Wednesday July 25, 2012
Sudoku direct from Japan
By CHIN MUI YOON
Interest in Sudoku has not waned since the craze for the puzzle caught on with Malaysians in 2005. The Star will be the first newspaper in the country to offer daily Sudoku puzzles created by Nikoli Japan, the original publishers of the phenomenal numbers game.
IF ever there is a perfect puzzle, it has to be Sudoku.
Looking deceptively easy with its signature nine-by-nine grids, the little numbers game offers a mental workout that challenges the players on varying degrees of difficulty. But it is fun, engrossing and appeals to people of any age or background, requiring nothing more than a pencil, an eraser and simple logic to solve.
Interest in and passion for the brain-teasers has shown no sign of abating since it achieved global fame two decades after its humble birth in 1984.
Sudoku is abbreviated from the Japanese name of Suji wa dokushini ni kagiru, meaning “bachelor or single”, which reflects the basic rule that only the numbers between one and nine can be filled in each nine-by-nine box without any repetition in each cell and grid.
Japanese Maki Kaji first came across a puzzle called Number Place created by Howard Garnes in a US magazine in the early 1980s. It was to become a precursor to Sudoku. Kaji, now 61, experimented with the puzzle until he came up with a version that is simpler yet more refined.
The Times newspaper in Britain published Sudoku on Nov 12, 2004, and sparked a craze for the game. It caught on in America in the summer of 2005. That same year in Malaysia, the Sudoku fad took off when The Star published the puzzle in its features pullout.
From today, The Star will be the first newspaper in Malaysia to offer original Sudoku puzzles daily from Kaji’s Tokyo-based company, Nikoli Co Ltd. Some of the puzzles will be specifically created just for The Star readers.
Nikoli prides itself on its unique Sudoku puzzles, whereby each is designed and crafted manually instead of the widespread computer-generating practice. As a result of such painstaking effort and dedication, Nikoli puzzles offer an unparalleled mental exercise that is at once tricky and challenging, unpredictable and thoroughly fun. It is said that a Sudoku by Nikoli sets your brain off like the popping lights of a pinball machine!
On the other hand, computer-generated Sudoku puzzles require a single technique or key to cracking the entire puzzle.
“Solving a Nikoli Sudoku puzzle is like reading a story in numeral form; there are many paths to take and clues to guide you, you will encounter various emotions, diversions and obstacles as you continue your journey.
“You may end up losing your way and having to traverse many paths before you find a key to helping you reach the mountaintop!” describes Nikoli Co Ltd executive vice-president and financial officer Jimmy Goto during a recent interview with The Star in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
“The speed of solving a puzzle is not as important as the fun and satisfaction you derive from working the puzzle. Our company policy remains true to Maki Kaji’s vision of ensuring that each puzzle is enjoyable,” he adds.
Indeed, in his first visit here in March last year as a guest speaker of the National Sudoku Seminar in Selangor organised by Malaysia Sudoku Society, Kaji said: “I don’t see the point of making such a difficult puzzle that nobody can solve or enjoy. I have always desired to create one puzzle that can be enjoyed by many people around the world so that they can have a break from daily stress. This has been my company’s goal for 30 years.”
By fans, for fans
Kaji started his company in August 1980, naming it after an Irish racehorse, Nikoli, that had won the 1980 Irish 2,000 Guineas.
From a small firm it has grown to be a prolific producer of pencil puzzle magazines that are sold worldwide. Nikoli has been credited not just with creating Sudoku but some 30 other logic-based puzzles such as Slitherlink, Shikaku, Nuritabe, Hitori and Kakuro.
A pool of over 300 people, of which 23 are full-time staff, devise these popular puzzles published by Nikoli every quarter. From the start Kaji had wanted a people-centred company where readers and fans are invited to submit their own puzzles. Doctors, lawyers, housewives and students alike regularly contribute their work, which, when accepted, bears their names above each of their published submissions.
