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24 October 2009 @ 04:41 pm
You call this a quick place-filler post?  
Short Version: USSC happened.

Longer Version:
The US National Sudoku Championship was very much similar to past years' with 3 sprint rounds each consisting of three puzzles used to qualify for the stage (winner takes the spot in each individual round), then a single white board puzzle on the stage with the big prizes on the line. Its hardly my favorite format as it doesn't really rank more than a handful of solvers well, fails to select a US team, and times aren't reported for solvers after the event (Wei-Hwa, for example, was 4th in all three rounds and certainly a consistent solver, but that is not valued in the race for 1st in a round) but it has at least gotten good solvers on stage consistently including both me and Tammy McLeod the last two years. Most of my time today was spent solving puzzles and then answering interview questions as I do as a kind of ambassador for sudoku for different people including a TIME magazine video reporter who interviewed me and onigame the night before as well. I look forward to the piece. I also showed off my book a lot.

The puzzles, still printed too large at ~6" square, were for the most part similar to the others we saw online before the championship with one cool exception happening in the second round. So all D4 puzzles, boxes 2/4/6/8 important, solutions with pairs and triples which I really believe is the right level of hardest step for a competition sudoku since it won't reward bifurcation, and I did okay on the rounds. I broke and fully erased at least one puzzle on each round but finished the first set of three puzzles in 9:29 and clean for 1st. The second round had a secret theme; I'd commented here before about disliking asymmetry in puzzles and how I'd accept it with minimal puzzles and here was a round of just 17s that were rather fun to solve but which I broke entirely (2 with duplicated digits, one with my classic pitfall of writing a pair of notes on the grid, not seeing a forcing given in a row/column, and then trusting my note assignment for too long without relooking at for a deduction). Finished that round 7th (Tammy McLeod was the 1st). Third round went well, with the first two puzzles done in 6 minutes total and the last in a little under 6 more (it was another memorable void design), but while I finished first, it was apparently not clean with a 6 instead of a 9 or something (too much Hendrix?). Still, I'd already qualified and the mysterious late registrant "Eugene" was the third finalist (this is all I ever saw on his name tag; I'm sure he has a last name).

A lot of time passed before the critical moments, while age rounds and geography rounds happened (I still find it entirely inappropriate to give an on-stage finalist like me 50 dollars for my age group and not to the second place in the group since the concept of these extra prizes should be to spread the wealth). thedan, who finished second for 27-29, can pick up 50 dollars minus taxes when I next see him....

The finals were unchanged in format from last year: large whiteboards which Will Shortz/organizers may be the only people who like. Certainly no solver likes them, although I practiced for it and feel comfortable there now, but its unclear if it "benefits" the audience when many other options seem to have worked better. This format has in the past always tripped up different solvers and made a 2x time result pretty typical (round qualifying tends to be in 10 mins for 3 puzzles and a similar challenge on stage averages 7+ in all levels in this format which is silly). I practiced to get better at this, and set breaking 7 minutes as a goal. I proceeded to not just break the goal, but to absolutely crush the puzzle, which was an incredibly fun solve and which I won't spoil but can be found on philly.com/sudoku sometime I hope, in ~4:14. I checked for blank squares, saw none, said done. Tired, I didn't check my grid and instead sat facing the audience for awhile relieved at beating the whiteboard and winning. News of an error never came to me - the judges didn't see it but many in the audience did. I actually noticed it for myself two minutes later when I finally looked back at my grid and saw a problem. Basically, with a few numbers to go, I made a transposition error of a 46 pair which trickled one other wrong number up so a 46 and another 4 was entered 64 and another 6. An Epic Fail in a sense. If I had done anything close to my patented checking in the time I did not realize I would have, I would have found it. But as I felt the puzzle was easier than past finals, and the competition strong, I did not check and thus did not win. While this drama developed as the audience caught on to my error, Tammy continued and finished in 7:41 for what she thought was second place, a typical experience solvers have had in recent years at the ACPT tournament where the fastest solver has finished, left the stage even, and you know they are done but you cannot know they've made an error. As Tammy turned to congratulate me, I informed her that no, there are three wrong numbers on my grid, and you are the new champion. (Aside: the confusion was not later helped by Will Shortz announcing Tammy as second which I also helped correct since she had deservedly won.) "Eugene" had only 3 or 4 numbers filled in and this made no sense to anyone in the room.

So, I guess the story of this championship is that I found a new-gear for my on-stage solving and hit one out of the park. However, I missed third base on my way to score. I'm still unsure what my WSC plans (construct/solve) are - I'll think about it after the WPC. Lots to do before the championship I care most about in a week in Antalya....

[ETA: Here is the detailed Philly Inquirer piece - not sure what "pots of puzzle gold" I'm missing but I've never brought any of them back from overseas.]
zundevilzundevil on October 25th, 2009 07:55 am (UTC)
Thanks for the recap. As you know, I don't believe it's possible to devise a "realistic" format less suited to rewarding the top solver than this one, given only three chances to qualify, the one-puzzle final, the one-mistake-and-you're-done angle of said final, and the on-paper solving leading incongruously to using whiteboards. Thus far #'s 2 and 3 have come into play the last couple of years, possibly with #4 to blame as well. As such I think you're taking this unnecessary twist of fate particularly well.

