This is part 1 of 2 about my experience at the 2018 World Sudoku Championship which happened on 4-7th November 2018 in Prague, Czech Republic. This first part will be a personal account of events leading up to, during and after the competition. Part 2 will be a breakdown of my thoughts on each round.
My WSC adventure started well before November. After convincing my management department and a successful tussle at the embassy, there was a period of about 4 weeks to prepare. All my spare time, where I would normally solve or construct puzzles, were channeled to solely practicing sudoku.
There was a time when I was still Thailand’s no.1 at sudoku and when the emerging Sinchai was realistically challenging the top spot, I would set other puzzles aside to make sure my sudoku speed remain ahead. This month of focusing on just sudoku bought back memories of those long-gone days.
Despite getting along with each other well, being over 400km apart limited me and Sinchai to only 1 practice session together. We simulated a timed competition using puzzles from the 2018 Dutch Ortec Sudoku Championships and the 2018 Czech Nationals. I’ve always believed in honing your classic sudoku skills and preached this point to every young solver who approached me for tips at local tournaments. Thereafter, Nikoli’s Tobikiri Sudoku book became my third arm as I’d take it literally everywhere I go. Batches of Nikoli Sudoku Calendar would also fill my every spare minute of each day. In longer sessions, I’d go through Ashish Kumar’s new Enthralling Sudoku (each puzzle came with Kota Morinishi’s solving time) and time myself against Kota to depressing results.
After 3 weeks, I had gone through over 200 classic sudokus. The last week was spent on seriously analyzing the instructions and writing some practice puzzles for unfamiliar types. And as planned, during a luft of 3 days before the WSC, I would not touch a single sudoku to avoid burn-out.
Ravee Joradol, chairman of the Thailand Scrabble Association (our WPF representative), kindly sent us off to the Czech Republic on Saturday night. Interestingly, Ravee was one of the lab rats who travelled to Prague eleven years ago for the 2nd WSC to see what the sudoku boom was all about. It still pains me to see Thailand’s dismal results during the early WSC days before proper candidates were chosen from actual tournaments but rather recruited from a pool of organizers who were free to travel. Thank god, uh I mean, Deb Mohanty, for LMI ratings.
After an overnight flight, we met a fragment of Team India at the boarding gate in Frankfurt. Two of whom would join us to form the ninth UN team for the team rounds (more on our team in Part 2). We shared the bus to the lavish Hotel International Prague, which would house the 300 solvers and guests for a week of intense puzzle solving.
We arrived shortly before noon and had to wait out a couple of hours before our room was ready. The warm ambience of seeing familiar faces of our friendly puzzle community at the lobby quickly washed away any fatigue acquired from the long hours spent in the air. Over lunch I played Scrabble with Tom Collyer (who scored 30 points playing F*CKER), while Sinchai eased himself to rounds of Rumnikub with fellow Brands Sudoku Open finalists; Tiit, Tantan and Cheran (the other finalist; Jan Zverina, one of the main organizers, was probably required in five other places at this time). Big thanks to Tantan for looking after my misplaced jacket I thought I’d never see again.
Checking out Prague
Moments later, after settling into our room, we decided to visit the city centre. We went to the only site that had a 30% discount coupon on our travel map: the Lego Museum. A poor choice since by the time we arrived, the coupon was already flying in the land of lost coupons and the museum wasn’t that exciting to be frank.
We walked along Charles Bridge and tried to make the most out of Prague as we were sadly scheduled to leave before the excursion. It was weirdly comedic to see so many cannabis products out in the open: there were cannabis chocolate, cookies, coffee, tea, energy drinks, lollies and the one we brought, cannabis ice-cream. Our initial worry of whether it would leave us tipsy before the competition quickly became irrelevant when the horrid taste forced us to bin it after just one nibble. Despite rinsing vigorously, everything tasted like cannabis afterwards. Not sure if this was due to the horrible aftertaste or the fact that we were so emotionally traumatized. Fish was served at dinner that night and we looked at each other questioning whether the sprinkled herbs were actually cannabis. It got worse. Later in our rooms, gulping down a new can of coke, we were convinced it contained cannabis. You should see our faces when we were frantically trying to decipher the ingredients label for any potential Czech word for cannabis.
