An intense eight minutes led up to the second when Wei-Hwa Huang upended the reigning world Sudoku champ and snared this year's national Sudoku championship.
The big Sudoku boards they worked on, in front of hundreds of puzzle solvers and spectators at the second annual Inquirer National Sudoku Championship yesterday, clearly held a stumper.
All day, the mood at the Convention Center had been focused and upbeat - a we-can-do-it! attitude among the 728 contestants who streamed in to try for a share of more than $20,000 in prize money - but now there was tension, too.
This was no lunchtime Sudoku break. This was pressure-cooked Sudoku, Sudoku with a sweat. The prize: $10,000. A seat on the American team at the spring's fourth annual World Sudoku Championship in Slovakia. All major expenses there paid by The Inquirer.
The favorite was Thomas Snyder, 28, the bioengineering postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University who won the national championship at the first contest here last year, then went on to win his second world championship in India.
But Huang, 33, a software engineer from Mountain View, Calif., who quit his job at Google this summer, jabbed a hand high into the air in jubilation 26 seconds before Snyder finished. Huang's time: 7 minutes, 39 seconds.
Snyder took home $2,000, and Tammy McLeod of Los Angeles finished third, with a few boxes wrong, to earn $400. Last year, McLeod finished second.
Huang, a four-time World Puzzle champion, and Snyder will likely be on the team representing the United States at the world championship. They are friends.
Huang's strategy in filling in the squares involved writing possible numbers between them and even in the margins; he made a small triangle in one set, showing the order the numbers may fall in a nine-square box within the puzzle. Once Huang unlocked two boxes at about the five-minute mark, chains of numbers fell into place, as they did again about a minute later, when he completed the last box accurately.
"How well you do is how well your nerves can handle being up there," Huang said after the game.
The stream of Sudoku players in yesterday's contests for beginner, intermediate and advanced categories attempted to fill in the empty boxes of the numbers puzzle that, according to an Inquirer survey, is the most popular puzzle in the country. About 167 million Americans have played it.
The object of the game, which employs logic but requires no math skill other than the ability to count from one through nine, 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 through nine. Between 17 and 33 squares are already filled with a number in each puzzle, and players fill in the blanks.
Most contestants yesterday were from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but some came from 25 other states, Canada and Europe.
"The ages range from single digits to well into their 80s, and we're really thrilled about that," said Brian Tierney, chief executive officer of Philadelphia Media Holdings, which owns The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com.
Later in the day, Mayor Nutter addressed the crowd, posed for pictures with the winners, and referred to the other championship contest in the city, the World Series.
"There are two incredible events taking place here this weekend in Philadelphia. There's a little game going on right here later today," he told puzzlers and spectators. The mayor's sister, Renee Messina, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., was among the competitors.
Last year, the first national championship, also sponsored by The Inquirer, set a Guinness Book of World Records mark for the most people playing the game at once: 857. The Inquirer has bid to bring the World Sudoku Championship to Philadelphia in 2010 and should know the outcome next week.
Will Shortz, puzzle editor of the New York Times and National Public Radio's puzzle master, again hosted the national championship. Along with him was Maki Kaji, the Japanese puzzle publisher who gave Sudoku its name in an acronym taken from words that mean "single digits only."
Here are the winners of the second annual Inquirer Sudoku National Championship, in order and by division.
1. Wei-Hwa Huang, Mountain View, Calif. ($10,000 prize). He finished the final round
in 7 minutes, 39 seconds.
2. Thomas Snyder, Palo Alto, Calif. ($2,000). He finished
in first place last year and went on to his second world-championship win.
3. Tammy McLeod, Los Angeles ($400). She came
in second last year.
1. Chris Narrikkattu, New York ($5,000), 9:32.
2. Vincent DeLuca, Swarthmore ($1,000). He finished third in intermediate last year.
3. Brittnay Guld, Philadelphia ($200).
1. Lisa J. Haffner, Philadelphia ($3,000), 7:40.
2. Lauren Choi, Rockville, Md. ($600).
3. Stefanie Jasinski, Philadelphia ($150).
These contestants won $50 each for finishing fastest in rounds organized by age.
10 and younger: Nicholas Viggiano
11-12: Rachael Hart
13-14: Davis Borucki
15-16: Bryan Goldman
17-18: Ira Miller
19-20: Nick Groh
21-23: Maryann Yin
24-26: Andrea Kanner
27-29: Thomas Snyder
30-32: Jason V. Zufflanieri
33-35: Wei-Hwa Huang
36-38: Huan Wang
39-41: Daria Roccato
42-44: Paul Winston
45-47: Charles Auguston
48-50: Karen Wheeler
51-53: Pam Milles
54-56: Rick Cain
57-59: Shi-Shyan Krueger
60-62: Bob Schmidt
63-65: Mike Cholod
66-68: Carol Peckman
69-71: Margaret Goodman
72-74: Zizhi Zhu
75-77: Malcolm Hayes
78-80: Ed Zerach
81 and older: Bill Koyler
Contestants also competed for their towns in a round of play. They received no monetary award. Their names will be printed in an advertisement in next Sunday's Inquirer.