Wednesday 17 October 2012

Kraljevica '12 day 3: WSC play-offs

When I woke up I think it’s fair to say that, despite not knowing the overall results, I was fairly confident I hadn’t hit the heights of the top 8 and so would almost certainly not be participating in the WSC play-offs.  Now, an awful lot has been said about the format of the play-offs this year, but I am going to save any more detailed analysis to a future series of blog posts discussing the matter where I hope to engage the community at large.  Instead, I’m going to focus on describing them from a spectator’s point of view.

The play-offs were to start fairly shortly after breakfast, and the idea was it was to be a seeded knock-out competition between competitors in a best of 3 puzzle format.  The higher seed got to choose the type of the first puzzle, lower seed the second, and should a decider prove necessary the top seed also got the choice.  Fairly simple then, the only catch being that the finalists would be solving at the front of the hall on giant bill-boards so the audience could see.

I initially took my place with some of Team UK, where we got to meet James McGowan, of the WPC A team, and Anthea McMillan, who James had roped in to fill the much needed vacancy on the WPC B team.  I’d had an impression of James via his online results and forum postings under the nom de guerre of kiwijam, but in person it was great to see that he’s a likeable and easy going sort of guy, with a full-blooded competitive spirit once there puzzles to be solved!

Back to proceedings.  The general cacophony of chitter chatter in the hall died down as the first of the quarter final matches was to begin.

Kota Morinishi (1) vs Rohan Rao (8)

Rohan is by no means a bad solver, but Kota had dominated the general classification, finishing 50 points clear of  two-time champion Jan M, despite scoring 0 for TNT round, and so was the overwhelming favourite for this match.  He made brief stumble on the irregular, but came through with too much speed on both that and the medium classic to take the match relatively easy.

Jakub Ondroušek (4) vs Hideaki Jo (5)

This was perhaps the most mouth-watering of the quarter finals on paper, and this is the way it proved.  Hideaki took differences puzzle first, before Jakub came back on the smurfs puzzle to level things.  Although this after some controversy: Jakub’s declared solution was initially graded as wrong, when it was in fact correct.  This seemed to upset Jakub, who was visible shaken as he threw down his marker on the floor having belatedly been given the result.  I can only speculate that he was in poor psychological shape for the deciding puzzle, a pinocchio, which Hideaki cooly took to set up an all Japanese affair in the first semi-final.

Tiit Vunk (3) vs Bastien Vial-Jaime (6)

This was another tasty match-up, with Tiit converting his pick of outside sums, and Bastien levelling with his pick of a medium classic.  The decider was a fairly tricky diagonal puzzle, which ebbed and flowed, but Tiit decisively pulled ahead to claim the third of the semi-final spots.

Jan Mrozowski (2) vs Chen Cen (7)

Again, with respect to Chen Cen who is a formidable solver featuring in her 2nd WSC play-off, this proved to not be much of a contest.  Jan breezed through firstly a star product puzzle and then a medium classic to progress.

So there was a bit of a pause before the semis, and I took a wander across the room.  Thomas Snyder and Palmer Mebane of the US had emerged and I took the opportunity to enquire as to whether Thomas had an opinion about symmetry in play-off puzzles.  This was perhaps the most disappointing feature of the play-offs for me, because the puzzles we had seen so far were all lacking any sort of symmetry.  With my constructor’s hat on I can only say that a world championship deserves better.  I probably don’t need to tell you that Thomas was thinking along similar lines.

Anyhow, let’s move on to the semis.

Kota Morinishi (1) vs Hideaki Jo (5)

So obviously this match-up was met with the excitement of the rest of the Japanese team, who were sat up right at the front on the left.  Perhaps appropriately for a sudoku championship, this match up boiled down to a showdown on classic puzzles; firstly a medium, and then an easy.  If you go by their times on, you’d perhaps give Kota a slight edge here, but it’s fair to say that every now and again Hideaki posts a time that blows everyone out of the water.  On this occasion, it was to be Kota who took both puzzles, guaranteeing he’d finish no worse than the 2nd he’d managed last year.

