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Slate's Gaming: A New Japanese Numbers Game

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And finally today, puzzles. Recently our partner online magazine, Slate, asked contributor Seth Stevenson to write about Sudoku. It's a Japanese number puzzle hugely popular in Britain. Now it seems poised to conquer this country too. Seth likes puzzles, so he thought it would be a pleasant little assignment.

SETH STEVENSON:

Cut to me at the computer. It's 2 AM. My deadline is looming, and I'm only on my second paragraph--all because I can't stop playing Sudoku. I'm a full-on Sudoku addict. It's like when The New Republic magazine asked one of its writers to try crack. Thanks, Slate.

But let me back up. Sudoku is a logic puzzle. You fill numbers into a grid using deduction or, failing that, plain old trial and error. Each row and column and each three-by-three subset of the puzzle must contain the digits one through nine, with each digit used only once. It's not as hard as it sounds, and the best way to understand is probably to visit Sudoku.com--that's S-U-D-O-K-U.com--where there are clear explanations and some sample games.

It's incredibly easy to learn, which is at least partly why it spread so quickly. There's an ongoing Sudoku war in Great Britain right now, with several newspapers competing to be the hot Sudoku spot. Sudoku books are flying off the shelves, and it's all about to hit these shores. The New York Post has started printing Sudokus. According to The Economist, The New York Times is pondering a Sudoku offering right next to the Sunday crossword no less. It's a Sudoku epidemic.

Now Sudoku is not actually new. This sort of puzzle has been around forever, all over the world. So why is it suddenly so popular? The current British fad stems mainly from the efforts of a single man, Wayne Gould, the guy behind the Sudoku.com Web site. A retired Hong Kong judge, Gould first spotted Sudoku in Japan and was instantly hooked. He created a computer program that will compose new Sudoku puzzles on demand. Then he walked into The Times of London offices without an appointment and convinced them to run his puzzles. Gould syndicates many of his Sudoku grids for free on the theory that he'll rake in money from books and the computer program.

Being a crossword nut myself, I understand how folks can get excited about puzzles. But how does Sudoku measure up to crosswords? There is a similar feeling of accomplishment--that little sense of completion I get with each square I fill in The New York Times crossword. Sudoku has that too. But it does not have puns. I love those painful puns in a crossword's theme entries. Sudoku offers no clever wordplay and no head-scratching trivia--just cold, hard numbers and logic. Also, I solve crosswords in pen because I'm a badass. I love the way the blue ink stands out against the black-and-white newsprint. With Sudoku you need to use pencil to avoid a total mess, unless you're a Rain Man and can hold complicated sequences in your head.

Still, Sudoku does have its charms. There's a tiny joy in spotting a number pattern, making a deduction and unlocking a tough puzzle. But I'm going back to crosswords. Granted, writing `oleo' and `aria' into crossword grids for the 9,000th time doesn't feel so new at this point, either. But I know there's always another bad pun out there somewhere waiting for me.

BRAND: Opinion from Seth Stevenson, a frequent contributor to our online partner, Slate magazine.

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BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News and slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.