The Cat in the Hat Strikes Back?
So, here I am again, with a different controversy that needs addressing. Again I am left sitting on a plane writing a letter in my head to the organizers of a sudoku tournament to hopefully correct basic mistakes now and in the future in the organization, proctoring, and ranking of sudoku competitions. I do not believe I am a lone voice in my concerns that impropriety has occurred at the 2009 Sudoku National Championship, but I am a respected member of the puzzle community and so I am speaking out in hopes that this concern is addressed. I encourage feedback from other observers who may have additional memories or photographic or video evidence of this competitor to help solidify an understanding of what was going on with the "man under the hoodie." I've done my best to report what I know and what I saw as someone who also had a lot else on his mind.
Open Letter to the Sudoku community and the organizers of the Sudoku National Championship about the potential cheating of Eugene Varshavsky during this Saturday's tournament:
It is with a heavy heart and with the fullest consideration of the seriousness of these allegations that I am writing today. As a past US and World Sudoku Champion, a person who has solved (and watched others solve) enough puzzles to know a lot about the art of solving a sudoku puzzle, I have significant suspicions about the performance of a contestant in this Saturday's Sudoku National Championship.
Just as in college exams, sports, or other venues, intellectual competitions are certainly not free of people trying to use technological assistance or other cheats to gain an edge on more formidable competition. In 2006, for example, a suspected incident of cheating occurred in the World Open Chess Tournament. Against Grandmaster Smirin, a relatively unknown player wearing a hat the whole time performed well beyond expectations and ranking to beat the Grandmaster. After some suspicion was raised, this unknown disappeared to a bathroom where after ten minutes he was searched and nothing was found. Under closer watch, without the possibility of using unallowed assistance, the performance of this player returned to more expected levels and he lost the following matches, coming nowhere near to the mastery he had demonstrated earlier.
The city this chess tournament was held in: Philadelphia; the name of this suspected cheater: Eugene Varshavsky.
In 2009, in a different intellectual sport of sudoku, two established solvers from past years and a complete unknown, who was solving his qualifying round puzzles under a hooded sweatshirt, made the finals of the Sudoku National Championship. As competitors were (unfortunately) allowed to wear headphones to listen to music and could have electronic devices such as ipods as timers on their desks, the opportunity for something unknown to be hidden under this "hoodie" such as a camera/transceiver that would allow a person outside of the room to use a computer solver to relay a solution back to a competitor, was great. While much drama occurred in the finals between the two established solvers, it did not go unnoticed by some (ok, me, but not just me) that the "unknown", who was now forced to wear sound-shielding headphones over otherwise bare ears and under much more careful watch to eliminate potential advantages, performed well below the standard of any solver who would have been capable of being on stage at the time.
The city this sudoku tournament was held in: Philadelphia; the name of this suspected cheater: Eugene Varshavsky.
Only in Hollywood. Except it happened.
I first noticed this solver after I had finished Round 3 of the tournament. I had already turned in my paper, which did not matter for the competition as I had qualified for the Finals in Round 1, when I turned to look at each of the finishers that followed. Well, the second place finisher who handed in shortly after me was dressed in a black sweatshirt, hood up and fully covering his hair and a lot of his head, with a nametag reading "Eugene" that was handwritten indicating he was a walk-in contestant who had not preregistered. Given his attire, unfamiliarity, and the fact "Eugene" left the room so soon after he turned in his paper, my Snyder-sense was tingling. Still, I chalked it up to possibly being nerves at having an unknown facing me on stage at the time.
I next observed Eugene much later as he came to the front of the room after being announced as the round 3 winner in the advanced division. He was not speaking to anyone - instead having a phone to his ear the whole time - and while I did congratulate him and shake his hand, he did not seem interested in much conversation with me. Again, fully explainable for other reasons - who would want to be intimidated by a world champion? - although I tend to offer friendly advice to solvers for how to deal with the whiteboard format since it is a big change from standard solving. I lost sight of him during the Beginner and Intermediate finals and frankly had my mind on other things as I stepped on stage to begin my own final puzzle.
The results of my attempt at this puzzle are now well reported: I raced through the final puzzle but by going too fast ended up making a transposition error in the last few digits I placed leading to my turning in an incorrect grid. While my errors were unknown to me and the judges for a couple minutes, when I finally stood up and looked back I got a quick bulge in my throat as I saw two sixes in the 5th row and saw for myself that my fate was sealed. So, instead of congratulating Tammy McLeod on finishing 2nd as she completed her puzzle in seven and a half minutes, I was the first to tell her she was the champion. The organizers would learn this fact from me too, which is unfortunate. Regardless, the rules of the tournament state that a second place finisher who is clean within twenty minutes would trump my boneheaded error, so I was concerned about the state of the third finalist's grid because he had stopped, similar to an apparent error in the first beginner final, when a finalist seemed to me to have been better off continuing solving as another solver had turned in an unfinished board with notes instead of givens.
At this time, in this advanced puzzle, with a thousand dollars extra on the line, Eugene also stopped solving as the round would be over and he would get the third place prize money. But I was not correctly finished, and the rules would allow him to continue for the full twenty minutes to try for a correct grid and in this confusion organizers were trying to figure out if it would be fair to give him more time (I would quickly have countered that he had seen two basically completed grids in the interim as he was standing near us when I was explaining to Tammy my problems, check the video). But I did take a chance to peek at his board to see if he had a decent claim to finishing second with more time and was beyond shocked to see that there were very very few numbers written in. He also had absolutely no notes or other markings as would be typical of every other advanced solver I have met in the US and overseas who could have qualified as a solver on stage.
