Addicted to Sudoku

Not since the Rubik's Cube of 1980 has a puzzle been this hot. From its mind-teasers have sprung clubs, competitions, computer-games and a cult-like following. It has become a fresh way to procrastinate. And some experts are even asserting that it can lower your blood pressure, relieve stress -- even make you smarter. It might just be the least-harmful addiction around.

As nearly everyone knows by now, Sudoku resembles a traditional crossword puzzle, with a nine-by-nine box grid. But the game relies on logic -- not knowledge. The goal is to have the numbers 1 through 9 in each row and column of the puzzle's grid, filling in the empty spaces until the box is complete. The game, whose name suggests that it was developed in Japan, was actually invented in the United States, first published in the Dell puzzle magazine in 1979. Five years later, it was picked up by a Japanese magazine and then by a retired New Zealand judge living in Japan, who wrote a computer program for it. In 2004, Sudoku was introduced as a daily feature of the Times of London. By 2005, the World Puzzle Federation estimates that Sudoku was the No. 1 logic puzzle in the world.

Today, hundreds of newspapers print the puzzle on their crossword pages. Italy will host the first World Sudoku Championship next month, with competing teams from more than 20 countries. And beginning today, you can get your daily dose of Sudoku on Newsweek.com, which will publish three puzzles a day, with varying levels of difficulty.

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It's hard to find someone with as much puzzle expertise as Will Shortz, founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and crossword editor for The New York Times. A self-described Sudoku "addict," Shortz is the only person in the world to hold a college degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles, which he earned from Indiana University in 1974. Shortz spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett to reveal what's behind the Sudoku craze. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why has Sudoku become so popular? What's the appeal?

Will Shortz: There's the appeal of any puzzle. There's the challenge, there's the mystery of solving it, the feeling of satisfaction you get from completing it. [And Sudoku] is one of the most addictive puzzles ever invented.

What makes it so addictive?

It's the appeal of the empty squares to be filled in, which is a quality it shares with crosswords, and it has very simple rules. You can learn it in 10 seconds, and yet the logic needed to solve Sudoku is challenging. It's a perfect amount of time to spend on a puzzle, anywhere from 5 minutes to half an hour. And there's usually a rush at the very end, filling in the last squares, which gives you a great feeling. You immediately want to do another.

So could you just spend all day doing Sudoku?

Yeah, I know people who spend all day doing it, including my sister. She's not a puzzle person at all. I've given her my crosswords over the years, and she's tried them, [but] they never interested her much. But she is crazy about Sudoku.

Have you always known Sudoku would catch on, or were you one of the trend-followers?

I've known about it for a long time. I'm the founder of the World Puzzle Championship, an annual event for puzzle-solvers all over the world. There are no word puzzles in [the championship] because everyone speaks different languages. We use mainly logic and math puzzles, so I've been doing Sudoku since 1995.

Would you classify Sudoku as a sport?

[ Laughs ] Boy, well, do you consider chess a sport? That's a tough call. To me, sport suggests athletic ability. And there's no athleticism in Sudoku. But I can see it being definitely a competitive activity. You might call it a 'mental sport.'

If I spend all my time doing Sudoku, will it make me smarter?

I think yes. Put me down as a definite yes. It sharpens your brain, number one, and it improves your focus. You have to be focused to be a good Sudoku solver, because if you make a mistake and then base further logic on the mistake you made, you have no option but to erase everything and start over. So Sudoku really teaches you to be careful.

Can Sudoku help me with stress?

Sudoku is really great for just refreshing your brain. You all have challenges everyday, and you're worried about your work and your home and your family or whatever. Sudoku just lets you put everything else away for those minutes you spend on the puzzle, and then you feel renewed and refreshed and ready to tackle whatever challenge life throws at you.

Do you think the Sudoku trend will pass, like Rubik's Cube, or is it something more?

It is a craze, and the craze is not going to last forever. I think a lot of people are doing it now because its cool, maybe a little hip, certainly its something people are talking about and they want to try it. Certainly this won't last forever, but I think Sudoku is like the Crossword Puzzle, it's going to be here forever.

Who plays Sudoku?

It's a very diverse group. I'll tell you, the difference with crosswords or a word puzzle, obviously, is that they test your knowledge and vocabulary. Sudoku doesn't test your knowledge of anything, it's a pure logic game. I'd say it appeals to people who like logical challenges.

Is there a geek factor that goes along with playing Sudoku?

A little bit. A geek is somebody who is intellectual and devotes way too much time to an intellectual on a particular activity. Since Sudoku is brand new and people are just trying it out, I wouldn't call it a geeky thing yet. Probably tens and tens of millions of people are doing Sudoku, so, unless you think 50 million Americans are geeks, I wouldn't call it geeky. But, it could become that eventually, for people who, you know, devote five hours a day to it.

Will Shortz will be hosting The First American Sudoku Smackdown, in conjunction with the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, in Stamford, Connecticut, on March 24. The event is open to the public, and players of all levels are encouraged to attend. For more information, access crosswordtournament.com .