(You'll note that I don't include any hypothetical rules like "Surrendering early to impossibly difficult puzzles is to your benefit" because, hey, let's be *realistic* here...)

(Also, none of this is to say that Tammy isn't a deserving champ. She's made the finals all three years, and finished this year's puzzle clean and in a good time. But a 3.5 minute gap ought to be worth 3 wrong squares in some world, tho apparently not this one.)

4:14, even with the me-esque errors, is ridiculous. I'm not an elite vanilla solver, admittedly, but even *having seen the puzzle before* and *without all the on-stage b.s.* I still would've lost. My two tries at that one were 5:52 and 4:24, fwiw.

I still think you should compete at next year's WSC, but it's a tough call. What is the world's top *solver* and *author* supposed to do? Is there some way you can do both?
motrismotris on October 25th, 2009 12:13 pm (UTC)
I hope to post the fail video when I can, but it should be a good example for the community of a solid white-board solve with 2 seconds of absolute hero to goat at the end as only a Buffalonian may know how.

Re the last point, I'd say I'm 80% leaning towards a solution of "Write a SudokuCup competition, as I was asked to do, to show the community what a Snyder round would be like, but then compete in Philly." Still, I'm waiting until after Antalya to be sure.
(Anonymous) on October 25th, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC)
As much as I've been the victim of such anomalies in the past Jason, I think I have to disagree. A line has to be drawn somewhere with regards to solving accuracy, and by far the most reasonable place to join it is at complete accuracy.

In any competition format, the best candidate does not win 100% of the time - that's just the way of the world. Perhaps the USSC needs a review of its format (that's another discussion) - but I don't think the idea of rewarding any form of inaccuracy should be entertained.

zundevil: Zeebazundevil on October 25th, 2009 10:49 pm (UTC)
It wouldn't be rewarding inaccuracy, as you put it. It would be penalizing an inaccurate initial solution...and allow the solver to have another go at it. This isn't some trivia thing where you take guesses and hope you're right, so no new information is really gained after you are told "This solution of yours is incorrect".

The method from the India semifinals -- we will check it for a minute and tell you during that time whether you're correct or not -- is significantly better (IMHO) than what is done at the USSC and UKSC. A time penalty would be applied, which is a reasonable middle-ground between indiscriminate guessing-and-declaring and the current system.

I wouldn't claim that this would necessarily be an improvement for the ACPT -- there maybe you just might not be able to decide between two possible letters for a given square or something -- but in these sorts of logic competitions I believe it would be.
motrismotris on October 26th, 2009 09:37 am (UTC)
I certainly agree with a lot of what Jason is saying in terms of structures that can work. As someone who built his reputation in part with that magic finger checking format in WSC2 if it wasn't already there after the toroidal in WSC1, I can say that in a multi-puzzle format I am way more comfortable giving up 20-30 seconds on a puzzle to check all constraints. I do this during rounds, during the USPC, etc., as I feel I have the time. Even so, I've never seen or heard of others doing this on stage though at those events. For example, in the classic competition in Goa, in three of the rounds, I did just this. It kept me clean (even though I did not spot an error as I had in WSC2), and I won the title. Only in the single round (#2 I think) where all other competitors had already said done when I finished did I not waste time not finding a mistake I did not make. In a one puzzle final, where there is no margin to try to preserve a lead or use other competitors' finish times as a signal to finally stop checking, my finger guiding my eyes as I scan is not a smart strategy. Yes, I blazed through the puzzle, but I could not know how hard it would be to the other two solvers, one of whom was the only more likely finalist in my mind than Wei-Hwa entering the event (unless half of Europe's top solvers showed up to compete), and the other a complete unknown that still gets my Snyder-sense all tingly. So, I made sure the grid was full, since I've seen Wordplay, and said done. Maybe I can check my last 5 digits the next time, but otherwise I think checking is inappropriate in a 1 puzzle format and so the typical potential for human error will never be gone for me. I don't really have any concern of people not thinking I'm a good sudoku solver if I don't win every year. They'll just learn I'm both fast, and human.
(Anonymous) on October 26th, 2009 11:20 am (UTC)
Hmmm. Well I wasn't there in Goa and this idea has never occurred to me - perhaps because at our own championship that logistics of giving back papers after they had been handed in would be all but impossible.

Still, whilst it appears to have obvious merit and appeal (indeed I don't think speculative bifurcaters would be rewarded at all - if they spot that their bifurcation was wrong it makes perfect sense to simply rub out and start again rather than to hand in; if they don't spot it and it gets handed back most likely the puzzle will have to be started from scratch and they'll be beaten anyhow; and if it was right then there is no difference), I still have serious reservations.

At a championship, as the organisers here are fond of pointing out, the accuracy of solving is more important than the speed. The aspect of being as sure as you possibly can be of handing in a correct solution, knowing that once handed in that's it, is a critical difference between solving for fun and competitive solving.

