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.]