Monday 16 October 2006

My Sudoku Adventure!

If you’re one of those rare creatures that has come across my facebook profile, you may have noticed that it says two things: Firstly under Interests “(I know it’s sad!) The Times 2 Crossword & Su Doku,” and secondly under About Me “Oh, I am better than you at Su Doku – Fact.” So when I saw a qualification puzzle in the paper during the summer holidays for a national sudoku championship, I jumped at the opportunity to put my reputation to the test.

Having sent off the puzzle, some weeks later I received confirmation that i was in fact one of the 250 or so quickest people to complete said puzzle and was therefore invited along to the finals of this championship, which was today.

After quickly sketching a map on some paper to direct me to the venue – The Park Campus, University of Gloucestershire – I grabbed a lift to Coventry station (couldn’t get a train from Leam as Sunday trains are rubbish). To then get to Cheltenham via “train” I then was stuck on a bus from Coventry to Birmingham, and then Birmingham to Cheltenham (did I mention Sunday trains are rubbish?) and found thevenue without too much hassle.

I collected my complementary coffee (thank you The Times!), over which I ended up having a slightly weird conversation with a lady about sudoku, and how last year’s championship had gone for her – before we wished each other luck and plodded into a hall. Desks were laid out exam style, with instructions not to look at the paper and to make sure your mobiles were switched off…oh and then to have fun!

There were two preliminary sessions, with the fastest four from each going through to a knockout competition to decide the winner. Being in the second, we were informed that the fastest time for completing three puzzles was 18 minutes…pretty rapid given there was an allowance of an hour. However after getting off to a good start by blitzing the first one, the adrenaline really started going when I realised that I’d got the second done fairly quickly too and that for all my false bravado I might actually have a chance here. By the time I’d polished off the third, a guy in front of me had already finished, but I was fairly confident about having actually qualified for the quarter finals.

When it was announced that of the first three that had finished in our preliminary, two had made mistakes I was feeling a little on edge, but that was soon replaced by a feeling of shock as they announced that “Tom Collyer finished first in a time of 15 minutes.” The woman I was chatting to before turned round, gave me a big smile and mouthed “well done!” to me, and I was absolutely loving it.

For the quarter finals, me and seven others were led into a smaller lecture room up some stairs. We would all be doing the same puzzle, but we were paired off based on how quickly we’d done the preliminaries, with the fastest of the two progressing to the semis. Having been the fastest of the second lot, I was paired up with the 4th fastest of the first. This worked out well for me because I found that puzzle a lot harder than the preliminaries, but managed to do complete after three others already had done so. However, the guy I was paired up with must have found it harder, as he couldn’t complete it in the 30 minutes – meaning I had made it through to the semis

We then had a 10 minute toilet break, in which I reflected I’m in the top four sudoku-ers in the country; along with a blonde woman called Rachel, a lecturer from Belfast called David and a fellow maths student at Sheffield University called Nina – who had won last years competition. In the semis I was paired up versus David. Again I found the puzzle pretty tough going, but was given hope as I heard a lot of rubbing out coming from David’s desk. However, Rachel and David both finished before me, though I had finished it quicker than Nina.

Afterwards David asked whether I’d done the semi puzzle using logic (which of course I had), and mentioned that he’d guessed – hence the rubbing out. This put my out slightly, though I suppose as Frank Lampard will tell you it doesn’t matter how the goal is scored as long as it actually goes in – and to be fair to the guy he was still very quick, crucially quicker than me and so deserved the chance of a shot at the title. Anyway the puzzle to decide 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th places were the same – obviously I could now only come 3rd at best…but this time instead of sitting at desks and doing the puzzle we were stood up at flipcharts. This was for the benefit of The Times photographer, who was an irritating presence clicking away as we were there doing this final grid.

Though this puzzle really was a beast, I didn’t have as many mental blocks as I’d had in the quarters or semis, and towards the end everything came into place as I madly scribbled numbers onto the grid. Perhaps too madly, as the last 6 numbers I’d entered was a bad permutation of 4’s and 5’s, which meant that I had to settle for 4th place. Still, I “finished” that puzzle first of the four, a minute or two faster than the winner (Rachel – who I’m sure you’ll be able to read lots about in tomorrow’s Times) so I suppose my pride is in tact.

Though obviously winning a shiny trophy and £1000 would have been very nice, the 4th prize was a bottle of champagne. Nina and David (whose guessing tactics hadn’t worked so well in the final) went home with a big Times atlas of the world which looked very nice, but I went off with a bottle of champagne – which is far more enjoyable in the company of friends than any atlas can claim to be.

After getting back home after a fairly draining day travelling and sudoku-ing, we cracked open the champers and set off to decide a far more important title – that of Monopoly Champion of The House. That’s one title I can claim from the day – though sadly I can’t make as much use of the money I made there. Maybe on another day I’d have walked away with the title, but as it is I’m pretty happy with my day’s work.

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