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Face your numberphobia — play Sudoku

Latest game craze requires patience, but tenacity adds up to fun
/ Source: contributor

I’ve never been good with numbers. I see numbers and I cringe. When I do my bills, I reach for the calculator rather than do any math in my head, because when numbers get inside my head they float and bounce around like a space shuttle astronaut. When I took algebra in high school, I often had to be revived by paramedics. When I’ve lived in a place where my house number is more than three digits, I have to write it on my hand to remember.

Numbers and me just don’t add up.

So the idea of playing sudoku began as a real gut-buster. Me? Playing a puzzle game involving numbers? That’s rich. That’s a riot. Get ready to pull my plug, because after a minute or two I’d be in an irreversible state of catatonia.

But there is also a part of me that refuses to be intimidated by numbers. What are numbers, anyway? They don’t carry weapons. They don’t operate outside the law. They aren’t especially nasty looking, although a bunch of them together in the wrong context can put enough fear in me to call my accountant at home and interrupt his dinner.

So I took a shot of whisky and howled as I slammed the glass down on the table. Did a few pushups. Then I took a deep breath and sat down in front of a sudoku puzzle.

I’ll show those numbers who’s boss.

The bad news is that numbers are still boss, and I report to them, and I remain on thin ice. The good news is that sudoku is fun, and I’m on my way to beating my numbers problem.

“Hi. My name is Michael. I’m an arithmophobiac …”

Perfect for the numbers-challengedSudoku is perfect for the numbers-challenged. The basic task is relatively simple: There is a grid sectioned off into nine boxes, with nine spaces inside each box. The idea is to fill in the grid so that every row, every column and every box contains the digits 1 through 9.

The first time I read that, I developed a headache. But then I took two Tylenol and continued, determined to overcome my hesitation.

What I discovered is that the more I played, the better I became at it. What a revelation this was to me. Usually, I give up. I can surrender with the best of them. But I realized if I applied myself, really concentrated and employed my powers of logic and reason, I could not only understand a sudoku puzzle, but finish it.

Of course, I finished it at the “one-star” or “gentle” or “easy” level, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

Actually, sudoku isn’t so much about math as it is about logic. I’ve spent most of my professional career covering entertainment and sports, so you can see that logic has played a very small part of my day-to-day life. But the logic muscles in the brain never really atrophy, they simply lay dormant until needed. So even someone who has spent most of his or her life in an illogical state, like a Pauly Shore devotee or a Cubs fan, can experience success with sudoku.

Also, one has to have patience. If you’re geared more toward video games, you might have to resist your “Grand Theft Auto” instincts to blow away your enemies as quickly as possible and embark on a Zen-like quest for heightened numerical awareness. Relax. Take your time. Become one with the sudoku grid. If you find yourself unfulfilled, tear that particular puzzle to shreds and start another.

Sudoku was created by a fellow named Howard Garns, a freelance puzzle constructor, in 1979. It was introduced in Japan about five years later and eventually made it to Britain, where it became a craze. But the Japanese trademarked the name “sudoku,” and it’s a good thing, because that sounds a lot more mystical than if it had been named “Garns.”

It is said that the average time needed to solve a sudoku puzzle is around 30 minutes. The fact that my first attempt took three and a half days shouldn’t deter you. I’m somewhat of a slow starter. But with sudoku, everybody will be at first. Just keep plugging away and the answers will slowly be revealed to you, some more slowly than others.

As you get the knack of solving the puzzles, you can climb the ladder of difficulty. Just for the heck of it, I clicked on the “evil” level on one site and set out to solve the puzzle. “Evil” represented the most difficult. The problem, of course, is that with sudoku it’s hard to take shortcuts, or to cheat outright. The results are right there in front of you. So you have to really use your noodle. After several weeks, I put that particular puzzle aside, but I bookmarked it and plan to go back and tackle it again at a later date. I really do.

What seems amazing to me is how the sudoku craze has caught on in this country. In some quarters, sudoku has been credited with saving some struggling newspapers and other publications, or at least giving them a boost in circulation. So I think you can guess what’s next: “Sudoku: The Movie” and “Survivor: Sudoku.”

You can do sudoku puzzles at Starbucks, at airport waiting areas, at the Department of Motor Vehicles (making you one of the rare few applying logic there), in a movie line or in your car while stuck in traffic.

And in our advanced technological age, you can do sudoku on your laptop or from your mobile phone, although I’m not thrilled about the latter. I’d prefer that the guy driving in front of me while using his cell solve the puzzle of how to drive like a normal person.

But there’s no denying that sudoku is here to stay, which will give me plenty of time to master it. And I’ll need it.

Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to