Sudoku update, part deux
This weekend was the first US Sudoku Championship, held in Philadelphia by the Inquirer with Will Shortz as host, Nick Baxter in charge of organizing the puzzles as for the US Puzzle Championship, and some very familiar faces amongst the competitors that might do well. What was a big unknown was who would show up - would the groundswell of about 900 competitors bring new strong solvers into the public view? Would other US Sudoku team members past and present compete? Would the intermediate division be a better choice for all those who read Wednesday's inquirer piece and called the organizers asking to move down from advanced having read some of my times?
The competition would have three qualifying sprints - each set consisting of an easy, medium, and hard sudoku with the advanced solvers needing to get through all 3 within thirty minutes. The first to finish a round would advance to the playoffs with the exception that a person could not qualify multiple times so after the first win of a round, the results won't matter going forwards.
Having laid out my folder as a writing surface as Stamford vets know to do, I began the first round with the hopes of finishing real fast and getting a sense of the field. The first two puzzles went splendidly although as I forgot to put on my watch before leaving the hotel in the morning, I'll say maybe with 3-3.5 minutes. Then, I hit a hard puzzle. A real hard one. There are not many sudoku that make me sweat anymore, at least not any that should appear in a competition, and this seemed a real interesting curveball. After making about 7-8 placements, you can get very little communication in the grid. You aren't far enough in for many good places to guess. After what seemed about 2 minutes of not writing anything, even going through the 1-9 series to make sure I wasn't missing anything, I busted into the "power through a puzzle" mode of using good intuition and fast skills to get on the right path. I sensed something about a particular digit (which was an either/or choice), and indeed if I'd glanced at the or for a couple seconds, I would have seen it failed immediately. Having started writing again, I struggled my way through the rest of it, unhappy to be in a division with hard puzzles, but still finished the whole round in 9:59. Now, I sat in the very front row of the room so the spotters would quickly follow my times and I did see a nice "1" placard after my turn-in so I knew I had finished first but I hadn't checked the round. What I still failed to realize, given my struggles on the puzzle, was how bad it was for everyone else. I was waiting (well, solving the Shortz "Simple Sudoku" book we had been given, mostly) for the next declarer which wasn't until 8 minutes later. Crazy!
Somewhere below the toroidal sudoku at WSC1 and the spiderwebs (WPC Eger) and the feynman hexagon puzzle (SPIES 2006 Mystery Hunt) may fall that hard "Q" puzzle in this round as a solve I did in "miraculous" time with good intuition and a flexible approach and obviously a bit of luck, which does favor the prepared mind. As both Will during the event and Nick after the event would comment, it was clearly the hardest puzzle there. While it was even solvable if you removed the 2 and 6 in the upper right corner, throwing this toughy out early would serve to reset the field if indeed I won that round as the other two rounds would be completed by more people. Only 6 other solvers out of 150 in the advanced division finished that round in 30 minutes.
Rounds 2 and 3 went much easier for me although I'd already qualified - the hard puzzles were nowhere near the "Q" level of difficulty (on a scale of A to F), and I took the time to check all puzzles on each of them, fixing a blank square in one of the rounds. I believe my times were 8:45 and 7:40 on the clock for turn-in for both, and again that was first for both rounds, but only by about 3 minutes for each of those two. So a great start - not only was I solving impeccably well and across a range of difficulties, but I was feeling on top of my game, wearing my competition red.
I should comment that my US Puzzle teammate onigame (Wei-Hwa Huang) constructed these puzzles. I did not, during the event, even notice that they were all titled, which was a nice touch, or that some of the givens had Philadelphia-related shapes or other themes. I wondered why some digits in one of the puzzles were bolder than others, but wasn't bothering, in my race to just focus on the digits, to figure out if it was theme-related. Anyway, they were good puzzles over a range of difficulties and Wei-Hwa got the notice (and potential hate mail for the first hard puzzle) that he deserves.
There was a bonus round, a single puzzle, that would determine age group winners of a hundred dollars before the playoffs. I did well, finishing in 1:24, but given the chaos of the room, at least for 20 year olds, it was not clear if I was first or not. One proctor misidentified my group, or didn't alert the right spotter, so I feel they were overcareful in correcting my turn-in time, but I'm fairly certain Roger Barkan, at 1:15, nipped me by 9 seconds. As a gesture of sportsmanship, when the 20-year old prize was announced as mine, I turned it over to the second place person, who happened to be Roger, who likely had won the round anyway. The organizers need to fix their prize structure a bit, and certainly not run a speed round for all the money where most top solvers will be seconds apart but maybe many desks apart.
Anyway, the playoff contenders in the three divisions were announced and we all went on stage. They ran the beginner division first and I was sitting to the side with the other higher level finalists and got to meet my two competitors in advanced, Tammy (who had introduced herself to me the night before at the welcome/museum event as a reader of my blog and, not unexpected for a talented puzzle solver, a google employee and mit grad complete with typical brass rat) and Sarah who had traveled the shortest distance of the three of us (tammy had also flown in from california) but had survived the tough qualifying hurdles as well. We got out first glimpse of the large whiteboards - far too large to solve comfortably, with a repeated problem from the Sudoku Smackdown of not having thick enough tape to demark the bolded boxes so you had extra problems getting lost with boundaries when looking at the middle.
