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Sudoku: the end of the crossword as we know it?

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Nobody can have failed to notice the phenomenon of Sudoku, which has grabbed the nation's interest with a vengeance. Some people are already wondering if these number puzzles are likely to replace the cryptic crossword over the next few years. In this article I examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two types of puzzle and give my own thoughts on the survival of the crossword in the face of the onslaught of Sudoku.

“Hello everybody, my name is Alberich, and I am here at this meeting of Sudokuholics Anonymous because” (hushed, nervous voice) “I am addicted to Sudoku. Let me tell my story…

“Some time early in 2005 I noticed these little number squares that were appearing in all the papers at the time. And well, all my mates were doing them so I thought there was no harm in just trying it. Just the once, you know. So I did this puzzle in the Times that was labelled ‘easy’ and it was – nothing to it. Then I tried a ‘difficult’ one in the same paper and that wasn’t too much sweat either. Then” (looks down at the floor, voice shaking) “I tried this one called ‘Fiendish’ and that’s where the problems started. Damn thing took me over 4 hours and I still couldn’t complete it without making a few guesses. So what did I do? I only went and bought the paper the next day to try another ‘fiendish’ one, didn’t I? Just to see if I could do it any more quickly. And I did – three hours 59 minutes. So basically I got obsessed with the wretched things, I was spending hours on them each day, neglecting my life, and thought I’d never find a cure…”

Sound familiar? Did you nearly get the sack for doing nothing at work all day except those pesky little number puzzles? Well I don’t know about you, but I did find a cure – I just got quite good at them. And now that I no longer needed to prove anything to myself, I soon found that I could take or leave Sudoku. In fact these days I’m more of a Sudon’tku, although I do normally solve the Times “fiendish” when I’ve got a spare 30-60 minutes. I’ll never be as good at them as I am at solving crosswords, since I am far better with verbal problems than mathematical/logic ones (one of the reasons I have long since stopped even attempting the Listener mathematicals).

It’s not hard to see why these puzzles are so addictive. They look so simple, and the rules can be learnt in a few minutes. The concept of what’s required is so basic that it seems any fool should be able to rattle them off, and nobody likes to think of him or herself as a fool. Hence when these things turn out to be a lot more difficult than they appear, the obvious reaction is “But surely I MUST be able to do this” followed by frantic attempts at puzzle after puzzle to prove that this is true. Certainly the concept of “1-9 in every row, column and 3x3 square” appears a lot more solvable to the novice than a crossword clue like

Flower of Aragon perhaps meets the Queen and gets entangled with Polonius’s French paramour in city of Atlantis, we hear 

I do think Sudoku has some advantages over crosswords and these are:

  1. No knowledge is necessary – hence you don’t need dictionaries, encyclopaedias, textbooks etc. This is particularly useful when you are doing the puzzles on a train or at the airport, for example. Compare with crosswords where you get to the last answer and are unable to complete it as you have no idea if “clepsydra” is a word or not – fine if you are at home, but annoying if you are several thousand feet up in an aeroplane.

  2. No learning of arcane rules – so once you’ve understood the basic concept you are pretty well equipped to tackle any Sudoku puzzle you choose. The progression for the crossword solver is more fraught with difficulty – even if you’re a moderately good solver with a wide vocabulary you’re stuck if you don’t know some of the more arcane abbreviations such as R = take, U = posh (one of my bugbears, it’s way out of date) or A = are (unit of land measurement).

Yet the advantages, as I see them, of crosswords are far more numerous: 

  1. Sudoku may require no background knowledge but this is a disadvantage too. You can learn about history, literature, music, geography, and of course increase your vocabulary by doing crosswords in any of the quality papers. On the other hand, there is nothing at all to be learned from Sudoku other than, perhaps, how to do Sudoku a bit better.

  2. If you enter a wrong answer in a crossword grid it is usually pretty obvious where you have made a mistake. It is easy to go back and correct yourself and carry on. If you enter the wrong number into a Sudoku puzzle almost always you won’t notice, and you’ll carry on filling in numbers until you end up with (say) two sixes in the same row and it is impossible to tell where you went wrong. The puzzle is effectively ruined.

  3. When completing a crossword, you can derive a lot of pleasure from each clue in a good cryptic and it doesn’t matter too much if you don’t complete all of them. Indeed I am quite pleased to be caught out by a good clue from time to time, and gracefully take my hat off to the setter. Whereas with Sudoku the only real pleasure or satisfaction is in finishing it, and the rest of the solving affords (for me, anyway) little fun apart from, perhaps, getting past a couple of awkward stumbling blocks as a means to an end.

