Monday, December 04, 2006


Some people are Ginger people, others like Mary Anne. Some are Elvis people, others like the Beatles. Some of us love ping pong, others shoot pool. Some do crossword puzzles, others …

Well that’s the problem, isn’t it? Until recently, there was no real alternative to crossword puzzles, or at least the major newspapers never tried to present one. For those of us who never got on the crossword-puzzle train when it came around during our childhood, that left a gnawing void.

Like anything else, crossword puzzles can be had, but you’ve got to put in the time in order to pick up the knack. I never did. Consequently, here I am with my Harvard Law degree, and I wouldn’t stand a chance if I went mano-a-mano against some pimple faced 15 year old geek who happened to start doing these puzzles regularly from the age of 12. That same kid someday could get Alzheimer’s, and he’d still out perform me when I was in my prime. Did that fact ever rankle me? You bet.

I forget when I saw my first Sudoku puzzle, but almost immediately I was intrigued. Finally, we crossword-puzzle rejects found ourselves an alternative, and we didn’t have to buy “Loser Weekly” magazine in order to pick it up. We could find a Sudoku puzzle every day in our morning paper. Strike that. Here in D.C., many of us routinely are provided two each day: one in the Washington Post, and one in the Post Express that is distributed for free at each Metro (subway) stop. Talk about ubiquitous.

Immediately, I liked the Sudoku concept because it involves numbers. As the former captain of my high school math team, I’ve always loved numbers. Even when I went through adolescence and was way too hyper to read, I enjoyed solving math problems. When I started playing Sudoku, however, I realized that it didn’t permit us to really play with numbers. The digits on the Sudoku board are mere symbols, and the letters A-I could have easily taken the place of the numbers 1-9 without changing these puzzles in any way. Nevertheless, that didn’t deter me from taking up this new hobby. The fact is that I’ve always loved logic puzzles almost as much as math, and that’s precisely what Sudoku is – a puzzle that tests your logic skills and your ability to visualize and remember symbols. I decided to give it a try.

My first reaction was surprise at my incompetence. I’d heard a few people indicate that when they started playing Sudoku, they found all the “easy” problems and many of the “medium” puzzles to be a breeze. But I had trouble even with the easy puzzles, and boy did that tick me off. In my frustration, I went to the Internet and learned a couple of tricks. That was the jump start I needed. Day after day I’d complete these puzzles. Sometimes one, other days two. Then, my wife bought me a Sudoku calendar for Hanukah, and rather than doing one puzzle each day, I would do them at a clip of four or five at a time. Eventually, I got to the point where I felt invisible. Sudoku had become like Tic-Tac-Tough: a game I couldn’t lose.

This went on for a couple of months, and I enjoyed the ride. It was kind of a Zen experience – pick up a newspaper, turn to the puzzle, and complete it without fail. It became a routine, much like a morning stroll. After a while, though, the challenge began to disappear, so I spent a few days here and there putting aside the puzzles altogether. Then one day, the unspeakable happened: a puzzle stumped me. And a couple of weeks later, it happened again. The Zen experience was over. I realized that some of these puzzles required time and effort., and that I was putting in more than enough effort in other walks of life – I hardly needed to struggle with a stupid puzzle in the newspaper.

At around that time I spoke about Sudoku to a friend who owns his own business. His response was succinct: “I don’t have the time to waste on puzzles. I always thought puzzles were for losers.” It wounded me, but I couldn’t really argue with the sentiment. If I had been in my Zen stage as a Sudoku player, he might have gotten a counter. But that stage was gone, and I found myself picking up Sudoku not because it was fun but because I needed to confirm that I was indeed invincible, despite the blip or two in the previous few weeks.

So there I was, morning after morning, walking to the Metro so that I can go to work. I could have benefited from spending my 20 minute ride writing, reading a book, or for that matter meditating. But instead, I picked up the Express and did another puzzle. If it were marked “easy,” I could do it in just a few minutes, but if it were marked “medium” or “hard” it would take most or all of the subway ride, and I might even not be able to finish it until later. I thought that I was acting like an idiot but simply couldn’t stop. My ego wouldn’t let me. I was addicted.

When I reflect on this ridiculous pastime, a couple of statements from college spring to mind. The first was a statement made by my psychology professor: gambling halls never forget that the best way to hook in a player is with intermittent reinforcement. And indeed that was true in my case: my addiction was at its peak when I had no idea if I could solve the puzzle or not.

The second was a statement that my roommate made – a quotation he attributed to Oscar Wilde: “I don’t like a man without one good redeemable vice.” Being in college at the time, my reaction was “just one?” But seriously, I always saw a lot of wisdom in that quotation. People without any vices seem incapable of relating to the rest of us. They’re too perfect. They don’t know what it’s like to battle with demons. For example, my mother would bemoan the fact that her father gambled away much of her family’s money during the Depression, but the thought of the old man losing at the pinochle table always humanized him in my eyes. And what about the vice of drinking? Look what’s it done for Mel Gibson – it’s outed him as a schmuck, maybe even in his own eyes. Now, long after he made “The Passion of the Anti-Semite,” he might sincerely be seeking help.

“In vino veritas,” they say. Sometimes, a little veritas is in order.

But what about Sudoku? Is there any redemptive value in it? Or is my friend right in suggesting that puzzles are for people who waste time that could be better spent getting something accomplished (or at least clearing the mind for more productive uses)?

I’ve heard all about the justification for Sudoku that it fights Alzheimer’s. But I figured I have a few decades before that becomes an issue, so I can’t use that excuse. What about the idea of being humanized – is there anything about sticking your head in a newspaper and placing little dots and numbers on a sheet of paper that humanizes us?

Perhaps the answer to that is yes. Consider it a protest against living life in a pressure cooker. Consider it a protest against the idea that there’s nothing more precious to a human life than time. Isn’t all this supposed to be a journey, not a destination? And if that old saw is true, why shouldn’t we make a little time for a wide variety of things – including silly things, like puzzles? If we’re so busy that we can’t spare a few minutes a day for a puzzle, perhaps there’s a problem with our lifestyle .. and it’s not the puzzle.

But all that said, I have had enough sense to stay away from the Sudoku Samurai games (the games with five Sudoku puzzles in one). I completed the first one that I saw and immediately realized that this was too crazy even for me. It’s kind of like realizing that you may be a coke addict, but at least you've had the marbles to stay off the heroin.

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