Sep 30, 2009

Youth triumphs over experience at the Times' National Su Doku Championship

The ballpoint pens were ready, the clock carefully set and the desks manouevred into lines as parallel as the puzzle grids upon them. Outside the hall, contestants sipped their tea nervously, picking at plates of custard creams.

But on Saturday, entrants of the Times 5th National Su Doku Championship were keen to emphasise that the only real squares in the building were the ones they were about to fill.

“I’m proud to be a geek,” said Andrew Hartley, 37, a first-time contestant. “I don’t mind the stereotype.”
More than 100 amateur logicians were shortlisted for this year’s championship, out of a record 770 entrants. To qualify for the final, competitors had to fill out four fiendish Su Doku grids in an hour’s session and were then ranked by speed. Once completed, sheets were held in the air, checked for accuracy and points deducted for errors. After two rounds, the final eight sat the afternoon’s grand finals at the Institute of Education in London.

Each had their own method — pencilling numbers in the corner, filling in lines, squares, or all of the above. King of the grids this year was Tom Collyer, 23, who stole the title, cup and £1,000 prize money from Nina Pell, 22, the reigning champion. They now share the distinction of being the only players to win the national championships twice. Their methods are polar opposite but their rivalry as fiendish as the puzzles — Su Doku can be a hare and tortoise race.

Mr Collyer, a maths PhD student from Coventry, admits that hubris has tripped him up more than once in a competition.

“More haste less speed,” said Mr Collyer, who can fill a grid a minute and is ranked 26th in the world.
Ms Pell, a Sheffield maths graduate, is known instead for her steady consistency and accuracy. “I’m not sure I even like it that much,” she said. “It’s just habit.”

An addiction, however, that means she can finish a super-fiendish Su Doku in 13 minutes. An easy one can be polished off “as quickly as it takes me to write the numbers”.

Mike Colloby, 51, a design engineer from Gunnislake, Cornwall, had been seeking to steal the trophy from the youngsters. Since returning from the World Championships in Slovakia in April, he had trained for three hours a day. “If you practise a lot you can do it subconsciously. The numbers just come to you,” said Mr Colloby. “The World Championships are held over three days,” he added. “But this is do-or-die.” Yet his determination was in vain. Thomas Drake, from Wokingham in Berkshire and the former youth runner-up, and Abigail Vallis, from Birmingham, both 18 years old, came in second and third respectively.

But the greatest controversy of the day was the accidentally conjoined puzzle sheets that caused Ms Pell to fill out one too many grids, costing her time and, at 28 minutes, landing her in fourth place.

Instead, the hare crossed the finish line first: Mr Collyer took 17 minutes to arrange 324 fiendish numbers into four Su Doku grids. The next-best time was barely 30 seconds behind.

“They were noticeably harder this year but that plays to me,” said Mr Collyer. “There was a point at which I was stuck but my guessing technique is shambolic. So I didn’t guess.”

He says he may spend the prize money on entering the US Championships in Philadelphia at the end of next month but in the meantime he is going to take a break.

But what will the Su Doku champion do without puzzles?

“Get things done,” said Mr Collyer.

Now the championship is over he can put the quiz books away and make a start on those chores.

Tmes Online

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