The puzzle gripping the nation actually began at a small New York magazine
If the first week of May 2005 will be remembered for a general election, the second will go down as the week of Sudoku.
National newspapers scrambled to advertise the puzzle on their front pages, while websites devoted to it sprang up and TV and radio stations caught the new global bug.
Numerous articles have attributed the puzzle, which has a Japanese name, to the mysteries of the Land of the Rising Sun. But its true modern origins lie with a team of puzzle constructors in 1970s’ New York, from where it set off on a 25-year journey to Tokyo, London – and back to New York.
Scientists have identified Sudoku as a classic meme – a mental virus which spreads from person to person and sweeps across national boundaries. Dr Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine, said: ‘This puzzle is a fantastic study in memetics. It is using our brains to propagate itself across the world like an infectious virus.’
Sudoku – pronounced soo-doe-koo – does not require general knowledge, linguistic ability or even mathematical skill. Dubbed the Rubik’s Cube of the 21st century, it consists of a grid of 81 squares, divided into nine blocks of nine squares each. Some of the squares contain a figure. The goal is to fill in the empty squares so that the figures 1 to 9 appear just once in every row, column and individual block. The requirement is logic or, for those willing to engage in a fiendish game of trial and error, sheer patience.Learn about Ravensburger Puzzles here https://justcalendars.com.au/collections/ravensburger%C2%AE
The Sudoku story began in 1783 when Leonhard Euler, a Swiss mathematician, devised ‘Latin Squares’, which he described as ‘a new kind of magic squares’. Euler had come up with a grid in which every number or sym bol appears once in each row or column. More than two centuries later, the difference for Sudoku players is that the grid is subdivided into blocks of nine.
The realisation that this could become a popular phenomenon was made in Manhattan, New York in the late 1970s by Dell Puzzle Magazines, which has been producing crosswords and other puzzles since 1931. Its editor-in-chief, Abby Taylor, who joined in 1980, said: ‘No one knows exactly when it started or who devised it, but the oldest copy I can find in our archive is 1979. We called the puzzle Number Place and still do today.’
For years Dell continued to publish Number Place among numerous other brain teasers. Taylor said: ‘It was only about five or six years ago that we got a lot more mail from people who said they enjoyed it. We decided to feature it more and produced a complete book of Number Place puzzles. But we didn’t suspect it would become a global phenomenon.’
She added: ‘I like the puzzle a lot. It’s accessible to most people and that’s part of the charm. Although some are more difficult than others, the concept is easy to grasp and it doesn’t take for ever to solve. There is a universality to it and it becomes addictive.’
As Dell continued to quietly churn out Number Place through the Eighties, it was spotted, imitated and embraced in puzzle-obsessed Japan. Publisher Nikoli made two small improvements to the concept and renamed it Sudoku – in Japanese Su means a number and doku roughly translates as singular or unique. From its publication in 1984, it became a sensation in a country where the alphabet is ill-suited to crosswords.
The new Sudoku meme remained virtually confined to the Far East for 20 years. But a man from Matamata, New Zealand, was to become responsible for a global outbreak. Wayne Gould, a judge who had moved to Hong Kong, was shopping in Tokyo in March 1997. While he waited for one shop to open, he browsed in a bookstore. ‘As soon as I saw the grid with the empty squares, I felt very tempted to fill them in. Over the next six years I developed a computer program that makes up Sudoku puzzles on the spot.’
Gould’s wife, Gaye, is a professor of linguistics in New Hampshire in the United States. Gould published one of his puzzles in the local newspaper, the Conway Daily Sun, with success. Then last October Sudoku spread to Britain. ‘I was on my way to Hong Kong via London,’ Gould, 59, recalled. ‘I turned up unannounced at the Times, like an old-fashioned travelling salesman, and got my foot in the door. They published the puzzle the following month and it took off.
‘This is light relief and anybody, including immigrants who don’t speak the native language, can do it. I have become good but my wife is much better and does them in about half the time. I’m surprised and amazed at how popular it has become and I can’t really explain it.’
Gould sells puzzles via his website, www.sudoku.com, and has customers ranging from seven-year-olds to octogenarians.
Newspapers have been quick to hurl themselves into the Sudoku frenzy, some claiming they had it first under a different name. On Friday the Guardian front page declared ‘G2 – The only newspaper section with Sudoku on every page!’ and the Times promised: ‘Mobile Su Doku; The game everyone’s talking about – now on your mobile phone’. Yesterday’s Independent dangled the prospect of becoming a ‘Grand Master’ in the first Sudoku Championship of Great Britain, and BBC Radio 4’s Today read numbers aloud in the first radio version.
Sudoku Selection, the first monthly magazine devoted to the craze, was launched last week, and several Sudoku books are on the market. Celebrities ranging from the cerebral Carol Vorderman to Big Brother ‘s Jade Goody have testified to its benefits as a mental workout. The government-backed Teachers magazine has recommended Sudoku as brain exercise in classrooms. It has even been suggested that it can slow the progression of conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
Sudoku has sprung up in newspapers from France to Slovakia, while a card game is sweeping American high schools. Last month the puzzle completed its circumnavigation of the globe by arriving back in Manhattan as a regular feature in the New York Post. Abby Taylor of Dell mused: ‘We were a little surprised to see it in the Post. I suppose if people see it there, they might want a whole book of them, and that’s where we come in. We’re not selling millions yet.’