After Lori DesRuisseaux won the beginner round, we collectively watched on our side as Ron Osher attempted the intermediate championship puzzle. Ron was on our WSC1 team, and did well in the sprint rounds but lost ground on the "marathons" in Lucca and so some might view him as a squatter by being in the intermediate division. Having seen him pull out his "bag of candidates" method while solving on stage, I think the choice of intermediate was right for where he is at with good speed on "reasonable" puzzles. It also was financially a brilliant move as he won the round to get the second largest prize. However, the solvers on stage all seemed thrown by the big board. There were three to four work-ins I kept trying to urge Ron to see (of course he was wearing a headset and could hear nothing) but the three solvers took much longer than audience members on paper would have for that puzzle. During the solving, I was chatting with Tammy and Sarah and trying my best to calm everyone's nerves, joking a bit, etc. I know its a hard thing to be solving in a round against someone with my reputation and speed. Knowing that the horrible prize structure means finishing second equals a grab bag can't make it any easier. Still, I volunteered to take the center board to have the more focused point of attention for the challenge to come. I put on my headset and started listening to unintelligent babelling. Maybe next year, to increase the difficulty, my headset will spout out numbers "one ... four ... nine ... eight ... eight ... EIGHT!!!" to confuse me. As white noise, it was just fine.
After a while of standing in my spot but not being able to hear anything, so not knowing when the round would actually start, the proctor finally removed the cover page from the whiteboard. I had thought to be cute I'd have a marker in both hands to be ready to solve in a new and interesting way (writing with both hands - maybe next year), but the puzzle was a doozy and so I stuck to normal (read: sane) approaches. People will often comment, when they get the chance to watch me solve, that I often am missing fairly obvious placements that a 1 to 9 search might find. I will admit this is true. However, I'm often trying to attack a puzzle from its weak spots, which are never the singles you get at the start but harder things that arise later. I'm also storing a lot of information both on the puzzle and in my head even if I'm not instantly going through the digits in order to find simple placements. This puzzle definitely felt the same way to me. I was making some progress, then stalling, then making more progress. With the large headsets over my ears, I could actually hear my heartbeat as I feel they were a bit tight to my head. While a couple years ago this might have unsettled me, I've been in enough playoff puzzle rounds now - albeit not with 10k on the line - that I am better at focusing out those things. Still, the large size of the board, the lack of good bolding on boxes, and the fact my normal note style is easily interrupted by having to write over a piece of tape that displaces my marker was not easy. That, and the puzzle was also nasty. I hate to do it, but you need all your tools in a competition. My ultimate and important crack came from using uniqueness. I described this at the championship for the five people in the audience who might have understood me, but after a while of searching for something, I got a magical lucky seven that let the rest of the puzzle fall out. I checked the grid my patented way, and declared in 7:07 to win the US championship. Tammy finished in a super time of 10 minutes to be second. It is a shame that Tammy, who I feel would have creamed the intermediate solvers when she could do a much harder puzzle in only 2 more minutes of time to Ron's 7:57 immediately before, left with a gift bag. Let's hope that in future years the prizes are set up so competing with me is not a bad financial choice. The ACPT does it right by having third in the top division always pay out more than first place in a lower division. The best solvers should not be avoiding "Dr. Sudoku" just to have a better shot at money.
Throughout the day, and certainly after the championship, I was talking to a lot of reporters. There are some good articles such as from the inquirer itself - which also has photos and video (although the reporter decided filming additional things during the finals, but not the finals themselves, was the best use of his cameraman's time). Fortunately he captured the end with me declaring - but only then to immediately pan to the audience clapping instead of seeing one of those rare times I have a true and genuine smile.
However, with any wealth of interviews, and with the pace of my speech, my quotes often get horribly cut so this is that time in my blog when my loyal readers will recognize me clarifying things that got into press. The main culprit this time is the Reuters piece which claims I think puzzles are not meaningful. I will clarify, although it should need no such clarification, that I love puzzles, I love writing puzzles, I enjoy competition, but I someday hope to be more known for the products of my work in science than for the speed with which I can solve a sudoku. I hope, by making a career of science, and not of just setting more sudoku speed-solving records, to benefit others. This point got shortened by the Reuters reporter into me saying puzzles are not "meaningful" and that's a horrible one word way to tear at my heart. Puzzles are very meaningful, and are excellent tools to exercise the brain, teach rules of logic and deduction, explore mathematics, interest kids in learning, and so on. I just don't plan to make a career from solving sudoku faster than everyone else when I can use my talents to do other things as well.
So anyway, I've gone on long enough. I can finally head for my early morning flight back to SF. I promise to have some more puzzles up here soon with some cool designs, and I still promise many more exciting things to come.