  4. There are many entry points into a crossword. Some people work methodically through the clues in order, others make use of checking letters as soon as they can, and still others start with the final Down clues as these are often believed to be easier. If you are halfway through a crossword and get stuck, there are several clues you can try to give you a push forward. Contrast with Sudoku where, in the advanced puzzles, there is always a sticking point with only one way forward once you have filled in the easy part. I find this “you see it or you don’t” idea frustrating and when it finally comes, the feeling is one of relief rather than pleasure. Also, you can take a break from a tricky crossword and mull over the clues in your head while walking the dog, while unless you have the spatial awareness capabilities of a chess grand master, you can only really tackle a Sudoku puzzle while sitting in front of it.

  5. Perhaps the most important distinction in favour of crosswords is that Sudoku doesn’t have the “chuckle” factor – there is no ingenuity or wit involved in compiling them, and they have no personality. This is perhaps not surprising, since the vast majority are compiled by computer. True, there are some “penny drop” moments, but these are few and far between compared with crosswords. Crossword fans still remember the old chestnuts from many years ago – and some of these clues are still hotly debated e.g. 

    HIJKLMNO (5)

    Yet it’s pretty unlikely that a few years from now we will hear conversations like “Gosh, wasn’t it amazing how those two eights ended up in opposite corners in Sudoku no. 1234” or suchlike.

  6. Finally, I think there is a major difference in that whereas crossword puzzles can only be completed by solving the clues, Sudoku puzzles – the hardest ones in particular – can often be solved by trial and error in less than half the time it takes to solve them logically (the “correct” way). Some Sudoku aficionados regard guessing as something akin to mass murder in terms of morality, and while I wouldn’t go quite that far I would agree that solving a puzzle this way does render the exercise rather pointless. I will admit that I have done it when totally stuck simply to fill in the grid, in the same way that sometimes I have entered the last one or two answers of a crossword without really understanding them. Given a choice between wasting five hours staring at a Sudoku puzzle I’m probably not going to finish or making an educated guess, filling in the numbers and having a life, I know which I would rather do! Furthermore, there are computer programs which can complete Sudoku puzzles (what’s the point, other than to check the puzzle works?) whilst as far as I know, computers can only be used to solve anagrams or list possibilities for individual words in a crossword, and no program exists that can complete a crossword from scratch. This leads onto the topic of what constitutes cheating – explored here.

    While on this point, it’s worth mentioning that Sudoku puzzles, like crosswords, do require a certain amount of fairness in their compilation. I say this as the Times, for example, rigorously check that their Sudoku puzzles at all levels can be completed by logic alone and no trial and error is required. This is one reason I restrict myself to this series (and very occasionally the Guardian, which are also checked in this way). Thus the “fiendish” puzzles in the Times may be tough, but the solver knows that there is always a logical route to filling them in. I am pleased to say that I have not had to resort to trial and error with these puzzles for a very long time, even though I am sometimes tempted to do so to save time. However the Sudoku craze means that there is a plethora of puzzles in books, on websites and even available on your mobile phone, and some of these are very sloppily produced. I have come across puzzles that are blithely given names like “diabolical”, and in the interests of making these puzzles harder only a small amount of information is given, usually with the result that some trial and error is needed and there is not always a unique solution.

    I am aware that some specialist puzzles rely on techniques that go way beyond those required even by the harder puzzles in the daily papers. However if you’re good at Sudoku and you think that a puzzle from an untested source leads to too many variables and no possible solution without guesswork, you are probably right. Some people argue that any Sudoku is solvable by logic alone. I don’t have the maths to disprove this, except to say that if we define Sudoku as a 9x9 square with some numbers in and the other squares blank, then draw a grid, put just the ones and twos into legitimate positions anywhere in the grid, and then try to solve it!

I am at pains to point out that although the balance of pros and cons as I’ve presented them leans heavily in favour of the cryptic crossword, this is merely a personal opinion and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Perhaps I should have mentioned that since Sudoku doesn’t require any linguistic knowledge, these puzzles transcend international barriers. Also, I find it very refreshing that this latest craze to hit the nation involves the use of brain cells, which is more than can be said for violent video games or the endless stream of “reality” shows featuring Z-list celebrities. As I mentioned in another article on this site, perhaps Sudoku has contributed to some extent to end the appalling reign of anti-intellectual “laddism” so prevalent in the 90s, no doubt in turn due to their being championed by a certain attractive female TV presenter!

