Sudoku smackdown

March 2, 2006, midnight | By Robert Feasley | 14 years, 10 months ago

Blazers try their luck at Washington Post Sudoku tournament

There's nothing special about a square. It's angular, bland. It's what we call people who don't know how to let loose and have a good time.

But on a Thursday night last month, in the hallowed halls of Union Station in Washington D.C., a square is not just a square. Paired with 80 other squares, a square is a quest; an obstacle, a competition: A square is a "Sudoku-off!"

It's the first annual Washington Post Sudoku tournament. For those readers just back from long interplanetary expeditions, Sudoku is the hottest new brain-teaser since the rubix cube.

The mood is intense, the tension palpable. Forty competitors are seated around 10 tables cordoned off by red velvet rope. Ten event moderators dressed in black keep a tight rein on the proceedings. Spectators jockey for position three rows deep to peer over the brocaded barriers. Three die-hard fans stand with sequentially worded t-shirts that spell out "Su," "Do," and yes, "Ku!"

Ten minutes pass. Suddenly, nothing happens. Well, almost nothing. This makes a golf tournament look like Spike TV's "Ultimate Fighting Championship."

The contestants were culled from a pool of 7,000 applicants into five groups of 40 competitors. Each contestant had to pass through a series of puzzles designed to separate the weak from the truly battle-hardened.

Eventually, someone stands and waves a completed puzzle. The crowd murmurs, politely. Minutes go by. Another conquered puzzle is hoisted aloft. "Huzzah!" murmurs the crowd. My feet hurt.

Puzzles are checked and winners silently acknowledged. And so it proceeds for two-and-a-half hours of elimination and reseating until the "Tenacious 25" sit down for the finals. Incredibly, the crowd does not thin, apparently un-phased by the mind-numbing boredom of it all. Finally, a winner is announced, and everyone can marvel at the fabulous first prize — $500 and an all expenses paid trip to London, England, to watch the Sudoku World Championship.

Maybe they will provide chairs.


David Fantegrossi
Math teacher David Fantegrossi likes squares. He likes them so much that he finds time during his full schedule to work through the occasional Sudoku puzzle. Despite having completed fewer than 10 puzzles in his life, the tournament was simply too tempting an opportunity to pass up, he says. His professed "low expectations" for reaching the finals notwithstanding, Fantegrossi had hoped to at least survive the first round.

Alas, it was not to be.

Fantegrossi violated one of the central tenets of the game: He played to his assumptions instead of systematically working through the puzzle. He failed to complete the puzzle and was further belittled by being bested in the round by, among others, a 12-year-old boy. "I just played ahead too much," he opines.

Natalie Friedman

A study in contrast, senior Natalie Friedman makes completing at least one Sudoku puzzle part of her daily routine. Though not always the fastest among her peers, she entered the competition reasonably prepared and confident she wouldn't lose to a middle-schooler. Friedman's friends came to offer their support, replete with video cameras and picture phones to document the tournament.

Friedman placed third in her preliminary round, finishing the puzzle in seven minutes flat and qualifying for the finals. "I surprised myself with my performance," she says. "I didn't know I was so fast."

Friedman went on to place fifth overall, narrowly missing the third-place prize of two Amtrak tickets to New York and a $50 gift certificate to a Union Station store. Encouraged by her strong placement, Friedman plans on trying again next year. Should she be in the area, she will doubtless serve as inspiration to the next wave of the Blazer Sudoku squad.

The competitive sudoku scene

Like so many other slightly bizarre pop culture phenomena, competitive Sudoku originated in Japan. It has only just reach the United States. The Washington Post's competition is the third nationally recognized event of this nature. It remains to be seen whether it will continue to grow in popularity or become one of those sports one only encounters late at night on ESPN 8.

Robert Feasley. Robert is a llamahead. More »

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