When I asked my husband Warren what he wanted for Christmas last December, I expected his typical sweet-but-infuriating answer: "I want you, baby." We fall into our routine -- Me: "You already have me." He: "Then I have what I want." Then I say be serious and he says he is serious and we go around like a co-dependent Abbott and Costello until I give up and secretly swear to get him underwear. This time, however, Warren had a different answer: "I want brain games." "Brain games?" I ask. "Yeah. Something to keep me sharp." Okay. He wants to keep his edge -- that I can respect. So I go in search of brain games and come home with crosswords, books actually entitled "Brain Games," and, you guessed it, Sudoku. I never thought much of Sudoku -- I sized it up as just another craze that would go the way of "Where's Waldo?" or "The Magic Eye." I tried it once or twice in my LA Times, but could never get into it. It reminded me of those irritating, little plastic number puzzles that were (and still are) popular party favors for kids, but even more annoying because Sudoku numbers don't slide around or make cool clicking noises. But when I read the forward of the handy-dandy purse-sized "White Belt Sudoku" book, I realized I never understood the rules of Sudoku. So, after years of ignoring this pop culture phenomenon and knowing my mommy brain could also use some "sharpening," I, too, sudoku'd.
For those who don't know (all three of you), the object of sudoku is to fill in every row, column and 3x3 box with each of the numbers 1-9 exactly once. I knew about the rows and columns, but the box info was new to me and obviously crucial. So I tried a puzzle armed with proper instructions and it was like a shot of adrenaline to my brain -- I instantly loved Sudoku. This shouldn't have surprised me as it did -- I've always been a puzzle person. Give me a pencil and some good light and I'll cross words and connect the dots with the best of them. But no puzzle had captivated me so immediately and completely as Sudoku and I started to wonder why.
I went through all of the obvious reasons -- it's simple, it's quick, everyone likes the feeling of building towards something and getting something right. As Will Shortz, current king of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle (r.i.p. Eugene T. Maleska!), says in his introduction to "The Joy of Sudoku":
"Sudoku... can be easy, moderate, or hard... And the amount of time needed to solve one -- generally between 10 and 30 minutes, for most people for most puzzles -- is about perfect in order to feed a daily addiction. If sudoku took less time, it wouldn't pose enough challenge, and if it took more, you might lose interest... Like crosswords, sudoku puzzles have blank squares that are inviting to fill in. It's said nature abhors a vacuum. We as human beings seem to have a natural compulsion to fill up empty spaces... Sudoku also provides an appealing rhythm of solving. Generally, the first few numbers are easy to enter. Then... you may get stymied and maybe a bit frustrated. Once you make the critical breakthrough (or breakthroughs), though, the final numbers can come quickly, giving you a rush and a heady sense of achievement -- often tempting you to start another sudoku immediately. Hence the addictiveness of sudoku, which is the "crack cocaine" of puzzles."
So was that the answer? Was Sudoku merely puzzle crack and I its latest strawberry? Yes, I was addicted and yes, I always want to solve another one right away, but I still sensed there was something deeper going on with Sudoku and its massive, worldwide and lasting appeal.
As I thought further, I realized there was something inherently democratic about sudoku -- most everyone at every age can count from 1-9 and it takes little to no money to get into sudoku -- there are plenty of free puzzles online and in newspapers. But there is still more to it than ease and price, more to it than simplicity and the quick high of achievement -- Sudoku manages to challenge those who attempt it to bring out the best within themselves.
How, you may ask, does a grid half-filled with numbers manage to guide us to a nearly (or sometimes complete) transcendent experience? Well, think of the skills involved in solving Sudoku -- first and foremost, you need patience and perseverance. Once you get the initial rush of numbers pencilled in, as Shortz points out, there is a moment where it seems the puzzle is impossible to solve. You search and search and search for another number but you can't seem to come up with anything. You are as lost as Newt Gingrich at a Wu Tang concert.
It is when you are lost like this in your Sudoku that you must rely on logic. Every number has its own place in Sudoku and even when you feel like taking a stab and guessing, logically you know the best strategy is to employ discipline and find the only number that can fit in a certain place. Too often in our every day lives we abandon logic for ease or comfort or short cuts (think of how we act in traffic -- honking and lane-switching does not get us to our destination any faster though it gives us the illusion it does). Sudoku does not allow you to ditch logic without consequences -- like having to start the puzzle all over again when you get a double number because on the whole, short cuts don't work in Sudoku. Which leads us to discipline. Sometimes when you can find no possible next move, you have to suck it up and scan every row and every column and every box counting from 1 to 9 until you find the number to build on.
This process, while challenging, is also calming, even meditative. I Sudoku before I go to bed because unlike a book, magazine or crossword, Sudoku allows my mind to clear itself of everything but Sudoku. Sudoku requires a kind of concentration that words do not command. You can't rely on your memory the way you do with words because the variables are digits and they have no meaning except an unexpectedly pure one -- they are the tools in service of your brain's (or dare I say mind's?) ability to think in, around and outside the box. No puns, tricks or double entendres to sort out -- just numbers and the holes to fill with them. And, although it seems contradictory to everything I just said, Sudoku also relies on intuition. I can't tell you how many times I look at the same line of numbers again and again and again and then all of a sudden I see something. What makes the difference? Once you start to get into the rhythm of a sudoku puzzle, into the heart and soul of it, the logic, patience, discipline and meditation all converge and damn if the puzzle doesn't start to reveal itself to you. Under normal circumstances, I think this is where I would lose most people. But fortunately since most people do Sudoku, you know what I'm talking about! (You know you do!)
Sudoku, lastly, is a cyclical puzzle. Even though it appears to be a linear game of method and elimination, the mental process of solving it is similar to the one we have when we approach anything new in life. You first think, this is exciting, I can do this, it's a piece of red velvet cake. Then you hit a wall, you think this is impossible, I want to give up, why did I start this in the first place. Then, because of your perseverance, discipline and intuition, you find a way to power through and then you think, wow, I got through it. And that's how we learn and how we grow.
Kind of a lot for a little puzzle, huh? Well, don't take my word for it -- test it out. You can start with the puzzle above. It may not seem like it, but Sudoku is more than just a "brain game" -- it's a life game. On a subconscious level, we want to reaffirm our life process in everything we encounter, even in the seemingly little nothing puzzles we do to pass the time at the dentist's office. This, I think, is what Sudoku has captured. And every time we do one of these puzzles we are saying, "We can be patient. We can persevere. We can problem solve. We can use logic and intuition. We can learn and we can grow." Why? Because we can Sudoku!
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