First things first. It’s probably possible to go on and on and on and on and on and on and on about the organisational flaws of the 4th World Sudoku Championship. On the other hand I am neither as prolific nor as eloquent a writer as Thomas Snyder so to go into as much depth again would be pretty fruitless from my point of view. Instead, I’ll go through my experiences in Zilina pretty much as-is, splitting things up into bitesize chunks.
The trip out to Zilina was pretty smooth. I set out from Coventry on Thursday afternoon, to meet up with Michael Collins, a fellow member of the UK “B”-team. His house is in London, and made for a convenient base to get to our 9.50am flight from Stansted to Bratislava. I was a little apprehensive of staying over with someone who I had only exchanged a few emails over, but ultimately both him and his wife were perfectly charming about my problem. In the morning, we drove to Stansted, and we were both a little confused as to why we hadn’t seen George Danker (the 3rd member of the UK B trio) and his girlfriend Sophie who was coming out to spectate. Nevertheless, just as Michael and I had taken our seats, George and Sophie entered the cabin, and we could reorder our priorities. Namely to get down to solving lots and lots of puzzles.
Once arrived in Bratislava, we met up with a chap called Stefan, a Slovakian participant who was there to help us with transfers. His English was pretty broken (although not as broken as my Slovakian!) but we got a bus from the airport to the railways station fairly easily – albeit if the route didn’t show us a particular picturesque view of the Slovakian capital. We grabbed some food and drink at the station, and another of the Slovaks helped us buy some tickets and put us on a train to Zilina. This train it turned out had a “party carriage”, where it seemed the proprietor of the restaurant car had had a few too many Friday afternoon drinks! We were informed that in Slovakia too, this was a rare sight.
Frankly, it’d be worth having a few of these party carriages on some of the soulless commuter services run by South West Trains. I digress.
We were driven to the Holiday Inn in Zilina, which thankfully (see later!) was actually only just round the corner. We soon met up with the rest of the UK delegation, which included UK puzzling superstar David McNeill (David, you get far too little recognition for your undoubted talents and I am going to do my best to champion you here!), two-time UK sudoku champion Nina Pell and Mike Colloby. These three made up the UK A-team, and together with non-participating Ariane Blok completed the UK contingent. The A team were being sponsored by Puzzler Media to go out, whereas us B-teamers were paying our own way. Nina and Mike had qualified via an online competition. David’s record at previous championships speaks for itself, regularly featuring in grand finals! It turned out that I was sharing a room with Mike. (Although as it happened I only had 13 and a half hours of sleep in that room over the 3 nights we were there!)
We had a couple of beers at the hotel bar, then discussed puzzler matters first as a team, and then with the Americans. They had only sent out one team this year, which looked as strong as ever – featuring Thomas Snyder, Wei-Hwa Huang and Jason Zuffranieri together with team captain Nick Baxter. I follow Thomas’ and Jason’s blogs fairly regularly, and all three of us are regular solvers at nikoli.com. Actually, all three of us have been puzzle champions at nikoli – the proof of which comes from the exclusive nikoli.com t-shirt, which I was weraing that evening. I particularly treasure my own as it not only shows that I have managed to beat Thomas, but also because I am less than likely to do so again. Anyhow it was good to put names to faces. Incidentally, that night I managed to identify (although didn’t have time to talk to) Hideako Jo as he had his nikoli t-shirt on as well. I suspect he doesn’t have to do much clothes shopping given the regularity with which he wins nikoli championships!
The rest of the evening was spent in a big conference room where tables had been laid out in preparation for a buffet style dinner, which was to be followed by some cheesy introductory presentation and the instructions. The tables were organised by countries, and joining us on our table was Times journalist Jack Malvern. I normally have a real dislike for any sort of journalist, but Jack is a genuinely top bloke, and as we were to find out later, the 4th best participant at the 2002 World Air Guitar Championships.
Anyhow, events this evening stretched out way beyond midnight – surprising given that solving was to begin at 9am the following morning, to start a monster day in which pens and pencils wouldn’t be put down until midnight. Much of the confusion lay in the instructions to the puzzles, some of which had been unclear before but after these instructions seemed to be no more enlightened. Perhaps a lot was lost in translation – most Slovak-English translations I’d seen up to that point didn’t really flow, I’m assuming there are some pretty major syntax differences between the two languages. Anyhow, what did become clear is that our host, Jan Farkas, was the spitting image of Borat. An omen of things to come, unfortunately…