All of which brings me quite nicely on to the main point. Are crosswords going to die out and be replaced by Sudoku? The initial evidence once these puzzles caught on certainly pointed that way. Like any new craze, the papers fell over each other to ram it down our throats, and since more space was needed to accommodate these puzzles, the crossword was often pushed to the sidelines. Not so long ago the Sunday Telegraph threatened to end its splendid Enigmatic Variations series, which features many great compilers such as Dimitry and Kea. I don’t know what their reasons were, but if space was the prime motivator it was noticeable that they had no problem accommodating not just one, but two Sudoku puzzles. Fortunately the paper listened to reason from EV fans and the series has been retained.

Several long-standing crossword solvers (myself included, I admit) confessed after Sudoku first appeared that the crossword now took second place to Sudoku, and in some cases lamented that obsession with these new puzzles meant that they now ignored the crossword altogether.  

What’s more, go to the puzzle section in any bookshop and you’ll find hundreds of books of Sudoku, often at the expense of the collections of crosswords which used to grace the shelves. Not good signs!

Yet one year on things have calmed down a bit. Sudoku is evidently here to stay – those who predicted it would go the way of Rubik’s cube were clearly wrong. But those among the crossword fraternity (and there were quite a few) who saw Sudoku as a threat to the very existence of crosswords were, fortunately, wrong too, in my opinion – in the short term at least. The Times hosted a crossword competition in 2006 for the first time in a few years in spite of, or maybe even because of, the number of Sudoku competitions which have been hosted with much publicity in the recent year. A look at crossword discussion boards, combined with my own knowledge of some solvers, suggests that many people whose primary love is the cryptic clue have, after an initial steamy affair with those cute little number puzzles, returned to the one they love most, the faithful crossword whose endearing ways they spent so long learning. Thus it would be fair to say that most long-term devotees of the crossword have not abandoned it at all.

We do have to consider, of course, what the future will bring. Will Sudoku lure potential crossword solvers away, leaving crosswords to the existing solvers plus only a small number of new ones, with the inevitable result that crosswords will become obsolete? Will the next generation of puzzle addicts bother to spend years learning about anagrams, homophones, reversals, and the whole canon of abbreviations – many of which are used only in crosswords – when they can quickly learn how to do Sudoku and challenge their brains with that and its many variants (Killer, Kakuro etc)? 

There is a good musical analogy here. For many years musical commentators have predicted the demise of classical music since pop burst on the scene. They fear that youngsters are unlikely to take the trouble to learn to appreciate Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner, and thus unlock the joys these composers have in store, when they can get instant gratification from the direct, uncomplicated music that pop provides. And on the face of it they would appear to be right – give a group of teenagers a choice between the latest hit single and Die Walküre, and the Valkyries won’t be riding very often. But go to a Prom or a concert at the Barbican centre and you will see plenty of young people thrilling to hear Mahler or Shostakovich for the first time. The few seats at the Royal Opera affordable to those without a directorship of an oil company are often filled by youngsters who can’t get enough of the Ring or Turandot. And if this demise was supposed to have started years ago, why do we have to wait ten years to get a ticket for the Wagner festival in Bayreuth?

The point is, that there will always be a small, but steady group of people who eschew the obvious forms of gratification and look for something that has a longer lasting value, and relish the journey it takes to get there. If pop did not exist, would people be humming Schoenberg and Bartók on their way home from school? Of course not, they would not listen to any music at all. Cryptic crosswords have always been a minority interest – of the people I know, only a small percentage show any interest in them, and I know people far more intelligent than I am who wouldn’t even be able to do the cryptic in one of the red top tabloids. Thus I am certain that of the hordes of people who have taken up Sudoku with such enthusiasm, almost all would not have been interested in crosswords anyway and thus haven’t been lured away by the siren calls of number squares. In fact I know of a case where the reverse is true – a friend of a friend (really!) bought the Times just for the Sudoku, but one day got severely delayed by our wonderful rail network. After finishing the Sudoku and reading the paper cover to cover he found that all he had left to do was attempt the crossword. This he did and by all accounts he now does it regularly. Remember too, that there will always be people who prefer word games to number or logic puzzles, and such people will naturally swell the ranks of crossword solvers in years to come.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am rubbishing Sudoku by comparing it unfavourably to crosswords. I am merely expressing my own opinions, and as I have already said, I do enjoy Sudoku provided the puzzles are (a) logically achievable and (b) challenging, but not so hard that they are almost unsolvable without guesswork. This is where my musical analogy has a weakness, since I make no secret of the fact that with a few notable exceptions, I regard pop, particularly from the 1990s onwards, as ephemeral, vacuous pap. Though perhaps I can exploit this weakness, since it can serve to illustrate another point.