That night Jan Novotny led the Q&A session and opening ceremony. We were quite sleepy at this point and after greeting old and new faces and buying Toketa from Yuki Kawabe we decided to escort ourselves out early. The organizers did a great job answering questions in the online forum beforehand and we felt we didn’t really have any major questions to ask anyway.
Predictably we both fail to overcome the 6-hour time difference and woke up quite alertly around 3-4am. Meals were fantastic. I would helplessly overeat breakfast, lunch and dinner because they were so good. There were generous selections of hot meals, cold-cuts, European salads, and most importantly; the desserts table was simply mouth-watering. Our old acquintance, Min-Young Joo from South Korea, would habitually pop out of nowhere to join us with his usual jovial mood and wide smile.
Day 1 started with 3 individual rounds. The schedule was very well kept and I felt the organizers struck gold in finding the right balance of rest periods in between rounds. Last year in Bangalore, I remember sprinting to the toilet between rounds only to return with something like 30 seconds left until the next round starts. This was somewhat understandable as they were squeezing in more rounds of nice puzzles. Entrants were split into two competition halls. The main hall had all the big guns seated at the front and the smaller hall housed most of the young South Korean delegates. The bench we shared had ample space but I felt the seats were a little cramped. This became more apparent during the team rounds where we had to swap over to the other side of the bench and struggle with sharing the same A3 paper.
After lunch, we had 3 more individual rounds and the first team round. Results were also another strong point from the organizers. A nice web interface publishing live results was only 2-3 rounds off from the actual competition. Following dinner the Sudoku World Record trials were held where the top 6 classic sudoku solvers would join Jakub Ondrousek in the finals. The trials were held on both WSC days and the finals were held during the free day. This was later won by Shiyu Chen. Due to a duplicate and a non-unique puzzle, one round of trials was scrapped. My seat neighbours Pal Madarassy and Zoltan Gymiesi conducted an experiment whether they can beat the quick Chinese solvers (who were averaging about a minute per puzzle) by having the answers next to the puzzle and transcribing the digits. For anyone curious, Pal took about 40 seconds this way.
The Sudoku Grand Prix (GP) finals followed and Jakub Ondrousek wowed the home-crowd by beating Tantan Dai (2nd) and Kota Morinishi (3rd). Sinchai made the finals but never really reached his peak form. I was proctoring for Jan Mrozowski and the same could be said about him. Sinchai later found consolation in his 3rd place finish in a small Kenken competition hosted by Alex Bellos, author of Puzzle Ninja, which concluded the night’s extra events.
Waking up in the wee hours of the night would be a recurring theme for us in Prague as we enter Day 2. Three more individual rounds preceded two more team rounds and the WSC was over!
The finals this year saw Kota Morinishi defending his title, Bastien Vial-Jaime pole vaulting over Tiit Vunk into second place. Tantan Dai did all she can to secure a spot in the top-4 playoffs but she couldn’t overcome her 2 minute handicap. It was very nice to see so many people staying behind to look at the play-offs, which were held in another room, and were relayed to the big hall via screens. I really feel our puzzle community is growing and not just about the handful of the usual names at the top. It would be more exciting if the cameraman could synchronize more with Jan Novotny’s expert commentary. We gave the open General Assembly a pass and I managed to catch up with a few 24HPC regulars before retiring to my room to pack for our final day in Prague.
While everyone were choosing trips to the zoo, castles, palaces or escape-rooming; we visited a chess shop (I purchased a nice set and a book) and successfully achieve our mission to search for a puzzle book for Sinchai (after our search in Frankfurt airport was in vain, we would later buy a handful more at Zurich airport). We shared a cab to the airport with George Wang who shared some insights to the Shanghai bid to host the 2020 WSC/WPC. If that materializes, it would be good news for us as we’d have to cover less travel distance.
Based on our sample size of 5; two taxi drivers, guy at chess shop, lady at book shop and Jan Zverina, I can say the locals in Prague are very helpful and friendly.
Big compliments goes to the organizers this year for a smoothly-ran WSC. Attending was so much fun and there is really nothing bad to say except for being unfortunate to stay for the WPC. There, Thomas Snyder edged out Ulrich Voigt and Ken Endo (by far the most dominating puzzler today) in the play-offs to become the first person to win both WSC and WPC. Seeing Ken’s rapid ascent in the sudoku rankings; I think it’s a matter of time until he bags his first WSC. Though, Kota might have differing opinions.
Until next time!