World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships, London 2014: a personal opinion

"FIN" film stripThis will very probably be the last post this site makes as part of its London 2014 coverage. This site generally tries to keep its coverage relatively neutral and personality-free; this, unusually, is an opinion piece from one of the Exit Games UK authors.

It’s probably no surprise that people in the UK Puzzle Association started seriously kicking around the idea of bidding to host the World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships in the UK around the time of the 2011 event; the bid to host the event in 2014 was made, and accepted, as part of the 2012 championships. At the time, I was a dissenting voice. My opinion on the proposed bid ran as follows:

Bluntly, but completely honestly, I think 2014 is – at the very least – a year or two too early for the UKPA to be considering running the annual WPF tournaments. I get the impression that it’s going to be a huge process and will largely consume the efforts of the association for a year or two.

While the UKPA is so small, my preference would be to spend at least the next couple of years focusing on expanding our membership and getting a strong domestic puzzle scene going, so that we can build up really strong and enthusiastic resources before we take on the biggest project of them all.

I sent this by private message to the UKPA’s directors. It was clear that mine was a minority opinion, so I had my say once, left it at that, and drifted away from the UKPA, leaving them to do their own thing. They do it extremely well; I wrote a preview of the UK Open face-to-face puzzle and sudoku championships in March, and of their online UK Puzzle Championship, probably my single favourite long-form online puzzle contest each year, in May. I’ve given publicity to the UKPA’s activities where and when I can, without otherwise being involved.

After having attended the face-to-face UK Open events in 2012, I was convinced that, while the UKPA membership was small, it had sufficient talent to be able to run the world championships… barely. I would never have said that I thought they couldn’t do it, but I did think (but not say out loud) that, in practice, the organisation was so small that they couldn’t do it without driving themselves incapable through overwork, to the point of putting the organisation itself at risk.

The last two weeks show that, as it turns out, I was wrong. I acknowledge that and am delighted to have been proved wrong.

It’s likely that the team putting together the event was one of the smaller teams in recent years. It’s definitely true that there was an immense amount of work put in long before the event came to fruition, and very little sleep indeed was had by the people running the event while the week itself was in progress. I haven’t yet seen a great deal of long-form blogging about the event itself (though see Roland Voigt, Palmer Mebane and the Canada team) but the social media instant feedback I’ve seen has been extremely positive.

Accordingly, while there is not yet necessarily much primary source material to suggest how this year’s championships compared to previous years, the second-hand feedback implies that it was about as good as the event has yet been, and certainly at the very top end of expectations. I get the impression that the event was relatively low in terms of bells, whistles and miscellaneous “jazzmatazz”, but that the important bits were all present and correct. Certainly there were no broken puzzles, which is to the event’s massive credit.

While thanks and praise should be given to puzzle authors from around the world, for the puzzle-writing has been a global task for years now, as far as editing and testing are concerned, the buck stops with the local organising committee, and they did not disappoint in the least in that regard. Full spreadsheets have now been published with the World Sudoku Championship scores and World Puzzle Championship scores; while my preview may not have picked the winners, I’m adequately pleased with the extent to which I was there or thereabouts.

Many congratulations and great gratitude to the organisers and volunteers who put on the year’s event. Their hard work and excellent results have done the UK proud. Next year’s championships have been announced as taking place in Bulgaria; if you’ve enjoyed this site’s coverage of this year’s events, and think you might enjoy taking part in an event that will get covered in the same way around the world next year, start your practice now! Details of qualification for the 2015 UK teams will be published as soon as they are available.

Winners

By Svilen.milev (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsDetails of all the award-winners from last week’s World Puzzle and Sudoku Championships have been posted:

2014 World Sudoku Championship

World Sudoku Champion
1) Kota Morinishi (JPN)

2) Tiit Vunk (EST)
3) Bastien Vial-Jaime (FRA) & Jakub Ondrousek (CZE)

World Sudoku Team Champions
1) Japan

2) Germany
3) China

World Junior Sudoku Champion (Under 18)
1) Dai Tantan (CHN)

2) Jin Ce (CHN)
3) Sun Cheran (CHN)

World Junior Sudoku Team Champions (Under 18)
1) China

2) Korea

World Senior Sudoku Champion (Over 50)
1) David McNeill (GBR)

2) Jiri Hrdina (CZE)
3) Stefano Forcolin (ITA)

Best WSC Newcomer
Dai Tantan (CHN)

2014 World Puzzle Championship

World Puzzle Champion
1) Ulrich Voigt (GER)