Some people in the crossword world, both setters and solvers, have responded to the perceived threat of Sudoku to crosswords by knocking the former at every opportunity. Letters in newspapers and comments in online discussions are some of the places these views are aired. I think that this achieves little, other than to suggest that we cruciverbalists are an intolerant bunch of snobs. Nobody sneers at the quick crossword or other word games in newspapers, so why sneer at Sudoku? Where my musical analogy fits in is that although I have been honest (and arrogant) enough to state my opinion on music fairly forthrightly, I would never expect to win a convert to my sort of music by telling someone that what they are listening to is rubbish. Such an approach merely puts people’s backs up and makes them less open to suggestion. It took me years to get interested in Shakespeare after having my favourite books ridiculed and the Bard rammed down my throat at school, for instance. As Aesop’s marvellous fable about the sun and the wind having a bet to get a man to remove his coat illustrates, persuasion is far better than force and we should let crosswords speak for themselves. Though I do believe they may need a little help…

There is no doubt that the imagery conjured up by crosswords often presents a quaint, old fashioned world that probably only really existed in the minds of romantic writers. Beaux are bewitched by belles, cads and bounders abound, the nobility and the clergy play a major role, and so does the monarchy. People often make bloomers; there’s a lot of love (to indicate the letter O), cricket reigns as the supreme sport, pubs are inns and food is fare or cheer. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it is nice to have a world into which we can, for a short time, escape the real world of terrorism, street crime, hopeless public transport, contraflows and the constant ringing of mobile phones. The only blight on the landscape in Crosswordland is drugs, but although I use pot, E = Ecstasy and H = heroin myself (only in crosswords!) such references usually suggest that in such an idyllic country the use of these things is universally frowned upon. Since crossword solvers are by nature interested in words, one can expect them to be reasonably well read and there is nothing here that won’t have appeared in Jane Austen or other writers of that generation.

Yet it was brought home to me how out of touch some crossword jargon is when going through a fairly simple crossword with a Czech friend. His English is superb and he had no problem understanding anagrams, hidden words, homophones, double meanings etc. Common abbreviations weren’t a problem either. He could see that North = N as Czech commonly uses abbreviations for the compass points too. I knew I’d lost him when I tried to explain why U = posh, R = take etc. Hardly surprising! And even if one accepts that abbreviations like this are restricted to Britain, how many new solvers are potentially put off by things like this? It isn’t that these ideas aren’t “yoof” or trendy, it is just that quite likely nobody under 40 will have heard of them. And if the potential new solver gets the idea that s/he has to learn a whole list of abbreviations which make no sense at all in real life, that will be another one to bite the dust. The attractions of Sudoku will seem a whole lot greater.

There is justification in using Chambers abbreviations, even if they aren’t common in everyday life, in specialist puzzles like the Listener, Azed, and maybe Saturday prize puzzles. I use a few in the puzzles on this site safe, I hope, in the knowledge that most people who come to sample my wares are already keen solvers. But I don’t believe that U = posh has any place in a daily cryptic, and the same goes for T = model (this one is slowly disappearing, I think). I’ve mentioned some of this in my second Ximenes article so please indulge me for repetition, but I think it’s very important to sort out the deadwood from time to time. I often imagine this conversation with a potential new solver:

PNS: Girl married man, four letters?

Me: Adam. Ada plus M, common abbreviation for married, equals Adam.

PNS: What does Ada mean? I get the rest.

Me: It’s a girl’s name.

PNS: No it isn’t. I don’t know anyone called Ada. Bet you don’t either.

Me: Well, er, no. But many years ago it was a girl’s name and so we use it in crosswords.

PNS: Oh, right. (Pause) I think third row, fourth column is an 8.

There are many other examples too, but I will make do with one.

PNS (having another go): Allowed old woman to meet yob, seven letters.

Me: Granted. Granted means allowed, old woman is Gran, to meet means Gran joins on to…

PNS: Got it so far.

Me: Ted is a yob.

PNS: Eh?

Me: Ted, teddy boy, was a name given to rebellious kids in the 50s…

PNS: Mmmmm…third row last column is definitely a 7.

