So I suppose I had better write something about winning this year's competition before an article appears in tomorrow's paper if 2015 was anything to go by - although the fact that it wasn't a snotty work experience boy who did the interview this year, and I haven't been woken by a desperate phone call asking "is there anything interesting about you?" I suppose is a good sign.
In previous years I have had to get up very early on a Saturday morning to make it in time for the competition, which takes place at the News building opposite the Shard . This year is much better as I have recently moved to London and find myself living about a 10 minute walk away.
This year I had put in a fair amount of practice before the competition, mainly in the form of the freebee "The Times Fiendish Su Doku Book 9" they handed out last year. Working my way through this led me to the conclusion that the current Times definition of Fiendish is a little loose - I suspect there might be 2 or 3 different things which might ultimately push a puzzle into its fiendish bracket. This was not particularly reassuring, as it doesn't offer too many clues about what kind of technique might unpick a sticking point. If you end up looking for the wrong thing then I know exactly what happens: in the final of the 2016 competition I was left utterly flummoxed and held everyone up (and still only had 3/4 correct), leaving me to claim a rather sobering 7th place.
Perhaps it was just the morning start or a general lack of sharpness, but the first round of 4 puzzles seemed to back this up. I solved these very nervously, and had to make a couple of guesses to get them all out in approximately 30 minutes. I think this was the 4th fastest with all correct - although I also believe that WSC team mate Heather Golding and 2013 champion Stephen Gerrard might both have been faster as well. They both ended up with small errors, effectively ruling them out of the grand final. This does feel a bit harsh, and I can definitely sympathise with them having done something similar in 2008, 2010 and 2012. However, them's the rules, and since 2014 (I didn't participate in 2013) I haven't made an error that I wasn't subsequently conscious of before handing in so hopefully weeding them out is something that can be learned. Winner of this round was a new name to me, Madeleine Jacob.
Anyhow, my 30 minute performance was quite demoralising; and although it was backed up by the general feeling in the room that this set was quite hard (to put this into perspective I have since given this round to one of the best solvers in the world, Chinese champion Tantan Dai, who finished it in 14 minutes) it wasn't hard enough to really have warranted guessing in two of the puzzles. What I found really helpful this year was in the break between the first and second round, whilst sitting down with Heather and another WSC team mate, Mark Goodliffe, I went back over and solved both the puzzles that had caused me grief in a fully deductive manner.
I think this set me up nicely for the 2nd set, which I got through OK in about 20 minutes, which is much more like it, albeit still with the feeling that I was a little slow to spot things. Perhaps this has something to do with the grids being a little bigger than normal. In previous years I'm sure I've said that I prefer this because it makes spotting x-wings and swordfish a little easier. Maybe I'd still hold that opinion if these puzzles required those harder techniques, but under the current supplier (Puzzler Media) they do not, and the fact of the matter is I much prefer being able to take in the whole grid at once now. Perhaps another theory is that the bigger grids involving more hand movement and/or having to write slightly bigger, all of which might add up when drawing in 50+ characters into the grid - it's a theory I wouldn't pay too much attention to, having conducted the interesting experiment of handing the 2016 grand final puzzles to the the 2016 world champion, Tiit Vunk, and sat down next to him to watch him solve on an original copy of the over-sized puzzles. He wolfed them down in (I think) 11 or 12 minutes.
But I digress. I was fairly confident I was fastest in the room so felt l could definitely spare a few minutes to check a little more thoroughly than I usually do, and as I was doing so, Nina Rowe handed in to win Round 2. This prompted me to do what I always do when I'm checking a little more thoroughly: conclude I wasn't actually getting any value out of it, and instead handed in to claim 2nd place for the round. This in itself felt a little strange, as I think I normally win at least one of the preliminary rounds most years.
In an interesting twist this year, there were 12 grand finalists this year, which was good news for defending champion George Danker, who had had his moment of freezing up in the the 2nd round, apparently taking 35 minutes to solve one of the puzzles. Luckily enough, the remaining 3 took him about 10 minutes, which still had him way down the rankings for this round, but the combined rank with the 1st round was enough to see him through in 12th place. Whilst Heather and Stephen may have been holding out for a few mistakes, this year the number of 8/8 solvers was 15, so neither was able to make the final.
For the final itself I was still a little unsure about how well I was solving, although I had clearly improved between Round 1 and Round 2. It felt to me that the favourite was going to be Nina Rowe, who had qualified very strongly in 2nd and 1st place - however the field also included previous champions George and Mark as well as a few other grand final regulars and some newer names who unfortunately I didn't have any time to meet or talk to. With such a wide list of potential winners, this format always feels a little bit of a lottery to me. I'm quite confident of my solving speed and would usually make myself the favourite, however I never quite feel like my chance of winning having made the final is more than 20-30% - and I'm sure other finalists must feel their chances aren't too far behind this. The stats show that my record in grand finals is now 4 wins from 8 (7 if you exclude the 1v1 knockout format used in 2006) so make of that what you will.
I suppose the nerves get to people in this final, because it became apparent very quickly that Nina was doing a serious amount of rubbing out. On the other hand, I was making very good progress over the first couple of puzzles I tried, and when I looked up after finishing the second I had used up about 9 minutes. Still wary that I might come grinding to a halt, my pulse raised a bit as I got through the 3rd, and by the time I was halfway through the 4th I knew I was on to something good. If anything, I felt like I had been slightly slow to spot a couple of things in much the same way as I had in the 2nd round, but it was still pretty good, as after a quick check for empty cells I handed in with 16 minutes gone. I knew I had solved pretty damn well and gave a fist pump. Apparently David Parfitt, the puzzle editor of The Times, who was running the show at the front of the room was worried he'd let out an audible "wow!" (I didn't hear this), but this was probably justified given that 2nd place, Madeleine, handed in about 10 minutes later.
She was shortly joined by Ned Walker in 3rd place, rounding off the podium, although I wasn't paying too much attention, because as in previous years I had to sit and wait in silence for everyone to finish and to confirm I didn't have a mistake. This year I made use of the freebee book, "The Times Ultimate Killer Su Doku Book 9", which apparently features "Extra Deadly" rated puzzles to keep me distracted, and I managed to finish off two suitably challenging puzzles within the remaining time.
After everyone had finished, it emerged that rather remarkably there weren't any mistakes in the final - perhaps this had something to do the £200 2nd place prize and £100 3rd place prize. I was very satisfied with my performance, and was glad to be holding the trophy again - although I suspect the photo in the paper tomorrow isn't going to be entirely flattering given the daze I was in at the time. However, the day ended nicely enough with me spending the first of the £1,000 prize money buying whoever was left around a drink at the bar in the Shard. Here's hoping I can have a decent shot at the title next year too!