It's an additional pressure that only adds to the credibility of an eventual winner that overcomes it - indeed it's not an insignificant pressure - for example at our championships, only 24 of over 100 solvers actually correctly solved the 8 preliminary puzzles.

I'd rather interpret this episode (and with the utmost respect for Thomas, whom I don't particularly like to unnecessarily attack on his own blog!) as a personal failing that can be easily rectified in the future - making him an even more formidable solver. If you are that much of a quicker solver then that still hands you the advantage of a better opportunity to go back over your puzzle and check your answer.

motrismotris on October 26th, 2009 11:24 am (UTC)
There is also a reasonable question of how long the final puzzle should run, given this accuracy question. In the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, there is some controversy in the lengthening and maintaining of the final round puzzle at 20 minutes (from 15) when the fastest finishers in recent years, with an error, have been easily at a third of this time. While slow and steady (Tyler Hinman) won with a 20 minute time length, this arbitrary choice would have a different champion if 15 was still being used. My question then, if the sudokus in the tournament averaged 4 minutes for everyone on stage, is if 5x that time is appropriate. 15' might make sense, but no more.
zundevilzundevil on October 26th, 2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
It's no insignificant amount of pressure, for sure, although I think the contention that it adds credibility to the eventual winner is circular reasoning. With all due respect to the other competitors (particularly three-time finalist Tammy), there is little or no doubt in my mind who solved the finals puzzle the quickest. I guess it depends on what you mean by "solved", but what I mean by it strikes me as being closer to the true definition of it than what is rewarded here...IMHO of course. If, OTOH, Thomas declared an incorrect solution...and was followed 10 seconds later (cleanly) by someone else, then it's quite reasonable to say the second person was the fastest solver. Maybe 30 seconds too. But 3 minutes?

(Incidentally, a part of me wonders what would be worse: declaring a wrong solution with a large lead on second-place that (quadruple)-checking was warranted *or* finishing and spending time checking a clean grid...and getting caught in the process! With no real way of knowing how well the other people are doing -- aside from general intuitive feel for a given puzzle or outside knowledge of "She's very good and this other joker is probably a cheater" -- either seem very possible, needlessly (to me). Maybe we can have a real-time "Sudokounter" installed that tells the people on stage how well the others are doing?)

Most competitions with this sort of all-or-nothing scoring system (e.g. long jump) allow for multiple attempts; and other competitions like gymnastics or figure skating penalize for mistakes rather than essentially nullifying the entire attempt. I guess a one-attempt long jump competition would require a different sort of strategy, but I don't think that would add much in the way of value -- or in the sense of determining who's "best" at the activity. Maybe that's not the point here? Anyhow, nothing's likely to change (other than the headphone rules) by next year, so let's just settle on...if I ever run one of these competitions it will have multiple puzzles or it will have some way to fix screwups. :)

The "Checking the last five digits" concept was suggested to me before it was cool. Sadly it wouldn't have even served any real purpose in Zilina.

This whole discussion is telling me that I should write up my Grand Prix system of puzzle tournament scoring, maybe on that defunct LJ of mine...
(Anonymous) on October 26th, 2009 10:37 pm (UTC)
Your dilemma re checking I think is one of the beauties of competition - of course there is no best way to determine that much more than on that rather vague intuitive level. Maybe I'm a little too fond of a mindgame or two though.

Bringing in any analogies is difficult because sudoku solving strikes me as being a genuinely unique process...for example with multiple attempts at a long jump, it's always the same sandpit you jump into, whereas a sudoku puzzle can vary wildly. Equally with something like gymnastics, the difficulty of a routine can vary with competitors and even then it is very rare to get it done without a mistake - when it does the champion is obvious. The trouble with sudoku is there are lots of people perfectly capable of a "perfect routine".

I feel I've been doing a fair amount of shooting-down here - indeed I hadn't thought about the issue Thomas brings up as well (there's a lot to be said there!) - but I should emphasise that I do sympathise with your guiding principle. Indeed I think in an online scenario (perhaps one of these sudokups I keep miserably failing at) I think there's something in it; after all it's exactly how nikoli.com and the Fed sudoku site operate. I think it'd be particularly interesting in a series of connected competitions (as opposed to, say, a one-off prestige tournament).

I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on a "Ziti Grand Prix" event. I'm sure your spin on how to set the rules would give even the most seasoned organisers some food for thought!


PS my own personal take on the checking the last 5 digits is to make sure I say the digits in my head before entering them to slow me down...beyond that my method is the simple no-empty cell check.
(Anonymous) on February 10th, 2013 07:01 pm (UTC)
I couldn't agree more.
ANY incorrect element should be a complete elimination.
Otherwise, how about I just fill in ANY number anywhere and finish first, in under 30 seconds?
motrismotris on February 10th, 2013 09:03 pm (UTC)
Re: accuracy
The discussion has to do with allowing, with penalty, a solver to resubmit until they are correct. Your suggested approach is a sure way to never win. Leaving one cell blank in an otherwise complete grid is quite different than putting 9s into every cell.