What’s uniquely different about Nikoli is the strong bond it helps to forge between each puzzle’s human creator and its solver, who are folks of all ages and backgrounds from various countries. Interestingly, all Nikoli puzzle creators were once fans and readers who had found themselves so immersed in solving puzzles that they began forming their own to share with others.
Nikoli’s sales planning department chief Kei Nakata was himself a contributor since his university days. Nakata had discovered Sudoku when he was 12 and was instantly hooked.
While studying mechanical engineering at the top-ranked Tokyo University, Nakata submitted his first puzzle to Nikoli in 1993.
“I was overjoyed when I received a positive reply from Maki Kaji that my puzzle had been accepted over hundreds others,” the 38-year-old Nakata recalls, beaming with delight. He was in town with Goto on a business visit.
“As excited as I was to see my name in print above my puzzle, I was ecstatic when my cheque arrived! I treated my university mates to a meal that night, and as soon as I reached home I started creating another puzzle.”
The following year, Nikoli invited Nakata to be a regular contributor as part of a pool of creative talent. Throughout the 14 years Nakata spent in university where he eventually received a Master of Engineering, he earned a steady income from Nikoli.
Upon graduation, Nakata promptly applied for a full-time job with Nikoli. Kaji rejected his application three times, repeatedly telling the young man that he was over-qualified to join his small publishing firm.
“Finally, Kaji-san relented and told me that it is my choice to join Nikoli!” says Nakata, who was employed in 2008. He continues creating puzzles in between helping to expand the company’s reach across the world.
Goto points out that it is not uncommon for fans to eventually join the company whose staff hail from various vocations; its present team comprises a former lawyer, veterinarian, librarian and several engineers.
Nikoli’s current chief editor Anpuku Yoshinao had also started out as a reader while he was a student at the prestigious Kyoto University, where he later created Shikaku, another popular numeral puzzle.
“Maki Kaji also rejected his application several times,” reveals Nakata. “Yoshinao is a mathematics genius so Kaji-san always felt that he should take his talents to a different platform instead of just creating puzzles. But Yoshinao was very persistent and continued sending applications until he was hired!”
“We have a long history of publishing high-quality puzzles submitted by fans,” says Goto.
“We are very particular about which puzzles we accept for publishing; fewer than 10% of submissions make it to print. Even experienced puzzle creators get rejected through our stringent reviewing process.
“But it is in having a democratic and constructive people-centric creation process that makes Nikoli puzzles exciting. Each puzzle is unique and fresh, and there is healthy competition. They are not computer-generated clones. With this process, we are always open to new ideas and constructive criticism so we can continually improve.”
Sudoku is currently enjoyed in over 100 countries and featured in over 600 national newspapers.
Malaysia Sudoku Society secretary Lee Yee Dian says they hope to introduce the puzzle to more Malaysians as presently, 75% of its members are senior citizens, and men make up twice the number of women.
“Sudoku offers a stimulating and beneficial mental workout for all ages; as such, we have initiated discussions with the Education Ministry to adopt Sudoku as part of the Mathematics syllabus in local schools,” he says.
Goto adds thoughtfully: “We do find it a challenge for Sudoku to thrive among the young – an attention-deficit generation that is absorbed in social media, mobile phones and digital entertainment, all of which have edged out the simple pleasures of working with a pencil, eraser and an active mind.
“Because of that you will find the older generation taking to Sudoku much more easily. So for us at Nikoli, we are studying plans towards offering more mobile content for all our puzzles including Sudoku. We already offer apps for Android and iPhone users to download from our websites.”
Goto says they are often asked when another puzzle as phenomenal as Sudoku will be introduced.
“It is very rare to achieve Sudoku’s worldwide success,” he says. “What we care deeply about is creating puzzles that offer an enjoyable diversion for people everywhere and at the same time, letting them exercise their brain. Sudoku remains the answer today.”