Wednesday 13 May 2009

WSC Zilina report part 6

Lunch at the ex communist stronghold, Hotel Slovakia was an interesting affair. The big plates had gone pretty quickly, so my buffet style lunch was piled up on something taken from near the salads. The only purpose I could see it was fit for was to support a lovely cup of tea but I struggled on. The view from outside the window was of a car park. Not jusst any car park though, a hideously ugly car park. Whilst it is possible to say that most car park architecture could be described as anti-renaissance, this was literally a giant breeze block. It made the old Tricorn centre look a painstakingly hand-sculpted masterpiece. We in Britain do complain an awful a lot (the Tricorn centre looked so terrible, even against the backdrop of Portsmouth, that it was blown up. After several attempts.) but I get the feeling that in Slovakia practicality is king.

The results were put up on the wall. David was in prime self-kicking form, especially as he gave the puzzle he had misread. I had a lot of sympathy with him – given my experiences last September I know how painful messing up qualifiers for a final you would have aced actually is. If he had have been in that final, there is no doubt that Jan Mrozowski would have had to share that favourite tag. There isn’t really too much you can say to someone in that situation, so we left him puzzling for a little while – before finally we had to go fetch him so we could walk back to the more Westernised Holiday Inn.

It was a stunning day for a lovely Sunday afternoon walk, and we were accompanied by the pretty translator girls, who were to act as impromptu tour guides – ours was Monica. Jason in particular had taken a shine to them, and felt a little bit guilty when he heard they were high school age – although David assures us this was known as they introduced to us on the Friday night. Parts of Zilina were also very pretty, and we went in a couple of churches as most other things were closed. There was also a nice square, with lots of promising looking bars as well as a nice fountain. (Kudos here to the organisers for ensuring the only time off to sight-see was when things were shut.) Other parts – such as the huge hole in the ground – and the Tesco superstore weren’t so pretty. Unfortunately, our tour had to be cut short as proceedings. Not before I had attempted to sell Warwick as a great choice of university for our translators; although, alas, their hearts seemed to be set on America.

Back at the hotel, there was just enough time to grab a refreshing lemonade from the bar – especially sweet because the supply of water bottles at the Hotel Slovakia had doubtlessly been redistributed for the greater good and had thus run out very quickly. Interestingly, the final ceremonies were to encompass a team “final” – which rather counter-intuitively involved ALL the teams (not that I should be complaining about a lack of exclusivity) – and the individual final. We headed up into the big room and we were instructed to sit on tables organised again by countries. The tables themselves were laid out for the dinner which was to come later, making the prospects of puzzle solving on them intriguing.

Team “Final”

Ariane, pre-empting another potential water situation had bought some bottles for us at the bar for this final session. She needn’t have bothered as the decadent Holiday Inn had provided about 20 bottles per table. The first puzzle was a monster 16 digit “sudoku cube” presented on a flat piece of paper, with six faces and identifications made by relay tracks to ensure. Topologically speaking, I thought this was pretty impressive! However, once you go beyond 9 numbers in sudoku, speed goes out of the window and 15 minutes wasn’t really enough to make satisfactory progress on the puzzle – despite my rather innovative coordinate system approach which helped to simplify matters for 3 people solving simultaneously.

We were next introduced to the championship’s VIP’s. Originally these were advertised as being Wayne Gould, sudoku’s most successful publicist (you can blame the worldwide craze on him) and Maki Kaji, CEO of Nikoli. Both of these are heavyweight names in the puzzling world and I’d have liked to have had the chance to meet them both. Instead, both had pulled out for personal reasons, and instead we were treated to middle-aged bearded and pony-tailed English blokes. They were championing their puzzle, a so-called 4-D sudoku. I’m not sure how valid that claim was mathematically speaking, although I will concede that solving the puzzle living in a four dimensional world would simplify matters immensely. Anyway, I don’t want to snear too much (now), it is a fun puzzle although perhaps slightly overpriced at £25.

Anyhow, this formed the basis for the last team round – get as many of the 27 complete faces as possible in 15 minutes. We got three, not particularly great – but the maximum anyone got was five, which incidentally was what the UK A team managed. This was the one round where they managed to live up to the their tag as the premier UK team!

After this team competition were over, there was a little more scope for mingling with other countries – an aspect of these championships that was lacking somewhat. We spoke a little more with Jason and I finally got the chance to glimpse him solving kakuro in person. Unfortunately he’d already done all the easy puzzles, and was instead working through a really big and hard puzzle. This became less interesting than it had seemed at first. I also got a chance to have more words with Thomas, and Wei-Hwa. Wei-Hwa was bidding to become only the 4th ever person to actually finish off the “4d” sudoku. The previous record had been in the order of days! Thomas and I were speculating on the format of the final – which hadn’t really been specified – even though (as Nick pointed out) it should have been under WPF rules.

Individual final

And then our worst fears were realised as it became apparent that the finals would be done on the wall, on huge even-larger-than-A1 sized (if such a size of paper indeed exists) grids. Jack was floating around in journalist mode, and got this absolute gem of a quote from Thomas:
The ridiculousness of it has gone up another notch. It is like you’ve had a championship for basketball and then for the final you have a different sized ball, higher hoops and trampolines on your shoes. It’s a crap shoot. Why don’t we just line them up, give them a pack of cards, and let them play poker until they get a winner?
My own observation was perhaps a little more sober in its tone:
The grids in the final were so large that contestants had to retreat a step from them to see the whole puzzle.
The idea of having these super-sized was puzzles was so the audience could see – although quite what was wrong with the system in previous years, where table-top spot cameras were employed to broadcast the finalists solving normal sized puzzes onto a big screen, I’m not entirely sure. Anyhow, the first puzzle – a classic sudoku – was visible for a good couple of minutes before the finalists were let loose. It soon became apparent that this was a fairly easy sudoku (roughly Times difficult standard) as it was fairly easy to mentally place 10-20 digits without too much trouble. I fetched some paper out of my bag copied out the numbers and decided to do a simul-solve. A few people gathered round, including Thomas with his inevitable and incredibly off-putting simul-simul-solve commentary. I jokingly remark to anyone who is interested that the reason I have become a world-class sudoku solver is because I got so pissed off with people telling me “that’s a 5”, or “oooh you’ve missed a really easy one there” whilst solving that the only solution was to see all of these things before they did. However, being quicker than a two-tme world champion is beyond me. For now!

Equally as inevitably, with my rushed scruffy handwriting I had made a mistake due to not recognising a number I’d written in. Instead I looked up to watch how the finalists were getting on – and predictably Jan Mrozowski was leading the field. Wei-Hwa had finished off the puzzle remarkably quickly. It was easy, although had a sticking point later on which fell to a technique called “colouring” – which doesn’t really appear in newspaper puzzles but isn’t too hard to get your head around the logic. I then managed to finish off my bodge job on the first puzzle, before they competitors started the second of the two final puzzles.

Apparently one of the first puzzles had “gone off the wall” (to borrow a headline) and had revealed some sort of diagonal constraint and a coloured region – and clues which pointed towards something that wasn’t quite a sudoku in the sense that there was a well-defined third constraint of 1-9’s, as well as in rows and columns. Or as you might have read in the Times: It’s not a sudoku. It’s a Latin square with certain restrictions. Perhaps I’m revelling a little bit much in my own meagre press coverage here haha – so back to the story – I reached for some paper and began the laborious task of sketching out the grid together with its numerous constraints.

This entry is getting a tad long – so I’m splitting up this split here!

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