Jan Mrozowski (2) vs Tiit Vunk (3)

Perhaps now I can reasonable claim to have been put off during the general classification, sat I was between these two sudoku solving behemoths!  The match-up needed only the two puzzles, a little killer and an easy classic to be decided; and on reflection I suppose despite the fact we had #2 playing #3 here it wasn’t so much of a shock that two-time world champion Jan M progressed without too much trouble.

It should be noted that the pool of available puzzles was ever dwindling as each match-up was occurring, but crucially that the grand final picks had priority over the 3rd place play-off, even though the latter match happened first.  Anyhow, it isn’t just in puzzle solving that the necessity of a 3rd place play-off is up for debate, but there we go, now that we were there we might as well have just gone on with it.  So we did.

Tiit Vunk (3) vs Hideaki Jo (5)

This match was inevitably something of an anticlimax, so I’ll take the opportunity to describe the way Tiit was solving his puzzles on the bill-board first.  With rigid posture he stood before the board, surveying the grid, briefly pausing before elegantly dancing forward to engage with paper, wielding his marker as a fencer might his sabre.  After a brief flurry of activity, digits flying into the grid, with perfect footwork he’d step back and disengage, remaining still and vigilant as he’d search the grid for its next weakness.  Poetry in motion.  Hideaki in contrast remained very still, but almost out of nowhere digits would smoothly enter the grid.  There is no sense of a flurry or franticness with Hideaki, he solves with a sort of serenity really that is only really bested by his compatriot Kota.  It was with this serenity that he took 3rd place, triumphing in both the distance and the easy classic.

And so onto the marquee event, the grand final of the world sudoku championship 2012.  And say what you will about play-off procedures, we definitely had the two best solvers in front of us, and that the winner of this match would be a worthy champion.

Kota Morinishi (1) vs Jan Mrozowski (2)

Kota had the first pick, which was a medium classic.  For the first time in a while, however, serve was broken with Jan taking the puzzle.  I remember remarking at the time that since Jan displays such awesome levels of consistency throughout the rounds, it’s often forgotten that his classic solving speed is lightning quick - which is why I was surprised Kota made this pick.  Nevertheless, with competitors of the calibre of Kota, you expect a reaction when the chips are down and sure enough with Jan’s pick of a kendoku Kota was able to level the match.  Game on.

The next puzzle was to prove crucial - a brutal irregular with diagonal, reminiscent of the fare spewed out from the generator in the muppet show round.  Thomas remarked that these two were by far the best solvers of irregulars in the world, but with a winning solve of in excess of 14 minutes, and wrong digits scattered across both grids, it can’t be over-emphasised just what a brute this puzzle really was.  In the end Jan emerged as the fittest survivor, taking a 2-1 lead and with his pick of an overlapping puzzle to take the title.

The overlapping puzzle was a set of two irregular 7x7 puzzles, with a 2x3 overlap.  I commented that this would surely be over well before the 5 minute mark, but perhaps as Byron and Aga can attest to last year I should keep my mouth shut before making widely sweeping statements.  Indeed both solvers seemed to be solving in slow motion, placing the odd digit here and there, before Jan finally emerged to take the puzzle in 5’46’’.  Examining Kota’s grid afterwards would reveal that he was probably no more than a minute away from finishing it, but alas for him this would be his second consecutive year as runner up.  Too bad for Kota, who will surely go on to win this championship in future years, but congratulations must go to Jan who was certainly a worthy champion for this year.

Perhaps at this stage I should mention various other results.  From the UK:

Tom Collyer 28 (28)
Neil Zussman 41 (44)
Michael Collins 45 (53)
Emma McCaughan - (89)
Roderick Grafton 67 (94)
Liane Robinson - (143)

Most crucially of all it had turned out that my arch nemesis, Fred, had finished ahead of me in 21st.  A most bitter pill to swallow!

In the team competition, the Japanese dream team of serial WSC play-off contenders ran away with the team title, with the Czechs taking second, and most interestingly the Chinese taking 3rd.  Chinese sudoku solving I think has had its watershed moment this year, with 3 solvers in the top 20.  Perhaps next year they won’t quite be ready to challenge for the podium, but with home advantage I think it’s fair to say the Chinese will be a big fixture at the top of next year’s results.  Team UK finished 12th, which was a little disappointing, but proved to be a slight improvement on last year so it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

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