Puzzling over numbers

Sudoku's simple grid hides confounding game, but monthly sessions offer help

January 21, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,[Special to The Sun]

Over a year ago, Kenneth Shook's brother sent him a letter containing a challenge: Complete the enclosed puzzle, and he would pay him $2.

Solving the puzzle just required a little logic, said Shook, a 76-year-old Westminster resident. He quickly completed the puzzle, stuffed it into an envelope and waited for his $2. But the money didn't come.

"My brother told me he wasn't going to pay me until I wrote down how I completed the puzzle," Shook said. "So I wrote step-by-step instructions on how I solved it."

His brother, Charles, paid up, and Shook was hooked.

A year later, Shook is solving the Sudoku puzzles at an expert level, and he teaches strategies and tricks for finding their solutions to Carroll County residents.

"Sudoku is the most rapidly growing number puzzle," said Shook, who holds sessions each month at branches of the Carroll County Public Library. "And when the local newspaper started printing them, I thought there might be an interest in learning how to solve the puzzles."

His assumption proved true.

First popularized in Japan in the 1980s, Sudoku became the rage in the U.S. in the past couple of years.

The objective is to fill a 9-by-9 grid so each row, column and 3-by-3 box contain the digits 1 through 9. Although each grid contains some given numbers, it's a lot harder than it sounds.

"People come to the sessions and they want to add the numbers," said Shook, who in 1952 earned a bachelor's degree in math and science from Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College. "One lady started adding every number. I converted the numbers to letters and handed it back to her. She said, `I can't add these letters.' I told her, `Exactly.' There's no adding and no luck involved. It's all about logic."

Logic is what hooked Rebecca Barbour of Hampstead.

After attempting a puzzle in a local pizzeria last year, Barbour, 54, found the puzzle impossible to solve.

"I didn't understand the rules," she said. Once she did, she began attending Shook's sessions. Although she uses a different method from Shook, she's waiting for an advanced session to be offered.

"I know the basics of puzzle solving, but now I want to learn the advanced techniques," she said.

Like Barbour, once a person understands how to solve the puzzles, they get hooked, Shook said. The puzzles give people a good mental workout, he said.

"Sudokus help older people thrive," he said. "It's fun and it keeps their brains sharp. It stimulates thinking."

Elizabeth Anthony concurred.

"I didn't want to even attempt the puzzles because I don't like numbers," she said. "Ken suggested I use letters. Once he said that, I relaxed and tried one with numbers, and I was hooked. It's a mental challenge. Now I solve Sudoku every day."

To teach how to solve the puzzles, Shook is compiling a book. It contains step-by-step instructions, a glossary of terms and examples of puzzles with an answer key in the back.

At the sessions, Shook passes out a grid of a puzzle to solve with the group. Then, after a brief lecture, he goes over Sudoku terms. Once confident that everyone understands, he begins solving an easy puzzle.

Even those can prove too much for some people to work, said Shook, who served as the dean of admission and student financial aid at Western Maryland College.

One person came to the class and then sent a letter to the editor of a local newspaper about her experience. In it she wrote, "You shouldn't have to have a Ph.D like Mr. Shook to solve a Sudoku," he said.

Shook agreed. He titled his book Solve a Sudoku Puzzle Without a Ph.D.

He said he teaches Sudoku puzzle-solving in easy steps.

For starters, you look at the grid and try to find rows that have only two or three empty boxes, Shook said.

"If there aren't any, then you look for places where the numbers appear twice in the rows or columns, and fill in the third number," he said. "Next you write down the numbers that can possibly go in a box. Then you repeat the process."

He rates the puzzles at different degrees of difficulty -- easy, medium, hard and diabolical, he said.

"I've never had a puzzle that I couldn't do," he said. "But the diabolical ones are the ones that you look at and you say `Are you kidding?' My brother sent me one that was 16 rows by 16 columns, and that one took me a half-day to complete."

Recently, he held a competition where he timed how long it took people to solve the puzzles.

Solving times ranged from 10 minutes for an easy puzzle to 22 minutes for one of the most difficult, he said. However, the competitions are for fun, he said. He encourages his students to solve the puzzles fast.

"I want them to complete them at a comfortable pace," he said.

For Samuel Brainerd, 56, it's all about solving them as fast as possible, he said.

"I can do easy puzzles in three minutes and seven seconds, and hard ones in under eight minutes," said Brainerd, who is Barbour's husband. " I like to do Sudoku fast and quick. I'm trying to solve one in under three minutes."

Today's Soduku puzzle is on Page 7E.

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