2) Palmer Mebane (USA)
3) Florian Kirch (GER)

World Puzzle Team Champions
1) Germany

2) Japan
3) USA

World Junior Puzzle Champion (Under 18)
1) Qiu Yangzhe (CHN)

2) Olivier Garconnet (FRA)
3) Mehmet Durmus (TUR)

World Junior Puzzle Team Champions (Under 18)
Korea

World Senior Puzzle Champion (Over 50)
1) Stefano Forcolin (ITA)

2) Jiri Hrdina (CZE)
3) Nick Baxter (USA)

Best WPC Newcomer
Yuki Kawabe (JPN)

Many congratulations all round! Computer power supply problems here, so further exciting things will have to wait for now.

(Image credit: By Svilen.milev, via Wikimedia Commons; mouseover the image for license details.)

“And STILL… undisputed championofthewooooooorld…”

Ulrich Voigt, ten-time World Puzzle ChampionThe photo above, taken by the Japan Puzzle Federation, is of Ulrich Voigt, shortly after winning third place in the World Puzzle Federation’s in-person final of their year-long GP competition. This was just a warm-up for him, preparing his defence of his individual title. The previous post saw him listed as number one seed going into the play-offs.

The quarter-final saw finishers numbers seven to ten compete over three puzzles, for a single spot in the semi-final, with the lower-ranked finishers suffering late starts relative to the seventh-placed finisher by way of a handicap to penalise them for their lower finish. Bram de Laat of the Netherlands started the quarter-final first, by virtue of his seventh place finish, Zoltan Horvath of Hungary started second for finishing eighth, Japan’s Kota Morinshi finished ninth and so started third, and the USA’s William Blatt started fourth, having being promoted to a tenth-place finish upon appeal. (Previous tenth-place finisher Roland Voigt responds very reasonably.) The first puzzle, a Slitherlink (a.k.a. Fences, Rundweg etc.) was probably the one that had the biggest impact in the quarter-final; Kota Morinshi overtook the two previous starters and never looked back, even after having to erase a big chunk of his third puzzle. Kota finished the quarter-final first to reach the semi-final, and the potential double championship remained on!

So, in the semi-final, Kota Morinshi started some time after sixth-placed finisher Peter Hudak of Slovakia, somewhat longer after fifth-placed finisher Hideaki Jo of Japan and even longer still after fourth-placed finisher Palmer Mebane of the USA. In Palmer’s own write-up, he talks about the five puzzles he faced. He points to an unusual technique that he used to crack the Suguru puzzle, on his way to defend his fourth-place finish and qualification for the final.

Palmer had a 4’20” penalty to make up, with third-place finisher Florian Kirch of Germany suffering a 3’40” hold and second-place finisher Ken Endo of Japan having to wait 2’49” until after first-placed qualifier Ulrich Voigt of Germany started his final. This was longer still at seven puzzles: in order, Battleships, Area 51, Kakuro, Nurikabe, Unequal Length Maze, Neighbours, and Masyu. Mebane spotted a quick constraint on the 3-length ships to make up much of the time disadvantage on the Battleships puzzle, and was fast on Area 51 and Kakuro despite a minute-long penalty for a wrong answer on the second and 30 seconds struggling with a false solution to the third. After catching up further on the Nurikabe, Palmer writes:

(…) Unequal Length Maze is a fiddly Erich Friedman type without a lot of logic in it. An odd choice for a playoffs. Apparently this one went really poorly for Ken Endo, leading to his eventual 4th. In contrast, I saw a way to include a path pattern I often see in the solutions for these and finished it in 15 seconds. I was rather incredulous at this, my invigilator David McNeill was moreso (…) and Josh Zucker from the USA B team said it was his favorite solve of the championship.

Palmer made up more time still on the tricky Neighbours and final Masyu, so had come back a long way from his 4’20” initial deficit. Not quite far enough, for Ulrich Voigt had finished 22 seconds earlier to claim his tenth world championship. (This is the first time he’d won three in a row, and the first WPC “threepeat” since Wei-Hwa Huang bowled a metaphorical turkey in 1997-1999.) Florian Kirch was also making up time, finishing within a minute as well to take the third step on the podium. Full results to follow shortly when available. Congratulations to all the play-off participants, and to the top-placed teams as well.