To recap, I think that there is no reason why the various techniques setters use – anagrams, charades etc – should not last for the foreseeable future. Essentially these ideas are timeless. But there is no doubt that many setters (me too, quite probably) would do well to look through their store of abbreviations and short words and have a good, timely spring clean.

I am not for a moment suggesting that crosswords should pander to MTV culture and the like. Revisiting my musical analogy for a moment, that would be as embarrassing and unsuccessful as those “crossover” albums, which attempt to combine pop and classical styles and usually fail at both. References to bands manufactured by “talent” shows, or winners of I’m a Celebrity I Need a Career (or whatever it’s called) are at best impractical, as puzzles often wait a few months between submission and publishing, by which time these references probably won’t mean anything to anybody. But there are plenty of modern abbreviations that everyone knows that are rarely used in crosswords, probably as they aren’t in the current Chambers, that would be perfectly acceptable replacements for some of the old ones: S and L (small and large), W, D and L (won, drawn and lost) or even U as you – I don’t use it myself but it’s common enough these days to be a valid abbreviation, I think. I do draw the line at R = are though.

I am a strong opponent of dumbing down, and I believe that crosswords should play an educational role as well as an entertaining one. I am all for references to the established artistic, musical and literary canon, as well as famous (and maybe some not-so-famous) battles and historical figures. And if slightly more obscure references of this kind appear as answers from time to time, I don’t think this will put people off as long as the clues leading to them are correspondingly solvable. Yet all too often one encounters clues in daily puzzles that one needs a degree in English Literature or history to solve. This occurs more often in one paper (I won’t say which) than the rest, and on encountering such clues my thoughts are twofold, both negative: (a) it appears as if the setter is saying “Oo! Look how widely read and erudite I am!” and (b) I react by thinking “How the heck is anyone reasonably expected to KNOW that?” For example “Lupin Pooter” appears every now and then, even though I’m fairly sure Diary of a Nobody has long since left the established literary canon (maybe I’m just ignorant). A simple anagram or play on the double meaning of “lupin” would have made the clue solvable and perhaps educational, but the last clue I saw for this was a cryptic reference to the book itself and therefore impossible for anyone not familiar with it. I very much doubt that more than one in ten thousand school leavers will have read this book, and this is precisely the sort of thing we don’t need if we want to woo new fans. Why not change the words in the grid a bit and replace it with Harry Potter? I feel far more cheated by this sort of thing than some of the oft-discussed non-Ximenean devices like “indeed” to signify “de____ed” or “egghead” for the letter E.

Moving on, we need to remember that while many present solvers started by seeing the crossword in the back of their paper every day, wondering what it was all about, having a go (maybe with the help of a more experienced solver) and slowly learning the tricks of the trade, this is far less likely to happen these days. The reason is that many of the younger generation get their news free online, and may not buy a paper at all. The Telegraph crossword is probably the best puzzle for beginners but the online version is subscription-only, which means it is unlikely to attract new solvers. The Times is the best known of the British cryptics, but the paper has decided that its Crossword Club (which was excellent value for money) will now only be available to those who to subscribe to the whole online paper at a cost of over £100 per year. That's hardly going to attract new solvers if they don't want to pay for their news online! The good news is that the Independent, FT and Guardian do offer their crosswords online for free, so there is still plenty of material for people to investigate without having to pay a penny. In addition, explanations for the clues of all three appear daily on the Fifteensquared website, so learning the mechanics of crosswords has never been easier.

Conclusion

I’ve covered a lot of ground here, so will recap a few points. Sudoku is an interesting new concept, which has gained an enormous amount of popularity. While I personally find crosswords much more fulfilling, I enjoy Sudoku too and think that it is far more healthy and stimulating than most popular crazes. After the initial flood of Sudoku puzzles on what seemed like every page of every newspaper, it seems that both types of puzzles have their devotees (some shared) and if the ranks of Sudoku solvers outnumber the cruciverbalists, we should remember that cryptic crosswords have always been a minority interest and probably always will be. So long as the newspapers remain faithful to their crosswords (and we must all write to them if they don’t!) there is no reason why the two types of puzzle shouldn’t coexist peacefully. It is incumbent on the setters of cryptic crosswords to ensure that a good standard is maintained while not losing touch with the changes in use of language, in order to appeal to solvers of all ages.

Last of all, perhaps the question you have been waiting for me to answer is “will any Sudoku be appearing on this site?” The answer, in the form of a cryptic clue, is

 Turning back on (2)