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Monday, September 20, 2021

Maki Kaji gave puzzlers all over the world an obsession that continues to have a grip on them

While Kaji didn’t technically invent the puzzle, he can be credited with refining it into the brain teaser that would soon spawn its own devoted following and highly competitive tournaments all over the globe.

By: Editorial |
Updated: August 19, 2021 9:04:08 am
For Kaji had instantly spotted what gave the puzzle universal appeal.

It was in 1984 that Maki Kaji first came across a now-familiar grid-based puzzle. At the time, it went by the rather dull name of Number Place. Kaji, who spotted the puzzle’s hit potential, renamed it Sudoku — derived from the Japanese sentence “Suuji wa dokushin ni kagiru (numbers should be single)”, which also doubled up as an instruction to puzzlers. The “Godfather of Sudoku”, as he eventually came to be known as, died at his home in Tokyo on Monday at the age of 69.

The origins of Sudoku are hazy, although many historians believe it to be the direct descendant of a puzzle known as Latin Squares (named thus in the 18th century by Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler). The version that Kaji discovered is believed to have been created by a retired American architect known as Howard Garns, possibly in the ’70s. While Kaji didn’t technically invent the puzzle, he can be credited with refining it into the brain teaser that would soon spawn its own devoted following and highly competitive tournaments all over the globe.

For Kaji had instantly spotted what gave the puzzle universal appeal. Despite appearances, it requires absolutely no mathematical ability from its solvers and, unlike in a crossword puzzle, even the ability to “read” (numbers, in this case) is not a requirement. It had the potential to be the next Rubik’s Cube, because all it required was logic. Kaji knew that Japan, a nation which watches brain teaser-based TV shows during prime time, would lap it up. Sudoku, first published in Japan in the magazine Nikoli, quickly became a national obsession, although it wouldn’t become a global phenomenon until 2004, when The Times of London published a puzzle. Years later, in an interview, Kaji described Sudoku as a “treasure”, adding that he was driven by the “excitement of solving it”. A sentiment that will resonate with the millions who still rack their brains over a fresh puzzle everyday.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 19, 2021 under the title ‘For the love of Sudoku’.

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