The whole concept of a play-off for the finals remains slightly controversial, though it has been well-established since 2000. There is scope for criticising the extent to which the results of the first two days of competition are, arguably, close to thrown out when the result of the handicapped fifteen round decide the overall result. It’s almost a made-for-TV finale before the event has started to attract TV coverage. There have been a variety of play-off formats used over the years; this year’s was relatively well-received, for making the headstarts relatively large while keeping the solving interesting. It’s interesting that Palmer Mebane fairly explicitly targets finishing first before the play-offs over finishing first in the play-off, and he’s not alone in that opinion. Nevertheless, there are no realistic signs of play-offs being removed from championship consideration in future years.

Stretching back to last century, perhaps American Gladiators is to blame?

Finals day at the World Puzzle Championships

Europe's "The Final Countdown" single coverTwo days down and one day to go at the World Puzzle Championships! Arguably today is the single biggest day in the world puzzling calendar.

Usual source Akıl Oyunları points to a scoreboard photo taken by Rejtvényfejtők Országos Egyesülete, which I believe is the Hungarian puzzle organisation. Germany are leading the team competition with a single round to go from Japan, by almost a thousand points. Germany B are in unofficial third place, but ineligible for the podium; in the official third place is the US team, but are only barely ahead of Slovakia in fourth place. There’s a long gap between the first two and third place – so, barring a remarkable disqualification from the final round, it’s practically head-to-head between Germany and Japan for the title. The fifteenth round, the final one before the individual play-offs, is a purely team contest:

This team round consists of three phases. The first two phases take place in one session, and the third and final phase takes place in a second session, with a break before it. In the first phase, which covers puzzles 1-4, each team will be seated at a table and will be asked to solve 4 separate paper puzzles. (…) In phase 2, which covers puzzles 5-7, the players move counters according to given rules in a series of steps. When the team are satisfied they have found the final position of each counter, they should mark the locations with the given stickers.

Bonus points will be awarded for teams who finish all 7 puzzles correctly in the allotted time, as
per the other team rounds. In addition, the first 8 A-teams to submit a correct set of solutions for both of the first two phases will qualify for the third and final phase. (…) Teams that successfully complete the final round will be awarded further bonus points according to their ranking position: 1st=2800 points, 2nd=2000 points, 3rd=1400 points, 4th=1000 points, 5th=700 points, 6th=500 points, 7th=350 points, 8th=250 points. In the final phase, the team players will themselves act as counters moving around a large grid on the floor, with each player playing the role of one of the four counters.

So Japan have a fair bit to do in order to catch up with Germany. If Japan complete the final round correctly and Germany don’t, that will be enough, but this seems unlikely. If Japan complete the first two phases more than three minutes more quickly than Germany, then they’ll be within 800 points of Germany and just need to win the third phase outright. However, if neither of these is true, barring a German meltdown, Japan will need to beat Germany in the third phase by at least two places to overtake them. Slovakia are within a couple of hundred points of the USA, so overtaking them to reach the podium looks like a distinct possibility.

The individual play-offs take place this afternoon, with the ten finalists being, in descending order of score:

  1. Ulrich Voigt, Germany
  2. Ken Endo, Japan
  3. Florian Kirch, Germany
  4. Palmer Mebane, USA
  5. Hideaki Jo, Japan
  6. Peter Hudak, Slovakia
  7. Bram de Laat, Netherlands
  8. Zoltan Horvath, Hungary
  9. Kota Morinshi, Japan
  10. Roland Voigt, Germany

The top-placed UK finisher was Neil Zussman, who missed the play-offs by fewer than fifty points when Roland Voigt overtook him to take the tenth spot in the last individual round. So close…

More later. This site doesn’t normally do multiple posts in a day, but finals day is an exception!

Friends in high places

Letter from Buckingham PalaceOne of the star guest attractions at the World Puzzle Championship is the above letter, sent in response to a letter informing Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II of the event’s existence. Probably most of the event attendees have their own photos of the framed letter; credit Akıl Oyunları for that particular photo, that does well at avoiding the glare of reflection from the frame. (Unusually for this web site, click on it for a closer look.)

Akıl Oyunları also takes the credit for recent photos of the World Puzzle Championship scoreboards after five rounds: the team scoreboard has the German team narrowly overtaking the Japanese team after round five (and the USA team being fought hard by the German B team) though there has been some nip-and-tuck in the battle between them, and the individual scoreboard shows Germany’s Ulrich Voigt starting to pull away from the field.

