October 20, 2007

I could spend ten minutes trying to think of a decent pun for "sudoku" that involves Phil Collins's "Sussudio" or something, or I could just start writing about the U.S. Sudoku Tournament and be done with it

So, yes, I went to the U.S. Sudoku Tournament today, even though I had no illusions that I would come close to winning my division (I competed as "intermediate"), because, what the heck, it's a big puzzle event, and Philadelphia's only two hours away. Lorinne came along as a spectator. I signed us up at the last minute and waffled about whether to attend the post-event dinner, which was $20 a person and scheduled from 4:30 to 6:30, after the awards were to be handed out. In the end, I ponied up for dinner, because it seemed likely that the other people I knew would also have signed up for it, so it would be the social thing to do, even though it was probably going to be semi-lame hotel-type food.

I dragged myself out of bed at 5:45 to get to Philadelphia in time for the 11:00 event start -- an hour of groggy morning preparations, then an hour to get to Port Authority to catch an 8:00 bus arriving in Philadelphia at 10:20. The bus left late but arrived on time, so, yay.

The production values of this event seemed rather higher overall than the crossword tournament -- big projection screens set up on either side of the stage showing a closeup of whoever was speaking, or the timer for each round while the competition was in progress, or the solvers in the finals; a ginormous freakin' banner behind the stage; large novelty checks for the winners. And huge prizes -- $10,000 for the advanced division winner, $5,000 for intermediate, $3,000 for beginner. Seems like a lot of thought went into making this event something to remember! Until you find out what the second- and third-place winners in each division win: a gift bag.

That's right -- you go on stage, compete at the big board, manage to finish a cruel sudoku less than two minutes behind the unstoppable Thomas Snyder, and what do you get for your trouble? Squat. Even the 12-year old kid who won the bonus puzzle in her age division won $100! Did anyone consider just how lame that is?

I had a good time at the event, despite not being especially competitive -- I finished 35th-ish to 42nd-ish in my division in all three rounds (hard to tell exactly where I finished with the slightly half-baked scoring system used at the tournament). Each round consisted of three puzzles of increasing difficulty -- if you registered as a beginner, you solved only the first one; intermediate solvers had to solve the first two; and advanced solvers had 30 minutes to get through all three...although the 30 minute time limit was really just to give people time to solve without the tournament lasting all day. Since the first person to correctly finish each round in each division advanced to the finals (or the second person if the first person had already qualified), the winner of each round was determined well before the time limit elapsed.

The puzzles (by Wei-Hua Huang) were all excellent, although after I tried solving one of the advanced puzzles during a break between rounds, I felt smart about not having signed up as an advanced solver. The one in the first round was particularly evil. (I did crack it eventually; the necessary insight was very elegant, but incredibly hard to spot amid all the other information that didn't get you anywhere.) Based on my solving on the bus ride home, I would have finished only one of the three rounds within the time limit if I had competed in the advanced division.

I enjoyed watching the finals. Unlike the crossword tournament finals, what you see on the boards onstage is the entire puzzle, so you don't have to consult a list of clues to appreciate the solving process -- you just get to watch it unfold in front of you. So that was cool. But the crossword tournament does have something the sudoku tournament really didn't -- a sense of community. Once the finals were over and the awards were being handed out, that was it. People started to leave, and efficiently. There was none of the lingering chatting you see after the crossword tournament because people have had such a wonderful time that they're unwilling to leave. (My friend and fellow competitor Dan asked, "When did all the energy get sucked out of this room?") Perhaps that was inevitable with an event this big (there were more participants than there have been at any crossword event), not held at a hotel where everyone is staying, and not lasting long enough for people to get to know each other. But it still made me homesick for Stamford (soon to be Brooklyn).

The eerie desertedness of the main hall after the event was underscored by the sudden presence of several pigeons.


Oh, and the dinner? That turned out to be not a sit-down dinner in a banquet hall in the convention center, but a boxed lunch (sandwich, cookie, chips, apple, soda) served in the undecorated portion of the airplane hangar-like room we were in, just beyond the competitions' seating area. A few small round tables had been set up for the occasion. Lorinne and Dan and I were pretty cheesed off about this, and asked for (and got) refunds. Instead of having lame sandwiches, the three of us went for Italian food with champion Thomas Snyder (he and Dan and I are all members of the same Mystery Hunt team) and U.S. puzzle team captain Nick Baxter, who I've sort of known peripherally for a while but have never really talked to, so I enjoyed getting a chance to chat with him. He was particularly jazzed to hear that Sterling will be publishing a book of his favorite Nikoli puzzle type, Masyu.

All in all, pretty fun, but I don't know if I'll make it out next year unless it's for work (if we get a booth to plug Sterling sudoku books). I'm still a crossword tournament loyalist -- and not merely because it's the one I have a prayer of winning someday. It's because that's where I first found all the other people like me. Solving a few sudoku can't compete.

Posted by Francis at 11:57 PM

You came to Philadelphia and didn't try to get in touch with me?

I mean, OK, sure, I happened to have been in Boston this weekend...

Posted by: Lance at October 21, 2007 12:38 PM

I actually completely forgot you lived in Philadelphia now; still not used to the idea that you're not in Boston, I guess. If I'd remembered, I'd probably have tried to hit you up for a place to sleep on Friday night!

Posted by: Francis at October 22, 2007 08:49 AM
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