PHILADELPHIA -- Sudoku, the numbers puzzle that claims 167 million US players, held its first national championship on Saturday, drawing more than 800 people from as far away as California and British Columbia.
Thomas Snyder, of Stanford, Calif., works on his final round puzzle after at the Sudoku Tournament in Philadelphia on Saturday Oct. 20, 2007. Snyder later won the tournament. [Agencies]
Organizers said the event attracted a larger crowd than expected, and proved the popularity of the puzzle that has been a fixture in many US newspapers since 2005, after being popularized by The Times of London the previous year.
A survey last summer by the Philadelphia Inquirer, which sponsored the event, found 56 percent of the US population had played the game -- invented in the United States but named Sudoku in Japan.
The Philadelphia event was won by Sudoku's reigning world champion, Thomas Snyder, 27, who completed the "advanced" section in seven minutes, eight seconds -- about three minutes ahead of his nearest rival -- and took home the first prize of $10,000.
Snyder, a postdoctoral student of bioengineering at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and a Harvard University PhD. in chemistry, said he had been playing puzzles including Sudoku since he was 5 years old but had only been into "competitive puzzling" for the last 2 1/2 years.
Secrets of his success included "note-taking that's designed for speed," he said, adding that he looked forward to defending his world title in India next year.
But he stressed that he treated puzzling as just a hobby, and did not see it as a "meaningful" activity.
Alicia Leshner, 46, an intensive care nurse from Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, was also playing the advanced category but entertained no thoughts of winning.
"I just like puzzles," she said. "I do a lot of crossword puzzles. It takes me away from all the other things I have to worry about."
Jennifer Maienza, 49, a kindergarten teacher from Laurel Springs, New Jersey, said she entered the contest because her husband dared her, and because she wanted to meet the event's host, Will Shortz, puzzle master of The New York Times.
"He's the Bruce Springsteen of puzzles," Maienza said.
The 857 contestants, aged 6 to 87, supported by about 300 spectators, sat in silence for 30 minutes at a time to tackle three rounds of Sudoku, which requires players to fill in blanks in a grid of numbers without repeating them vertically, horizontally, or in four quadrants within the grid.
The game's popularity is explained by the fact that anyone can do it, as opposed to crossword puzzles, which assume a certain vocabulary and some cultural knowledge, said Jay Devine, a spokesman for the Philadelphia event.
"Sudoku cuts across all that and allows young and old alike to play it," he said.