Yes, you read the title correctly. I am addicted to the number puzzle Sudoku. Let me say right away that I am not a serious addict. I’ve never downloaded a game, and I have never bought a Sudoku book. However, when I find a New York Post in the garbage, I turn immediately to the index, rush to the right page, and spend the next 20 minutes on a “Very Easy” square. (In case you didn’t know, the Post uses this explicit ranking system.) Then I work for a half hour on the “Difficult” square, and after finding the Six Obvious Numbers, give up in mild humiliation.
(Embarrassingly, after eight months of doing these puzzles, I’m nearly talentless at them.)
My addiction seems to increase when I travel. Recently, on a three-hour bus trip to the Catskills, I intended to finish the prophetic but difficult William S. Burroughs novel Nova Express. Instead, I compulsively worked on a “Level 1” square in am New York (the free daily). Then I took a nap. Thus was my bus ride wasted.
There is one person to blame for my Sudoku obsession: my friend Clark Strand, author of the forthcoming How to Believe in God (Morgan Road).
Clark has studied Zen for 20 years, and everything he says sounds slightly mystical. “There’s this new puzzle from Japan,” he told me in mid-2006. “Actually, it was invented in the U.S.A., then traveled to Japan, where it was given a Japanese name, and now it’s back here. It’s the fastest-growing puzzle since crosswords appeared in the 1920’s!”
After a few false starts, I was able to “solve” the lowest-level Sudoku games. I became engrossed in the patterns of numbers in these puzzles, and cherished the “Aha!” insights they offer. Soon, however, I discovered that my intellectual friends are suspicious of this pastime.
“Is there any strategy?” Myk Freedman, a brilliant jazz-influenced composer, asked me, after I explained the game. His words continue to haunt me. The implication—which he is too polite to voice (being Canadian)—is that Sudoku is “Wordsearch” in Japanese.
One by one, I’ve told my literary acquaintances about my passion, and they have all replied evenly, “I’ve never understood that craze.” And on the subway, the only people you see penciling in the numbers are teenage girls and secretaries. Instead of being known as a Zen-like sage, I am at the level of an American Idol fan—all because of Clark Strand. (Clark, incidentally, stopped doing Sudoku a month after hooking me on it.)
“Why do I bother?” I ask myself. “Absolutely no one is impressed by my hobby. The non-Sudoku crowd thinks I’m an idiot, and real Sudokuers are all better than me.” Then I snag another New York Post from a park bench and begin an “Easy.” And just when the puzzle looks hopeless, I’ll infer an 8 in the middle box, and a wave of self-love will pass over me. I’m re-addicted!