It’s World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships week

World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships logoThe World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships are happening in the UK for the first time this week at the Selsdon Park Hotel and Golf Club, just south of Croydon. The ninth World Sudoku Championships are already underway (see, for instance, a preview in the Independent on Sunday) and will crown their World Champion tomorrow; the 23rd World Puzzle Championships start on Thursday and run until Sunday Saturday ((ETA: Thanks, Ken!)).

This site is particularly excited about the World Puzzle Championships and really enjoyed reading the competition’s Instruction Booket, admiring the inventiveness and ingenuity of the puzzles that – frankly – are way out of our league. Nevertheless, looking at the registration list, we can attempt to consider the championship as the sporting event that it is and make some predictions for the sake of them having proved wrong soon.

A starting-point for treating the World Puzzle Championship as a sport is the Wikipedia article, but the motherlode is Tim Peeters’ site. You can get the results from the three most recent championships within the World Puzzle Federation‘s newsletters for 2012, 2013 and 2014, each with the results from the previous year’s championships.

This year there are 22 nations who have sent national teams of four solvers to the World Puzzle Championships, though nine nations additionally have sent “B” teams and there are also nine “United Nations” transnational teams. (In total, there will be 29 nations represented at the World Puzzle Championships.) This makes this year’s event relatively large to those of recent years, though not exceptional.

The 22 years of the World Puzzle Championship have only seen four different national teams win. The Japanese team won one, the Czech team won three, the German team have won four and the team from the United States of America have won the remaining fourteen. The US team has a 22/22 record at finishing in the top three places, the German team have finished on the podium 12 times in the last 14 years and the Japanese team’s unbroken run on the podium stretches back nine years. The Czech team were on the podium seven times in the first ten years; the Hungarian team have made four podium appearances and the Dutch team three, including two second places. Other teams on the podium have included Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Poland and Turkey.

The US team return three from last year’s championship winning team, headlined by four-time champion Wei-Hwa Huang and 2011 champion Palmer Mebane. William Blatt made it to the top ten last year to make the play-offs, as well. The change is that Thomas Snyder, four times on the podium for each of the World Puzzle and Sudoku championships (three times on the top step for Sudoku) has been replaced by MIT’s Anderson Wang. Big shoes to fill, but it would be a major surprise not to see their 22/22 streak on the podium become a 23/23 streak. Can they make it onto the top step again? Quite a few teams will have something to say about it.

Ken Endo described the Japanese selection process in his blog; the Japanese team deliberately include one first-timer in their World Puzzle Championship line-up, so long as they make the top ten of their domestic qualifying contest, and fill the remaining places with the top three outright. This year’s new blood is Yuki Kawabe, backing up Hideaki Jo (who has finished in the top six for six years in a row), Kota Morinshi (improving from 26th to 11th to 8th over the last three years) and Ken Endo himself, who was top among the B-team solvers last year. Hideaki, Kota and Ken took second to fourth in this year’s WPF GP and Yuki was eighteenth. Several teams have two world class solvers and a few have three, so a large part of the destiny of who will win the world championship may come down to the strength of the fourth team member. Judging by the WPF GP results, Japan may have the strongest fourth member.

The German team starts with Ulrich Voigt, bidding for his tenth title. His nine championships go back as far as 2000, and he’s not yet won three in a row – so a title this year would represent that distinction for him. He is well supported by his brother Roland, who finished second in 2002 (to beat Ulrich!) and who also has a sixth-place finish in 2011, when he hasn’t been involved running the German selection process. Florian Kirch finished tenth in 2009 and has three other top-20 appearances, and Martin Merker was very competitive as a guest last year, backing it up with 20th in the WPF GP as well. Very likely to be there or thereabouts once again.

If this site is going to pick a team to make it onto the podium for the first time, it will be brave enough to pick Slovakia, who finished fourth in 2013. They return all four team members from last year; Peter Hudak made it to the top ten and took part in the play-offs and their other three members were competitive, finishing in the top 27 official places. Definite contenders, as experience counts a great deal. Similarly, the Czech team return all four from last year, and are likely to be there or thereabouts. The Dutch team feature Bram de Laat, ready to make a break for the podium after going 9th-7th-4th in the last three years, and two-time World Champion Niels Roest makes a return. Rick Uppelschoten makes his ninth appearance, a top-20 solver more often than not and Annick Weyzig has two top-40 places, so they too have definite outside podium chances. The Hungarians include 2007 champion Pal Madarassy and 2012 fourth-place finisher Zoltan Horvath, so are well in the mix.

What about the home team? Neil Zussman and James McGowan enjoy a friendly rivalry at the top of the order, both finishing well in the top 20 last year, and both in the top 10 of the WPF GP this year, showing their form. They’ve both been red hot on qualifying tests in the past, not just winning the national title but beating all global competition in the UK Puzzle Championships of the last two years. Both will strongly fancy their chances of making it to the top ten and the play-offs this year. Steven Barge has three past WPCs to his name, finishing top of the UK solvers twice, and Thomas Powell came about half-way last time. It’s not clear that there is such a thing as “home advantage” in puzzle championships – indeed, dragging attention away from some of the top solvers to be on the organisational side must be a disadvantage, and the Dutch and Hungarian sides look stronger than they were last year – but last year’s sixth place for the UK team showed what is possible.

This is the point where the Canadians, French, Polish, Turkish and so on curse this preview for not highlighting them. It would be a delight for any of them to take this as inspiration to prove this preview wrong, especially if I’ve swept them aside into just the “and so on”!

This World Puzzle Championship is trying something different on the Sunday Saturday by featuring one final team round with very considerable bonus points on offer to the fastest finishers, almost analogous to the play-offs that have long been a part of the individual competition. Indeed, the fastest eight teams will get a second round of puzzles, in which the team members themselves will move about the life-size grids to demonstrate their answers rather than just putting dots on pages. My suspicion is that this final round will be crucial as to determining the overall outcome of the championship, and it may well be that at least two or three teams are in with a realistic chance at the start of this final round. It’ll be exciting!

For the sake of punditry, if you make me pick a single winner… it would be safe and predictable to pick the USA as winners for a fifteenth time, but I think 2014 will be the year Japan win their second world championship.

2 Comments

  1. For the purposes of entertainment only, and because I forgot to ask the bookmakers to price the markets up:

    Japan 11/10
    USA 11/8
    Germany 3/1
    Netherlands 20/1
    Slovakia 25/1
    Hungary 33/1
    Czech Republic 40/1
    United Kingdom 50/1
    China 66/1
    Canada 66/1
    Poland 66/1
    Serbia 66/1
    Turkey 66/1
    Any other named country 100/1

    …and, yes, I am too cowardly to put my money where my mouth is, even with this tight a book.

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