In the last five minutes of a heady day of Sudoku yesterday, the tension in cavernous Hall A of the Convention Center was palpable. About 1,000 onlookers watched as the three finalists - competing in the first Philadelphia Inquirer Sudoku National Championship for $10,000 and a trip to the world competition in India - seemed stymied by the day's most difficult puzzle.
Each finalist stood in front of a large Sudoku board, each with the same puzzle. A camera scanned the play and shot it onto two large screens. Puzzle master Will Shortz provided commentary, but was silent during much of the final confounding few minutes, as the contestants marked numbers in boxes in the game of logic, then stepped back to look, shake heads, erase with palms, and jot new digits.
Then things slowed down for all of them. The auditorium went so still, you could hear a number crunch.
Suddenly, Thomas Snyder, 27, from Palo Alto, Calif. - the world Sudoku champ - made his move: He scrawled a 7 in one box, and, as he said moments later after he won, "the work was done."
Snyder raced through the rest of the boxes after unlocking the one that had been thwarting him. He stood back, checked each of the nine-space rows and three-by-three boxes. Yes, each now contained the numbers one through nine, with no repeats. Snyder raised a hand - I'm done! the gesture said - and the audience burst into applause. The postdoctoral student in bioengineering at Stanford University, who had received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard University, was still at the top of his Sudoku form.
In March, Snyder had won the world championship in Prague. Now, The Inquirer will send him, as part of the American team, to defend the title in Goa, India.
Until yesterday, Sudoku had a world championship, but not a U.S. one. The idea to launch a national contest for the phenomenally popular puzzle came from Brian Tierney, chief executive officer of Philadelphia Media Holdings, owner of The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com.
He contacted Shortz, the puzzle editor of the New York Times and the nation's leading puzzle expert, who manages American teams of competitive puzzle solvers, and the rest of the story played out yesterday.
By the time the first round began, at 11 a.m., 857 puzzlers had registered - 150 in the advanced category, 442 intermediate solvers, and 265 in the easier beginners' category. Most were from the region, but about 30 percent came from afar: British Columbia, California, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and cities along the Northeast Corridor. The youngest competitor was 6 - Teresa Martinez, a student at Limerick Elementary School in Montgomery County, who played alongside her grandma Marge. The oldest, Milton Schwartz, was 87.
"It seemed like something fun, and it seemed like something I had a good chance of winning," said Gerhard Paseman of Oakland, Calif., who arrived at Philadelphia International Airport at 5 p.m. Friday and had to be on a plane back at 6:30 last night.
After a bonus competition for age brackets in which a dozen winners took home $100 each, Ralph Archbold - the city's preeminent Benjamin Franklin portrayer - showed up in character. "I want to know why there's no over-300-year-old category!" he demanded to some contestants before taking the stage. "I would've swept it away!"
Tierney told the applauding crowd, buoyed by more than 300 spectators who played along for fun, that "this is the largest Sudoku competition ever held. And Will Shortz tells me we can now say it's the largest live puzzle tournament ever held in the United States."
Before the three competitive rounds leading to the final began, contestants warmed up with puzzle books they had been given by Kappa Publishing Group Inc., the Blue Bell publisher responsible for Games magazine. They sat at tables lining the hall, or sprawled outside on the Convention Center floor, pencils in hand and focused. When the rounds began, the room felt like a College Boards session: The rivals were intent on the problem that faced them.
After the rounds, at breaks, contestants talked with one another about the puzzles' quirks. All the Sudokus were hand-designed by another puzzle champ, Wei-Hwa Huang, who placed the number clues in the boxes to make designs of such images as Philly sports team logos.
"Hand-designed puzzles are more elegant" than the computer-generated Sudokus most people work on, said Nick Baxter, captain of the U.S. Sudoku team and the nation's World Puzzle Championship team. Baxter chose from among Huang's puzzles for the competition.
The object of Sudoku - which employs logic but requires no skill in mathematics - is to fill in all 81 squares in a grid divided into nine three-by-three boxes.
Each row, column and box must contain every digit from one to nine. Between 17 and 33 squares are already filled with a number in each puzzle, and players finish the game by filling in the blank spaces.
Snyder's win, in the advanced division, was the most lucrative, followed by a $5,000 prize for Ron Osher of Stamford, Conn., also a player in other puzzle competitions, who was an intermediate player. The beginner-level prize of $3,000 went to Lori DesRuisseaux of Elverson, Chester County.
"I just came down to have some fun," she said, somewhat startled at her performance, moments after she won. "I never thought I'd make it to the finals."
Many players said that they had become addicted to the puzzle in the three years it has been popular in North America. "It's like cleaning my drawers and my cupboards: It's about putting things in order," said Gretel DeRuiter, a Springside School teacher from Mount Airy who competed, as did three of her students. "Of course, my drawers and cupboards are not in order, because I've been doing Sudoku."
Here are the winners of the Inquirer's first Sudoku National Chamionship, in order and by division.
1. Thomas Snyder, Palo Alto, Calif. ($10,000 prize). He finished the final round in 7 minutes, 7 seconds.
2. Tammy McLeod, Los Angeles.
3. Sarah Ratcliffe, Glenside.
1. Ron Osher, Stamford, Conn. ($5,000), 7:57.
2. Matthew Fabrizio, Philadelphia.
3. Vincent DeLuca, Swarthmore.
1. Lori DesRuisseaux, Elverson. ($3,000), 3:49.
2. Danny Choi, Cherry Hill.
3. Matthew Bramucci, Lancaster.
These contestants won $100 each for finishing fastest in rounds organized by age.
10 and younger: Rachel Hart
11 and 12: Mira Pomerantz
13 and 14: Drew Farber
15 and 16: Amy Mount
17 to 19: Chris Narrikkattu
20s: Roger Barkan. (Thomas Snyder won the round, but disqualified himself from the age competition after winning
the national championship. Barkan, also an experienced competitive puzzle player, timed in next.)
30s: Kirsten Boes
40s: Ron Osher
50s: Jeff Weiss
60s: Carol Peckman
70s: Donald Russell
80s: Milton Schwartz