A Puzzling Success: Sudoku Craze Spreads

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By: Miki Johnson

You might not have realized it, but 2005 was the year of Sudoku. Hundreds of newspapers, including USA Today and the New York Post, have added Sudoku to their puzzle pages and Sudoku Web sites are everywhere. As of early December, the Publishers Weekly Bestseller List included three Sudoku books in its top 15. The folks who put out the Oxford dictionary even picked Sudoku as a runner up to “podcast” as its hot word of the year.

But what exactly is Sudoku, you may ask? It looks vaguely like a crossword puzzle, with a nine-by-nine box grid, subdivided into smaller three-by-three boxes and sporting a few squares filled in with numbers. The goal is simple: Place numbers one through nine in the empty squares so that each number appears only once in each smaller box and vertical and horizontal row. Technically speaking, it’s a “logic game” ? but it’s so addictive that it might as well be an illegal substance.

Sudoku may have originated in America in the ’70s, but first gained wide popularity as an export to Japan, where its name roughly translates as “solitary number.”

Wayne Gould, a former judge and lawyer from New Zealand working in Hong Kong, became enchanted with the game during a 1997 trip to Tokyo. He then wrote a program to generate puzzles of varying difficulty and began distributing them free to newspapers, usually in return for a plug for his URL where he sold his game-generation program.

The first U.S. paper to bite was the Conway (N.H.) Daily Sun, close to where Gould spent the summers with his wife. Mark Guerringue, the newspaper’s owner and publisher, remembers testing several puzzles Gould gave him in the newsroom to judge interest. Soon he noticed his staff doing more and more of the puzzles. The Daily Sun started running Sudoku in summer 2004, and now Wayne Gould’s puzzles appear in about 300 newspapers, most for free.

“It frankly amazes me,” said Guerringue, who was surprised to recently see a half-page ad promoting the Boston Herald’s Sudoku. “It’s kind of nice for our small daily to be a footnote in history.”

The New York Post adopted Gould’s puzzles in July, and in August its sister company HarperCollins published three Sudoku books with his collaboration and under the Post’s name. Gretchen Crary, publicity manager at HarperCollins, said branding the books with the tabloid’s name was a no-brainer. “We’re always looking for ways to work with the New York Post,” Crary said. “If they do a New York Post Sudoku, they can promote our books and we can promote them.”

USA Today was one of the first American newspapers to introduce Sudoku online along with its print version in July 2005. Working with uclick, the online syndicate that independently developed Sudoku-creation software and distributes it to publications, the two offer several free online puzzles daily. Players can also pay for a premium service that provides more puzzles of variable levels. Jeff Webber, USA Today’s senior vice president, said “in a very short time” Sudoku online was drawing more than half the traffic the paper usually receives for its well- established online crossword puzzles.

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