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Monday, March 28, 2011

Maki Kaji: Man behind the Sudoku phenomenon


In Sudoku, Maki Kaji created a puzzle that everybody can solve and enjoy.
SUDOKU has been described in numerous ways, from easy and extreme to fiendish and diabolical, even poisonous, dangerous and evil!
“What are the strategies of solving the diabolical ones?”
“How do you get over the high wall separating ‘very hard’ from ‘advanced’ levels?”
“Does it mean that the fewer clues are given, the harder the puzzle will be?”
Stress relief: ‘Sudoku is like a mountain; some like to ascend on foot one step at a time; others prefer to scale the sheerest cliffs, while another might enjoy a quick ride up in a car!’ says Maki Kaji.
The 150 participants of the National Sudoku Seminar held recently in Selangor had many questions, including how these brain-teasing puzzles are created. One woman wanted to know about the “world’s most difficult Sudoku ever created”.
This passion for a puzzle that borders on being an obsession for some can be contradictory to what the godfather of Sudoku had intended. Maki Kaji, 60, the unassuming Japanese man who introduced Sudoku to the world in 1984, looks baffled as he fields questions during his visit here as guest speaker.
“I don’t know about the world’s most difficult Sudoku,” he replies haltingly in English interspersed with Japanese.
“But I don’t see the point of making such a difficult puzzle that nobody can solve or enjoy. I have always desired to create one puzzle that can be enjoyed by many people around the world so that they can have a break from daily stress. This has been my company’s goal for 30 years.”
Kaji’s simple objective sums up his affable, laidback personality. It’s vastly different from the hordes of Sudoku fans who are fanatical about this puzzle that is today being solved by thousands of people from five- to 90-year-olds in over 70 countries, and available in over 600 national newspapers. In 2006, 20 nations faced off in the first Sudoku world championship in Italy with more competitions following.
Sudoku appeals to young and old alike.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine Sudoku would have such far-reaching appeal,” says Kaji, his eyes widening during our interview.
“I travel four times a year giving talks and meeting fans from Sudoku societies that have been formed around the world. It is a real privilege.”
Puzzling phenomenon
Born in 1951 in Sapporo, on Hokkaido island, Kaji moved to Tokyo when he was three months old with his father, a telecommunications engineer, and his mother.
As a kid, he had wanted to be a pilot; as a teenager he liked automobiles so he wanted to be a tour bus driver. In high school, Kaji excelled only in table tennis. He was not scholarly, he says with a smile.
A Sudoku challenge in progress. These days, the puzzles are being solved by thousands of people in over 70 countries.
“I didn’t like studying. But I liked learning as much as I could, and I enjoyed reading magazines because I was attracted to the mix of content, be it essays, pictorials, news, fashion or food. I wanted to be in the business where I could publish my own magazine.”
Kaji did try a conventional path initially. Influenced by his mother, he enrolled in a literature course at Keio University, one of Japan’s most prestigious institutions. Within a year, he dropped out due to boredom from routine.
He enjoyed gambling and spent hours at the racecourse betting on horses. That was in between jobs as a construction worker and waiter to earn his keep before he started a small publishing firm called Nikoli Inc, after an Irish racehorse that won the 1980 Irish 2,000 Guineas.
In the early 1980s, friends brought him American puzzle magazine Dell Pencil Puzzles And Word Games. Kaji got excited instantly. In one of the magazines was a puzzle called the Number Place created by Howard Garnes, which was to become a precursor to Sudoku.
“In those days there weren’t such magazines in Japan, so I felt there was potential for it,” recalls Kaji. “I started working on the puzzles. When I managed to solve the puzzle by filling in all the empty boxes with digits, I felt very satisfied!”
He managed to obtain the magazine’s back issues and worked every puzzle until he could thoroughly understand the technique behind it. He began to experiment with his own version of a simpler and more refined numeral puzzle. After six months, he was confident he had the right mix for a mind-boggling puzzle.
Kaji named it Suji wa dokushin ni kagiru, abbreviated as Sudoku, which means “bachelor or single numbers” as only lone figures from one to nine could be filled in the grid of nine-by-nine boxes without being repeated in each box or line. The puzzles had varying degrees of difficulty.
Kaji introduced the puzzle in Japan in 1984. Readers sent in 100 of their own version, and he published a selection in his next edition.
“It became better and better until it reached a developed stage,” says Kaji. “A good puzzle stimulates the mind and evokes emotions – you feel happy when you solve it, and frustrated when you can’t. Sudoku is like a mountain; some like to ascend on foot one step at a time, others prefer to scale the sheerest cliffs, while another might enjoy a quick ride up in a car!”
Kaji had to ask friends to promote it overseas and he begged publishers to release it to the United States and Britain but there was no demand.
It took nearly two more decades before Sudoku became a hit that reverberated around the world from Asia to South America. In 1997 a retired Hong Kong judge, New Zealander Wayne Gould, came across Sudoku in a Japanese bookshop and began developing a computer program to generate the puzzles. He succeeded in getting The Times newspaper to publish his puzzle on Nov 12, 2004. Within months, other newspapers began producing their own version of Sudoku.
