring, a mindless game you can practically brute-force a solution out of any time you want, like a word search. This criticism isn’t entirely fair, though, since Sudoku, like crosswords, can be calibrated to very high levels of solving difficulty, and there is a certain mathematical elegance in the deep logic required to unravel key areas of a well-made, tough Sudoku.

The deeper reason for the backlash is sheer resentment: Many of us have spent serious chunks of our lives honing the craft of crossword-puzzle writing, and along comes this computer-generated fad that’s winning the hearts and minds of the masses. If everyone loves Sudoku so much, who needs us anymore? With one click of his mouse, Gould -- who provides his puzzles free to 400 papers around the world as a marketing plan to sell his Sudoku-generating program -- quite possibly entertains more people than all the crossword writers in the United States combined. And because Sudoku isn’t language-specific, Gould’s reach is international to a much greater degree than ours is. Hence, the hurt feelings -- and the hostility. Pity the successful; they pay for it somehow.

How have American crossword pros reacted to this ego-crushing Sudoku tsunami? Some have utterly ignored it, hoping the fad will pass, but I can tell they feel like people who’ve rented during a real-estate boom. Others have used their crossword creds to ride the wave: Will Shortz’s books of Sudoku have sold a mind-blowing 5 million copies and counting in the past year. They’re books of high quality, to be sure, but high-quality Sudoku are easy to have a computer churn out, and anyone can put out a book of them (many have, including me). But in a suddenly popular field with no established gurus, Shortz’s name, emblazoned in huge print on the books’ covers, is the brand to which converting crossword fans have flocked in droves: One of his titles was the top-selling Sudoku book in the country last year.

In a recent New York Magazine profile, Shortz made sure to evince no ambivalence about his newfound cash cow. I wish I could do the same. The truth is, even though I’ve got two Sudoku titles of my own on the shelves, crosswords are still very much where my heart is. Even while hedging my bets, I catch myself secretly hoping that the recent theater release of Wordplay, a hit documentary about Shortz and the Stamford tournament, will put crosswords back in the limelight -- and shove Sudoku decisively to the back burner.

But Sudoku may not be ready to play second fiddle yet; if anything, in fact, the game’s popularity seems to still be rising. This has led to a somewhat comical scramble in the puzzle biz to identify the next big thing in an expected post-Sudoku wave of Japanese logic puzzles. A Sudoku cousin called Kakuro seems the most likely candidate: "Hooked on Sudoku? Discover the Newest Puzzle Craze!" shouts the cover of a recent Kakuro book.

A personal story about this marketing mania: Earlier this year, my publisher said he wanted me to write a book of a well-known Sudoku/crossword hybrid puzzle. This specific variety of puzzle has been known for decades in the United States as "Alphacodes" or "Coded Crosswords." They’ve been a favorite of mine since I was a kid, so I eagerly agreed to do the book.

"But we need a Japanese name," the publisher told me.

It’s a language-specific puzzle that’s never been seen in Japan, I replied. It doesn’t have a Japanese name.

"Then come up with one," he shot back. "Marketing wants a Japanese name. Can you have it to me by Tuesday?"

So I called my girlfriend, who’s the director of a school that teaches English to visiting foreign students.

"Put a Japanese student on the phone," I told her.

She put a guy on named Take, who’d been in the States about two years and spoke halfway decent English. I asked him what the Japanese word for "codebreaking" was, since that’s the best one-word English description of what Alphacodes are all about.

But no matter how I explained the meaning to him -- you know Take, in time of war you send secret messages, and the other side tries to understand them -- I couldn’t get the idea across. So I asked him to hand the phone back to Lori.

"Put another Japanese student on the phone," I said.

She found a guy named Yuki, who’d been in the States six years and spoke lovely English.

"Codebreaking?" he replied. "In Japanese, that’s kaidoku."

How perfect was that? It sounds so much like Sudoku that people just might start associating it with its better-known cousin. Marketing loved it. The puzzle now has its name -- will it be the next Sudoku?

No one knows, but we crossword pros are trying. The big guy to watch, though, may be Gould himself. He told me in March that he’s confident he can replicate Sudoku’s success, and that he’s already doing early work in publicizing another logic puzzle (though he wouldn’t say which puzzle it is). "I think Sudoku is only the first in what will be a series of popular logic puzzles," Gould said. Which means us crossword folk may be in for a few more body blows to our prestige and self-esteem.

Sudoku, we wish America knew how to quit you. But we realize it’s not likely to happen.

This article is available on The American Prospect. Copyright 2006, The American Prospect.

Spell It Out

This article is reprinted from The American Prospect.

The tournament hasn't even started, and already I've made a mistake. I'm one of 25 judges who've fanned out across the hotel ballroom, placing copies of Puzzle #1 in front of all 467 tournament entrants. But I'm the only one of the 25 placing the puzzles face-up, instead of face-down, as tournament rules dictate.

It doesn't last long. "Face-down!" a small chorus of 60-something entrants scolds me. "Face-down!"

It's an inauspicious start to my first year officiating at the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held every March in Stamford, Conn. I'd competed in years past and seen the judges in action, but I didn't quite know how it would feel on the other side of the tournament fence.

This first round, it feels nerve-racking. The petty sense of importance I feel wearing my judge's nametag isn't enough to calm my jitters. And being chastised by contestants for handing out the puzzles wrong doesn't help.

Tournament director Will Shortz, who is also crossword editor at The New York Times, takes the mike and briefly explains the rules: no talking; no reference tools of any kind allowed; turn off your cell phones before each round. Puzzles will be scored, he explains, on both accuracy and speed. All participants will solve seven puzzles over the weekend, and the three top finishers will play a final round for the championship. There's a huge digital clock on the side of the ballroom; it reads 15:00, the time allotted for Puzzle #1. Finally Shortz announces, "On your marks, get set, go!" The clock starts counting down, and the tournament has begun.

