The story of Sudoku

Sudoku is a game played in a 9×9 grid. The grid (or board) consists of 9 smaller, 3×3 boards. When you start the game, the grid already contains some digits from 1 to 9 scattered all over the board. The empty squares must be filled by the player with digits from 1 to 9 in a way that each row, column and 3×3 subgrid contains each digit from 1 to 9 only once. The concept of the game comes from the 18th century Swiss mathematician, Leonhard Euler. He invented what we call today a ‘Latin square’: in a n×n Latin square each one of the digits (1, 2, …, n) appears only once in each row and in each column. The name of the game comes from the fact that in the beginning Euler used the letters of the Latin alphabet instead of numbers. The predecessor of Sudoku first appeared in a French newspaper in 1892. By that time, the 9×9 board has already been divided into 3×3 subgrids. It still contained multi-digit numbers and the players had to follow different rules when filling in the squares. The present form of the game, that we all know and play today was invented in 1979 by an American architect, Howard Garns. The game arrived in Japan in 1984, where it first appeared in a magazine called Nikoli as a puzzle to be solved. The name Sudoku, that we all know today, comes from its old name used in Japan at that time: ‘Suuji wa dokushin ni kagiru” which means that each digit can only appear once.

The detailed story of Sudoku

Sudoku is a Japanese word, but it doesn’t mean that the game comes from the Asian country. The basis of the game is a theory created by a Swiss mathematician, Leonhard Euler in 1783. His theory was that you have to fill a row or a column with digits in such a way that each row and column must contain each digit only once. He created the ‘magic square’ using Greek numbers or the letters of the Latin alphabet, that’s why for a long period of time the puzzle game was called ‘Greek’ or ‘Latin square’.

Its first appearance to the general public happened in 1892 in Paris. On November 19, 1892, the Le Siècle newspaper published a partially completed 9×9 magic square with 3×3 subgrids. This however cannot be considered a real Sudoku as it also contained double-digit numbers and the puzzle had to be solved using arithmetics rather than logic. However the main characteristics were the same: in every row, column and subgrid the sum of the digits were the same. On July 6, 1895, a rival of Le Siècle, La France perfected the game and the result was almost like the modern version of Sudoku. They simplified the 9×9 magic square puzzle so that every row and column contained the digits from 1 to 9, however they didn’t mark the subgrids. Even though the subgrids weren’t marked, every digit could only be used once in each one. In that version the key to solving the puzzle was the broken diagonal. For over a decade, these weekly puzzles often appeared in French newspapers such as L’Echo de Paris, but during World War I, they became forgotten.

The modern Sudoku was invented by Howard Garns, a 74 year old retired American architect and freelance puzzle constructor from Indiana. It was first published in the Dell magazine in 1979 under the name ‘Number Place’. Garns passed away in 1989, so he could not live to see his invention become recognized and popular all over the world. The game extended with Howard Garns’ supplementary rules was published for the first time in 1979. His puzzle was published by Dell Magazine which has been publishing crosswords for over 50 years. Garns surprised the public with a 9×9 grid divided into smaller, 3×3 subgrids or tables. The game at that time was called ‘Number Place’. At that time it only enjoyed moderate success.

The worldwide popularity of Sudoku can be attributed to a Japanese publisher, Nikoli. The Japanese newspaper published the new game in April 1984 under the following name: „Suji wa dokusin ni kagiru” (literally “the digits must be single”) which was later abbreviated to Sudoku. Maki Kaji, who was the president of Nikoli at that time, discovered the game in the Dell Newspaper. He really liked the game, so he decided to help popularize it and published the puzzle in Japan. He found the original name too complicated, so he simplified it to ‘Sudoku’. In this abbreviation ‘Su’ stands for digit, while ‘doku’ refers to the unique place of the numbers. The game had an amazing success in the Japanese market, and it has been very popular ever since. There are many newspapers dedicated to it and there are even people who create the puzzles by hand. In 1989 a Sudoku program was released for Commodore 64 under the name DigitHunt. The European career of the game was launched by Wayne Gould from Hong Kong. Gould worked as a lawyer in New Zealand for 13 years, then he spent 15 years building his legal career in Hong Kong from 1982. His efforts weren’t in vain, since he became chief judge of the city. In his free time he would develop computer game programs. In the spring of 1997, he saw a pile of Sudoku books in a bookshop in Tokyo. He was very excited about this encounter with the game. At the suggestion of his wife, who was an American professor of linguistics, the first Sudoku puzzle was published as a test in a local newspaper in New Hampshire, where they had a house. The editors of the Conway Daly Sun were surprised to see the interest for this new game. In October 2004, Gould, who was 59 years old at the time, traveled to London. He knew that the British were passionate about puzzles, and that every British newspaper had a page dedicated to crosswords. He went to talk to the publisher of The Times without prior consultation, and he managed to make a deal: he agreed to prepare puzzles for free for the newspaper to publish. November 12, 2004 was a big day in the history of Sudoku: The Times published the first puzzle prepared by Gould. Since then, the newspaper has kept publishing his puzzles. The British are yet to stop playing Sudoku. Sudoku became popular in other European countries in no time. The media called it the Rubik’s Cube of the 21st century. The game then returned to the United States with huge success. As of mid-2004, the New York Post has launched a permanent column dedicated to Sudoku. On July 11, USA Today and the Daily News launched their separate column dedicated to Sudoku, displacing the traditional crossword puzzles, that have been on the same page for decades. It’s not surprising that bookstores and newsstands are also full of magazines and newspapers that contain Sudoku games. The game arrived in Australia in the late spring of 2005, where it was advertised in the biggest newspapers. David Burkett, the CEO of Time Inc., was also surprised at how quickly Sudoku has spread across the whole continent. Then the Sudoku obsession arrived in Hungary as well. The first Sudoku magazine with Hungarian comments was published in the autumn of 2005, then the first publications containing Sudoku puzzles reached the bookstores as well. And now, with the help of and the internet, we can play with this excellent puzzle as much as we want, wherever we want.

It first appeared in a U.S. newspaper, and then The Times (London), in 2004, thanks to the efforts of Wayne Gould, who devised a computer program to rapidly produce unique puzzles.