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There is nothing obviously hasty about sudoku, that newspaper staple of the quiet coffee-break, but its name came about in a whirlwind, at least as puzzle-magazine publisher Maki Kaji told it. “My staff was pushing me to make up a name, and I wanted to go to horseracing that day, so I created the name in about 25 seconds,” he said in 2008.
Kaji, the “godfather of sudoku” who died from cancer on August 10, aged 69, quickly devised a Japanese phrase which he contracted to “sudoku”, meaning “single numbers”. The basic form of the puzzle involves filling in a nine-by-nine grid so that each row, column and small grid within contains the numbers one to nine only once. Those 25 seconds of inspiration have led to a global industry, with books, websites, clubs and even a world championship.
By 2005, when sudoku had become a hit in British newspapers, Kaji had already been in the puzzle business for years. A university dropout from Sapporo with a love of number puzzles, he had founded Nikoli (named after a racehorse) with two friends in 1980 to publish magazines with a variety of brain-testing grids, and four years later he came across number place, sudoku’s previous name, in a US magazine, which he tweaked and retitled.
Kaji was “canny”, says Andrew Stuart, co-founder of Syndicated Puzzles, which devises puzzles for newspapers, magazines and websites, because he realised sudoku was “sufficiently different from crosswords” to appeal to western audiences. By the end of his life, Kaji was “legendary” for his role in the sector, Stuart says. But he was not canny, or perhaps avaricious, enough to arrange the global copyright for the name. He later said: “I did not become a millionaire, but I’m glad sudoku is now loved by billions of people.”
There is more to sudoku than placid distraction, says Stuart. When the puzzle first came out, he tried to devise a general logical solution for it, but it kept outfoxing him and he grew to appreciate its complexity. “My conclusion after working on this for a while was that this puzzle is as deep as chess . . . Every day I find puzzles I can’t solve with 60-odd strategies,” he says.
Part of sudoku’s success is its simplicity, but that also means countless complex twists on its rules can be devised. Competitors in the UK sudoku championship had to solve 16 puzzles, including deficit sudoku, odd-even-big-small sudoku and thermo sudoku (“Each sudoku grid contains thermometer shapes . . . and digits on thermometers must increase as one moves further from the bulb end”).
Wayne Gould, a former Hong Kong judge who helped sudoku become a global export by convincing British newspapers to print it, was a friend of Kaji’s and says that “he underplayed everything — possibly out of business acumen but more likely out of modesty . . . He tried to portray Nikoli as a cosy little cottage business, run almost as a hobby.” In fact, Nikoli supplies puzzles to more than 10 newspapers and 70 magazines in Japan. Gould puts sudoku’s rise down to a certain universality: “Unlike a crossword, sudoku does not test what you know, it just tests how you think . . . Cultural, ethnic, political, educational boundaries, none of them are relevant.”
There have been grand claims made for sudoku and other number puzzles’ scientific benefit in warding off a decline in cognitive function as we age, but in 2017 the Global Council on Brain Health, a group of scientists, scholars and policy experts, said the evidence for the long-term benefits of “brain games” was “weak to non-existent”.
The thrill for David McNeill, a six-time UK sudoku champion, comes from doing a hand-designed, as opposed to computer-generated, sudoku: the intimate engagement with another person’s brain. As you solve it, he says, “you are rediscovering a logical step that the person who set the puzzle intended you to find . . . If you get a couple of those moments within one puzzle then you get real satisfaction.”
But it’s clear that it was the scratch of a pencil on a betting slip, not on a nine-by-nine newsprint grid, which was Kaji’s own thrill. In 2006, he told the Japan Times that working through a puzzle was like watching a horse race: “Not just the fun of solving it but the excitement before, even if you don’t solve it. It’s that excitement before the finish line when the horses are roaring down the stretch and you’re cheering them on.”
Nikoli has devised more than 200 original puzzles, the company says, and readers have submitted many, but Kaji was aware sudoku was a unique success. “Sudoku is very, very special,” he said in 2007. “The problem is something like sudoku only comes along once every 100 years.”