My next duty as a judge is to spot contestants who've finished their puzzle (a raised hand is the signal, sometimes accompanied by impatient snapping); dart over to collect their puzzle; and mark down the number of minutes left on the clock. I stake out a position in the far right corner of the room, a nice little circumscribed area where I can keep my entire section in view at all times – unlike the judges in the center of the room, whose territories span 360 degrees.

A few tense minutes elapse; then, far across the room from me, a hand goes up. It's Trip Payne, a three-time champion here, and no one's surprised to see him finish Puzzle #1 first. A judge scurries over to him, takes his paper, and notes the time left: 12 minutes. It's taken Payne under three minutes to finish the first round.

My corner strategy works. The outer edges of the ballroom are easier to patrol than the narrow, chair-clogged aisles between tables. As a couple of minutes pass in silence, with no raised hands in my vicinity, my mind starts to wander. But the main thing keeping me focused is fear of shame. I see a judge in the center of the room let his attention slip for a moment and fail to notice a raised hand just a few feet away. His punishment is silent and immediate: a half-dozen judges around the room jab the air with their hands to get his attention, pointing at the ignored contestant, who's now waving her solved puzzle in frustration. Castigated, the judge hurries over to her and retrieves the puzzle. That'll never happen to me, I promise myself.

The Judges' Room is a nondescript little hideaway on the second floor, tucked back behind a small maze of mirrors and hallways and doors. I get lost the first couple of times I go there. Just four round tables fit inside, but it's in this small space that tournament fates are decided. After judges working the floor collect the puzzles in the tournament hall, they're rushed up here, where judges on scoring duty mark them for accuracy. We slash red, green, and orange pens across each incorrect letter; the final tally is posted in the upper right-hand corner of the puzzle; and each participant's score for the round is entered into a computer.

Much of the banter in the Judges' Room revolves around incorrect answers. Wrong answers range from good guesses (putting FRIGID instead of the correct ARCTIC for the clue "Bitterly cold") to not-very-good guesses (one contestant had RAY instead of ALI for a three-letter word clued as "Will Smith title role") to careless mistakes caused by time pressure (someone had written in TOW-AWAY ZOTE instead of TOW-AWAY ZONE) to total shots in the dark (instead of the correct answer NOSE to the four-letter entry clued as "Overall smell of wine," one entrant had written SO-SO).

But the best wrong answer of the tournament comes at 68-across on Puzzle #2, where a five-letter entry is clued as "Round parts." The correct answer was BEERS (as in a "round of beers"), but one solver, thinking along different lines, wrote in BALLS.

Down in the tournament hall, veteran judge Henry Rathvon mutters something to himself as he starts passing out the crossword for Round 5. Will Shortz overhears him and laughs, then announces into the microphone, "Henry Rathvon has just called Puzzle #5 'the puzzle that'll rip your heart out.'"

It's not much of an exaggeration. "Difficult Week Ahead," as the puzzle's title reads, is a beast; after 14 of the allotted 25 minutes, only six people in the room have completed it. When Shortz announces, "One minute to go," the room reacts with a dark groan. Later a contestant will ask me, "Where's that guy who made puzzle #5? I think we should burn him in effigy."

"That guy" is one of the judges, David Kahn; up in the Judges' Room, his fellow officials are starting to warm up to the effigy idea. Kahn's brain-busting puzzle was easy for the judges on the floor to collect since so few people finished it on time, but it's a pain in the ass to score upstairs because of all the mistakes solvers made. For most of the tournament puzzles, judges need only count the handful of incorrect words; but most of the papers this round have so many wrong answers (and unfilled fields of white) that judges find it easier to count the number of correct words in each puzzle. In one puzzle that judge Stan Newman scores, only eight words are correctly filled in. "Eight words in 25 minutes," Newman clucks. "That's not very good."

The final round brings high drama; one veteran of all 28 ACPTs tells me it's the most exciting finish ever. My judging duties are pretty much over, so I watch the scene unfold with the rest of the crowd.

In a battle of generations, 46-year-old Al Sanders appears to have 20-year-old Tyler Hinman and 36-year-old Trip Payne on the ropes. Up on a stage before an audience of 500, the three top finishers battle it out for the title with dry-erase markers on oversized grids, and the gray-haired Sanders is running circles around his younger rivals. Methodically, he plows his way through section after section of the grid as Payne and Hinman flounder. The audience loves it, since the well-liked Sanders has made the final round six times before but has never won, and they break into wild applause when he announces "Done!" and removes the noise-blocking headphones finalists wear.

Suddenly Sanders' body freezes in horror: He has absentmindedly forgotten to fill in two letters, the Z and A in 1-across, ZOLAESQUE. The oversight means he will almost certainly lose. In disgust, Sanders throws his headphones to the ground and marches offstage. He knows that a quick final check of the board would have easily won the tournament for him; instead, he finishes third. Although it takes Hinman two – and Payne four – more minutes to solve the puzzle than it took Sanders, they both complete it perfectly, and accuracy trumps speed in the final round.

Hinman, a red-headed IT major at Rensselaer, becomes the youngest champion in tournament history. He tells the waiting media that he'll use the $4,000 first prize for tuition. When he returns next year to defend his title, I'll be there – ready to score his puzzles.

This article is available on The American Prospect website.

Copyright © 2005 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Matt Gaffney, "Spell It Out", The American Prospect Online, Mar 16, 2005. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.
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