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Ever hear of Sudoku?

If you don’t like puzzles, you probably haven’t.

Not only is Sudoku the biggest thing to hit the puzzle world in years–perhaps ever–it is also a bona fide book publishing phenomenon.

Iin 2005, there were seven crossword puzzle books on Nielsen BookScan’s list of the 50 bestselling adult game books. A year later, there were none. Sudoku books had taken over the category, accounting for 40 of the top 50 spots. In 2004, according to Bowker’s Books In Print database, there were no Sudoku books published in the U.S. Last year, 233 were published in the U.S. and more than five million were sold.

What is Sudoku, and how did it take the publishing world by storm?

Sudoku is a logic-based, number placement puzzle. The object is to fill a 9-by-9 grid – and a 3-by-3 sub-grid — with digits from 1 to 9 without using a number more than once. The name “Sudoku”, in fact, means “single digits” in Japanese. Numbers are used as a convenience. They possess no inherent arithmetic value and derive none from relationships with any other numbers on the grid. You could just as easily use alpha characters, shapes or colors to achieve the same effect.

The story of how Sudoku became a worldwide sensation bears repeating because it is a textbook example of how the chain of events leading up to an idea’s tipping point only begins with the original act of creation. If the Sudoku pandemic shows us anything, it’s that the inventor is the least important part of the puzzle.

Howard Garns–a retired 74-year-old architect and freelance puzzle constructor from Indiana–designed a new kind of numbers puzzle in the late 1970’s. In 1979, Dell Magazines published Garns’ puzzle as “Numbers Place.” It’s safe to say that it enjoyed a modest success at best. Garns died in 1989, years before his Numbers Place would take over the world as Sudoku.

In 1984, Garns’ puzzle was introduced in Japan by Maki Kaji, the publisher of Nikoli magazine. Numbers Place became “Suuji wa dokushin ni kagiru,” which roughly translates to “the digits must be single.” A couple of years later, Kaji shortened the name to “Sudoku,” and modified the rules to create a more symmetrical grid. The importance of the name change cannot be overstated. It gave the puzzle an exotic cache that, years later, would make it irresistible to Westerners. Kaji trademarked the name “Sudoku,” and to this day carries a business card that says, “Father of Sudoku”.

If the story stopped here, Sudoku would probably have been one of a number of popular Japanese puzzles, while Garn’s Numbers Place would have likely disappeared in time——except that in 1997, a retired (I guess only retired people have the time to think up these things) Hong Kong judge from New Zealand named Wayne Gould, stumbled on a partially completed Sudoku puzzle in a Japanese bookstore. Gould became obsessed with Sudoku, and spent the next six years developing a computer program to generate puzzles on the quick. He then pitched Sudoku to The Times of London, who published Britain’s first “Su Doku” puzzle in November 2004. Soon after, the U.K., and then continental Europe, fell to Sudoku.

Gould’s computer program was essential to Sudoku’s viral-like growth. Before Gould, crossword and other puzzles were hand-crafted by freelance “constructors” and then vetted by puzzle gurus before they were published. What Gould did was make it possible to quickly produce an unlimited number and variety of Sudoku puzzles that would eventually support the rapid global expansion to any newspaper in the world, regardless of whether they had a puzzle expert on staff. In recent years, this has also made it possible to produce Sudoku puzzles and games for mobile phones and other portable entertainment devices.

The Conway Daily Sun in New Hampshire was the first newspaper in the U.S. to publish a Sudoku puzzle by Gould. In April, 2005, the New York Post became the first major American daily to run Sudoku. In short order, every other major newspaper in the U.S. followed suit — except for the New York Times. Ironically, in spite of its crossword snobbery, it was the New York Times that gave Sudoku the credibility it needed to grow beyond the readers of daily tabloids and entertainment magazines.

In June of 2005, after Sudoku began to take off in the U.S., St. Martin’s Press was worried that they would be left behind, and they called their star crossword author, Will Shortz, to beg him to deliver three Sudoku books of 100 puzzles each in ten days. Working with a computer programmer in the Netherlands, Shortz gave St. Martin’s what they wanted. Shortz’s first book was an immediate bestseller, as were every one of his Sudoku books since. According to Publishers Weekly, by the end of 2005 Shortz’s books accounted for 30% of all Sudoku titles that sold at least 100,000 copies; by the end of 2006, Shortz had authored an astounding 59% of all Sudoku bestsellers on the PW list. St. Martin’s was now trying to keep up with demand, printing a million copies of Shortz’s books every month.

In case you didn’t recognize his name, Will Shortz is the crossword editor of the New York Times. He is worshiped by millions who hunger for his wit, elegance, and erudition — and can’t function without tackling his puzzle in the Times every day, especially the monster published in the Sunday magazine section. Once Will Shortz lent his enormous prestige and standing (and that of the New York Times, in a way) to Sudoku, it became okay for legions of educated “word nerds” to surrender to it.

There you have it. The recipe for success is short and simple:

1. a great idea
2. an even greater name
3. a mindless machine to produce a never-ending supply of engaging, addictive content
4. a revered prophet to come down from the mountain to give his blessing

Now you try it.

Tags: beneath the cover, puzzle, puzzle game, Sudoku

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  • Karen

    I am a big puzzle fan! More into words than numbers, I sat down one day to complete a “Numbers Place” grid and was immediately hooked. Soon after, Suduko hit and I rode the wave right along with the rest of the world.

    Fun to read how Roy Williams discusses Sudoku’s recipe for success – great advice. Thanks!