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| Thursday, September 15, 2005

Strib Story on Sudoku

From the Strib for 9/15/05, AP story SUDOKUVAR0915:

Logic puzzle sudoku becomes publishing phenomenon


September 15, 2005

By Kim Curtis

Associated Press

        Sudoku are deceptively simple-looking puzzles that require no math, spelling or language skills.  Unlike crosswords, they don't require an extensive knowledge of trivia.  They're logic, pure and simple.

        They're also addictive.  Sudoku books -- pages and pages of grids with nothing more than numbers in boxes -- are selling so well that they're quickly filling lists of bestsellers.

        "I can't think of a puzzle book that has sold like this," said Ethan Friedman, who edits the New York Times crossword puzzle books for St. Martin's/Griffin Press, including two volumes of sudoku with introductions by Times crossword guru Will Shortz.

        "This is a publishing phenomenon," Friedman said.

        Nine sudoku books are planned.

        Nielsen BookScan, which lists 10 sudoku titles, estimates they sold a combined 40,000 copies in a recent week.  The only books that sold more were J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and Kevin Trudeau's "Natural Cures They Don't Want You to Know About."

        "I'm not surprised that people like the puzzle," said Wayne Gould, a retired judge from New Zealand who wrote a computer program that has helped popularize the puzzles.  "I am surprised at how people have gotten into a frenzy about it."

Puzzle began as 'Number Place'

        In sudoku, the game is laid out in adjoining grids.  Players must figure out which numbers to put in nine rows of nine boxes so that the numbers one through nine appear just once in each column, row and three-by-three square.

        The phenomenon originated in 1979, when one of the grids, titled "Number Place," was published in a U.S. puzzle magazine, according to Shortz.  The puzzle did not catch on in the United States then, but enthusiasts in Japan loved the idea.  By the early 1980s, the puzzles -- renamed sudoku, which means "single number" -- filled the pages of Japanese magazines.

        Enter Gould, a 60-year-old puzzle enthusiast who in 1997 found himself "killing time" in a Japanese bookstore.

        "I don't read or write or speak Japanese so there wasn't much that I recognized," he said from his vacation home in Phuket, Thailand.  "I picked up a sudoku book and bought it."

        He was soon hooked.

        "I started thinking, 'What happens when I solve all these puzzles?' ... I thought I'd write a computer program so that I'd never run out of puzzles for the rest of my life," he said.

        Gould, who had taken up computer programming as a hobby, wrote software that randomly generates the logic puzzles.

        He also wanted to share sudoku with the world -- and perhaps "make a bit of money."  So one day last November, he marched into the Times of London without an appointment, with a copy of that day's paper with a square cut out and a sudoku puzzle in its place.

        Getting the features editor to publish the puzzles was easy -- Gould offered to provide them daily free if the paper printed his website address (www.sudoku.com), where he sells the software needed to generate a lifetime of sudoku.

Newspaper readers catch on

        Other newspapers quickly realized that they, too, had to provide sudoku to stay competitive.

        Gould provides free puzzles to 120 newspapers in 36 countries. Other syndicates provide sudoku -- Kansas City-based Universal Press, which the Star Tribune uses, and others supply dozens of U.S. newspapers.

        The Star Tribune started running the puzzles on July 31.  The response was immediate, said Mi-Ai Parrish, assistant managing editor for features.

        "It's one of the rare times that readers were actively asking us to add something -- and then calling to thank us for doing so," she said.

        One reader who wrote to Parrish was Zachary Adkins, a 9-year-old fourth-grader in Maple Grove who attends Rush Creek Elementary School.

        "I first found out about sudoku from my mom," he wrote in a follow-up e-mail.  "She showed me a puzzle in a magazine, and I solved it the first try.  I only had to erase one number. ... I don't solve the sudoku puzzle every day, but if I have time I try to do it."

        His mom, Jody, might have reached her limits with sudoku, though.

        "The puzzle does nothing but frustrate me," she said, "especially when my kid kicks my butt at it."

Books go bonkers

        U.S. book publishers saw what was happening in England and sensed opportunity.

        "That was unheard of, to have a puzzle book up on the bestseller list," said John Mark Boling, a spokesman for Overlook Press in Woodstock, N.Y., which obtained rights to publish some British sudoku books in the United States.  In July, the first printing of "The Book of Sudoku" by Michael Mepham sold out in two weeks.  Three more sudoku books quickly followed, selling a combined 400,000 copies, Boling said.

        "The Book of Sudoku" is also one of two sudoku books on Publishers Weekly's list.

        More U.S. publishers quickly put out sudoku books.

        New York-based Barnes and Noble, the nation's largest bookseller, bought 28,000 sudoku books from Newmarket Press, according to company president Esther Margolis.

        Shortz, who has been addicted to sudoku since April, says their appeal is simple.

        "Most problems we face in everyday life don't have perfect solutions.  It's satisfying to take a problem through to the end all by yourself," he said.

Staff writer Randy A. Salas contributed to this report.

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