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Officials unfreeze some Sudoku Championship prizes

Officials of the 2009 Philadelphia Inquirer National Sudoku Championship have decided to unfreeze the top awards in the beginning and intermediate categories of last weekend's competition.

Officials of the 2009 Philadelphia Inquirer National Sudoku Championship have decided to unfreeze the top awards in the beginning and intermediate categories of last weekend's competition.

But awards in the advanced category, frozen since Monday, stay frozen, pending investigation of irregularities.

Jay Devine, tournament spokesperson, said that director Will Shortz and judging director Nick Baxter had "decided to release the checks to the winners in the beginner and intermediate categories based on the review" but that they are "still examining some of the information and facts" regarding the advanced results.

The mystery of third-place finisher Eugene Varshavsky deepens, as a trail of bogus information and dead ends gets longer. Calls proliferate from the Sudoku community for changes to the rules and regulations for next year.

Tammy McLeod, first-place winner, said the $10,000 prize "wasn't the most important issue - the title is the real prize."

Speaking by phone from her job with Google in Santa Monica, Calif., she said she was shocked at reports of cheating: "It may seem naïve, but in the Sudoku community, there's a belief that, in such an intellectual community, people are more likely to be honorable. . . . And why would someone cheat - wouldn't that undermine the intellectual achievement of it?"

She said organizers have informed her only that the top prizes were being held. She had been unaware of Varshavsky in the final round, she said, although she was sharing a stage with him and second-place finisher Thomas Snyder: "I didn't know about all the confusion until my husband told me [Varshavsky] had hardly touched the board" in the final round.

No charges have been filed, and the word cheating has not appeared in any official announcements. But interest stays focused squarely on Varshavsky, whose dress, demeanor and performance were subjects of discussion later among both players and organizers.

Varshavsky walked in on Saturday, in the middle of the competition, did well enough to place among the top three advanced solvers - and then unaccountably did almost nothing in the final, championship round. He gave his residence as Lawrenceville, N.J., but no one by that name is listed in the town, and efforts to discover his actual residence have turned up a trail of dead ends.

A LexisNexis search revealed that a Eugene Varshavsky in 2007 had given his residence as an address in Ewing, not far from Lawrenceville. But that address leads only to HB Machines, where proprietors said they knew of no such person.

Sign-up sheets at the tourney asked applicants for name, street address, phone and e-mail. A W-9 tax form was required in the case of larger cash winnings, including name, Social Security number, and citizenship. The last is relevant because top winners who are U.S. citizens join the U.S. team for the 2010 World Championships, to be held in Philadelphia in April.

A person by the name of Eugene Varshavsky was questioned by officials about possible irregularities at the 2006 World Open of chess, also held in Philadelphia. There is a history of electronic cheating in chess tournaments, but tournament director Will Shortz says that cheating is unknown in Sudoku tourneys.

McLeod said that Snyder's blog "The Art of Puzzles" was instrumental in alerting the Sudoku community to Saturday's incident. "A lot of the top solvers know one another around the world," she said. "That communuity is very close. Once he published it there, the top solvers were well aware of it."

Snyder writes in his blog that organizers should have considered banning "cell phones or electronic devices." Unlike at some other tournaments, competitors were allowed to use such devices at the Inquirer event.

Snyder also writes that "it's certainly worth reviewing everything because this championship's integrity, and this host's integrity for next year's [World Sudoku Championships] is really at stake to me. [The investigation] at least shows the organizers are taking things seriously." Snyder writes further that "not rewarding someone who gamed the system is a good start."