Sudoku & Mental Exercise

Tools of the Sudoku Trade

When my family doctor asked me what I did to keep my mind active, I mentioned reading (which didn’t seem to impress him very much) and crossword puzzles (which he liked). Then he said, in his blunt, but friendly, way: ‘Take up sudoku. It’s very good for the brain.’

I was skeptical because, like others I’ve talked to, I thought sudoku puzzles involved math. Curiously in my younger years I studied a lot of math and used it often in my science and engineering classes. I was a B or B+ type math student — competent, but not a math wizard. I liked math okay, but not as much as science and English.

But somewhere over the years I lost touch with math and I was never fond of arithmetic, the daily math most of us use. I’ve never been able to do arithmetic in my head. On paper I’m okay and I can wield a calculator with the best of them, but increasingly my mind doesn’t process or conceptualize math very well. Perhaps it’s an age-related thing. So I avoided the sudoku craze, thinking it was okay for the mathematically inclined, but that I was not among them.

Marion, who had done a few sudoku puzzles herself, and didn’t like them, told me differently: ‘It’s not about math at all. It’s pattern matching and solving.’ With that encouragement I bought a Dell book of Easy sudoku puzzles that included some 6×6 grids at the start for raw beginners. Marion was right — there wasn’t any math involved. The numbers could as easily be icons of chess pieces or Babylonian goddesses — they’re nothing but convenient place markers.

And so I began. I didn’t get it right away; easy 9×9 puzzles seemed to me impossible to solve. I tried the 6×6 puzzles and eventually got the hang of it, after working at them for a couple of days (I’m not a quick learner). After being able to solve 6×6 puzzles routinely, I promoted myself to the big leagues, tackling the easy 9×9 ones. A couple of times I almost succeeded, but discovered I have a brain condition I call ‘spatial dyslexia’. Even when I’m being careful and checking my work, I can unknowingly transpose rows and columns, both in my logic when I’m solving a space, and physically when I’m putting in my answers. To be nearly finished with a puzzle only to discover two 4’s or 8’s in the same row or column is disheartening.

I had to agree with my doc though — this was exercising my brain in a way that was new and rigorous. I stuck with it. I remember very clearly the evening I solved my first 9×9 puzzle: it took me 60 minutes. It was the motivator I needed, and within days I was getting down to 30 minutes, then 20, and often 15. I was (and still am) subject to my peculiar form of dyslexia, but I’ve become a little better at checking my work. Any time I try to solve a sudoku puzzle quickly, I make errors. If I take my sweet time and double check all my logic and then my answers when I enter them, I can usually solve a puzzle without errors. Easy ones, of course.

I got hooked. And in helping me learn, Marion got hooked too, though she still prefers crosswords. I now work on anywhere from two to five puzzles a day. After a couple of months of easy ones, I moved up to medium puzzles. I’ve tried some of the hard ones but I’m rarely able to solve them. I get to a point where, with the logic techniques I know, I run out of numbers I can puzzle out, and I refuse to guess.

I thought I’d be clever and look up some tutorials on the Internet. They’re there all right, but they make my head hurt. All that talk about hidden triplets and quads and x-wing solutions is about as clear to me as particle physics. So I decided ‘the heck with hard’. I do the puzzles for fun after all. Medium, with occasional forays into hard, seem just right to me, at my skill level. They’re challenging, but solvable.

I don’t make notations in my puzzles. All the tutorials recommend it, but the clutter bothers me and makes it more difficult, rather than easier, to see the patterns. Notation also takes a long time to do. I can solve medium level puzzles without notations so I’ve opted to keep it simple.

I must admit though, that it discourages me when I see my son’s girlfriend whiz through the hardest sudoku puzzles in ten minutes or less, completing them perfectly nearly every time. She uses no notation either. Some people are gifted. The rest of us plod.

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