While there are many assumptions made about sudoku, such as that the puzzle is originally from Japan, or that computers create the best puzzles, these assumptions are incorrect. Yes, computers create most of the available puzzles, but the best sudoku challenges, including those used in this tournament in the past, are hand-crafted and all the memorable hand-crafted ones like this final puzzle or Wei-Hwa's "Q" puzzle will have very tight solving paths with very specific sticking points that slow down a solver. Signatures of the designer's thought process, such as the type of sticking point, where it happens in the grid, if the same kind of sticking point is used multiple places, ..., are often a sign that can be used to tell if a puzzle is at least partially hand- versus completely computer-crafted.
A tight solution path also means that almost all solvers going logically through it without guessing will place numbers in a similar order and get stuck at similar/identical spots. On this puzzle, that path starts with placing at least a dozen digits in very quick succession - all of the 9s and all of the 3s and possibly a couple others - before hitting a stopping point where two sets of locked triples in boxes 1 and 9 are identified to lead to further progress. The evens are the key to the puzzle, hinted in part by having none of the evens in box 5 where progress is impossible for a long time, but the big triple for me was the one in box 9 with just evens. After these nice breakthroughs on opposite corners of the grid (the symmetrical placement another sign of the designer's hand at work here), a race to the finish will result as all the remaining digits are relatively "easy" singles. In fact, the trail of these final digits should be somewhat narrow and I'd bet that Tammy ended close to where I ended but wrote 46 and 4 instead of 64 and 6. The point of this aside is that on a difficult, well-crafted sudoku, the top solvers will certainly follow a similar series of moves and be stuck in the same spots. Just as a grandmaster in chess could look at a game and analyze inconsistently strong or weak plays and smell something funny, a grandmaster in sudoku (no such rating exists, but I'll suggest I probably qualify for consideration) can analyze a board and see a huge inconsistency in the level of progress a solver at the advanced level would have after 8 minutes even given the large whiteboard format. Indeed, in many online sudoku communities, the order and speed with which a player enters his digits is a very strong consideration for making a claim that a solver is cheating with computer assistance when solving a puzzle. So, being stalled at one of the triple-identification stopping points in this final puzzle would have made sense if at least ten more digits were in Eugene's grid. Having some notes or other markings on the board that speed solvers use to help find the way through the stopping point would have made sense too. It would at least show he was trying. Having a basically empty board missing several of the "easy" placements after 8 minutes does not.
As I was working through a complex mixture of disappointment and disgust with myself at the time I first observed these facts, I did not bring up all of these concerns with the organizers immediately which leads to this letter. Its probably not my role as a competitor to make sure the competition is run fairly, but it doesn't take a Dr. Sudoku to diagnose something is not right here. I did mention afterwards, and certainly that evening to Nick Baxter, that I thought the "Eugene" under the hoodie was possibly not the same "Eugene" on stage as the ability of the two solvers was so different from expectation. I'd barely seen any of his face when he qualified given the hoodie over it, so it was hard to rule out my wild speculation of two competitors. I began referring to the person(s) as "Eugene" with quote marks and this got into my initial posting on the tournament. Thankfully, the curiousity of that construction led to a foreign friend in puzzles, Johan de Ruiter, to post that he tracked this suspicion further and found a link to the past story about questionable behavior at a chess tournament in the exact same city by a competitor with the exact same name. Not caught red-handed, but with enough questionable signs that something certainly was up.
These suspicions are therefore rather serious and require some investigation. It would certainly be helpful for the Inquirer's film and photography coverage to be reviewed for pictures of this competitor before the finals and on stage, and specifically that the state of his final puzzle after various amounts of time and certainly after eight minutes when he stopped be made publically viewable for the community of sudoku solvers to see as, just like an odd sequence of chess moves, it will be prima facie evidence of this claim I am staking some of my reputation on that this is not the kind of filled-in board a person who supposedly can finish 3 hard puzzles in 12 minutes on paper could have by any stretch of the imagination. Even with all my ranting about the difficulty and problems of the stage format, it simply is not possible. Rather, in my mind, cheating of some form must have occurred.
What to do?
As I do not believe Eugene fairly qualified for the stage, and therefore only two true sudoku solvers were in the finals, it unfortunately brings the championship of Tammy McLeod under a cloud of uncertainty which she does not deserve as she did beat me fairly after I certainly helped beat myself. As the rightful third finalist would have a very reasonable chance of finishing this puzzle within twenty minutes cleanly and beating me out for second place given the scoring method of the finals where accuracy counts first, if a decision to disqualify the current third place finisher is made, I believe the only fair decision is to declare us both runners-up to Tammy and split the difference in the prizes to each receive $3,500. I ask that the checks for both my prize and Eugene's be held until this suspicion is addressed, perhaps by establishing through various means in the chess community that this Eugene Varshavsky is the same person at the World Open. While I will reluctantly accept the $4,000 second place prize if no change in the results is made, I would much more gladly receive less money and see a deserving sudoku solver who should have been on stage claim the prize he'd won (yet still have to deal with wondering what could have been, short this malfeasance). I ask that we at least take some time to make sure the so-called "Cat in the Hat" did not strike back here this past weekend in Philadelphia.
I am sending this letter to the organizers of the tournament, and posting it for all to see on my blog (motris.livejournal.com), because I do not believe this matter should be dealt with entirely in private for the future health of the competitive sudoku community.