For further live updates, keep following Akıl Oyunları’s Facebook page and perhaps also the German-language “Live from London” thread on the Logic Masters Germany page. The Canadian puzzle team weblog is being frequently updated as well, as is Palmer Mebane‘s weblog. On Twitter, English-language discussion was tagged #worldsudoku for the world sudoku championship and is being tagged #worldpuzzle for the world puzzle championship. If you know of other sources, please post them in the comments below.

The in-person final of the World Puzzle Federation’s GP competition was last night. The “Live from London” thread referred to above had the play-by-play and the Japan Puzzle Federation have a photo of the scoreboard. It must have been great fun to watch the scoreboard be updated in real time, let alone watching the competitors solve the problems. Congratulations to Hideaki Jo and Kota Morinshi of Japan for overcoming their slight time penalty, arising from performance in the online rounds, to take first and second ahead of Germany’s Ulrich Voigt.

In exit game news too exciting to wait, Escape Quest is a site under construction, expected to open in November in Macclesfield, Cheshire. The site has a gorgeous little trailer video that’s rather fun. You can sign up in advance, with an opening discount promised, and a little impudence and investigation (for would you expect less?) reveals an address, so there can be a pin in the map. This site wishes Escape Quest well and looks forward to reading more from them!

Sudoku’s coming home

sudoku japanese script logoThe history of sudoku is a long story – or, at least, a long-distance story.

Magic squares date back to China and were generalised by the great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler. A hundred years ago, French newspapers published some puzzles that bear very considerable similarities to sudoku, if you squint. The birth and infancy of sudoku as they are generally known today is ascribed to Howard Garns, and it’s certainly true that there have been “Number Place” puzzles in Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games magazine since 1979. However, the puzzle only really grew up after it started being featured in the great Japanese puzzle company Nikoli’s monthly communications from 1984. Taking the analogy further, New Zealand’s Wayne Gould adopted the puzzle and introduced it back to the English-language mass market, starting with The Times of London in 2004. It has spread around the world from there.

Nevertheless, it’s probably fair to say that sudoku is largely considered a Japanese puzzle; certainly one of its Japanese names has broadly stuck, rightly or wrongly. This is the sense in which the ninth World Sudoku Championship represents something of a homecoming, for the individiual winner was Kota Morinishi of Japan, the first time the competition has been won by a Japanese solver. (Kota had finished second for each of the last thee years, so this does not come as a big surprise.) The individual results have been posted and the Independent has a report with a little colour about the play-offs. The team results will surely follow very soon.

Clearly Kota is in hot form and will be looking to do the double when the World Puzzle Championships start tomorrow, also in Croydon. Kota finished eighth in last year’s WPC, but also finished fourth in the World Puzzle Federation’s Puzzle GP series held over the year, so he’s definitely got a chance. Nobody has done the double before, though; the closest anybody has come is Dr. Thomas Snyder of Grandmaster Puzzles. Dr. Snyder won the World Sudoku Championship in 2007, 2008 and 2011, and finished second in the World Puzzle Championship in 2007 (and third in 2011). You have to imagine that Kota will be there or thereabouts in the puzzle championship, though there are a great many strong contenders trying to keep him from the title, not least his Japanese teammates.

Nevertheless, this site chooses to consider it a good sign for its prediction of Japan to win only its second ever team championship…

((Edited to add:)) While they’re not up on the web site yet, someone has posted a photo of the top of the team scoreboard. Congratulations to Japan for winning the team competition, by a narrow margin from Germany and China. As well as no individual ever having done the sudoku-and-puzzle double, no country has ever done it yet either – at least, until now!

The World Sudoku Championship is in progress

World Sudoku CHampionshipDay one of the World Sudoku Championship has seen a great degree of mass media coverage. The Independent on Sunday previewed the event, the Telegraph also previewed the event on the Sunday and then carried early event coverage on Monday, with a great many fun quotes from competitors. The event even made the 6pm national BBC radio news broadcast – skip to 27’35” to 29’39”.

The Guardian also had a piece, relaying gloom from the British team. (I did particularly like one of the readers’ comments, though, and suspect I may steal it to use heavily over the next ten years: I went to a sudoku championship once, but it was only to make up the numbers.) Further afield, Le Monde were very charming about the event, in French, and I would bet that the Chinese media covered the event heavily as well, for they are the favourites. The volunteers are busy marking papers, but some coverage from day 1 has been published.

I also enjoyed this witty comment on Twitter: Croydon hosts World Sudoku Champs. What will the legacy be? Will a generation be inspired? No 9-storey 9-room towers of dedicated infrastructure required, but more people trying out for the UK sudoku and puzzle teams next year than this year would be a great result.

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.