America caught the craze in the summer of 2005 when major dailies started offering Sudoku. In Malaysia, the Sudoku fad took off in 2005 when The Star published the puzzle nationwide in its StarTwo pullout, says Malaysia Sudoku Society secretary Lee Yee Dian, adding that Sunday Star’s “diabolical” Sudoku remains the benchmark for difficulty.
Big business
A New York Times research estimates that some US$250mil (RM750mil) has been generated by global Sudoku businesses, including over 200 books that have been published on it that sold some 20 million copies worldwide.
Kaji’s Nikoli Inc has become a prolific producer of puzzles, having continued churning over 300 original puzzles. But none could capture public imagination the way Sudoku has, and still does today.
“I think perhaps it’s because numbers are universal and can be understood by everyone no matter where they live,” Kaji says thoughtfully.
“Sudoku is not mathematical; rather, it requires simple logic to solve it. And it crosses borders because all genders and ages can work it out. And Sudoku is not the steak or main dish in a meal, it is an appetiser or a salad, so you can consume more of it at one go every day.
“It is a light puzzle. And you have the freedom to do it or not, unlike a mathematical equation. Sudoku is cheap and easy to carry around.”
But as Sudoku fans would attest, the puzzle can become very addictive. The satisfying feeling of having successfully solved a puzzle will compel you to move on to the next puzzle, and then the next. Before you know it, it’s been hours!
A lady in England reportedly said she felt suicidal if she did not do a Sudoku puzzle each day.
Lee, from the Malaysia Sudoku Society, says he can take up to three days to work out a particularly challenging puzzle.
“I have always loved mental challenges of the recreational kind, so it was natural that I took a liking for Sudoku,” he explains. “I first came across Sudoku in the mid-1990s while visiting Japan.
“The harder it is, the more I’d enjoy it! I love it when my brain is stretched to its limits. The feeling of satisfaction when I solve a difficult Sudoku is beyond words. On and off, I’d work at it, making some progress each time, until the final obstacle comes crashing down, followed by a feeling of euphoria!”
Despite Sudoku’s worldwide appeal, Kaji does not earn royalties because he has not copyrighted the puzzle outside Japan, and commands about 5% of the Sudoku global market. It is a similar situation for his fellow Japanese, Daisuke Inoue, who created the hugely popular karaoke machine but did not patent his work.
“But it is OK because that has helped to spread Sudoku all over the world,” says Kaji. “When I visited Chile, the immigration officer who stamped my passport was furtively solving a Sudoku puzzle on his table. During a Sudoku tournament in Spain, a husband and wife were squaring it off. And on the beautiful beaches, a lady complained to me that her boyfriend was too busy solving the puzzles to go sightseeing.
“I was amused to see an elderly businessman grabbing armloads of newspapers upon boarding our plane, just to pull out all the Sudoku sections when he was seated! I am delighted that Sudoku has the power to appeal to everyone. It can be entertaining, challenging or therapeutic to different people.
“If I’d copyrighted Sudoku, then versions of it might have appeared under different names. And it would not have caught on in so many countries. Somebody once said that Maki Kaji made a brilliant mistake. I agree! Because I don’t need to be rich to be happy.”
Copyright or not, Nikoli Inc has done well despite having never advertised. A 2007 New York Times interview with Kaji revealed that Nikoli Inc has an annual turnover of US$4mil (RM12mil). Currently, he employs some 30 workers to help create new puzzles.
The grey-haired, twinkle-eyed Kaji gives no hint of the global phenomenon he’d created; he is relaxed and cheerful, wearing a red polo shirt with a cardigan, jeans and black canvas shoes during our meeting.
Kaji says he remains a man who enjoys the simple pleasures in life. Asked about his secret to good health, he replies laughing: “I enjoy smoking, drinking and betting on racehorses occasionally!”
He still enjoys heading out to the racecourse because it’s exciting, he explains.
“In a puzzle, you use logic to find answers. In life, business or family, there are no quick solutions. But in betting, throw the dice and you will get an instant result. So it’s exciting to me, and is a break from everyday life.”
A pivotal incident that took place when he was 23, marked the start of a new chapter in Kaji’s life. He was out with a female friend, when he was suddenly stricken by severe stomach ache and passed out. When he woke up in a hospital, he realised how concerned his friend had been, which gave him confidence to pursue her. They married two years later and now have two daughters, aged 26 and 34. His elder child works in a bookstore while his younger daughter is a jewellery and apparel designer. All three women in Kaji’s life do not do Sudoku.
“My life has turned out unexpectedly,” says Kaji.
“Young people should venture outside to observe life, meet people and learn new things,” he advises.
“I wanted to produce puzzles, to create an exercise for the human brain. I hope people will continue to enjoy solving these puzzles, and instead of picking up a weapon, they’d pick up a pencil instead.”

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