Yes. This recap is 8 months late. This is part 1 of 2 posts about my experience at the 2019 Asia Sudoku Championship which happened on 25-28th January 2019 in Clark, Pampanga, Philippines. 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.
The Asia Sudoku Championship is a relatively young event on the WPF circuit with this year’s event being only the 3rd iteration. The previous 2 editions were both held in South Korea with the 1st of its kind seeing only 3 nations (China, Korea and Japan) compete. The 2nd ASC, held in 2018, expanded to 8 countries with over 50 entrants in the Open section. Held alongside were several well-attended age groups for younger solvers (age categories include U-8, U-10, U-12 and U-15).
The 3rd ASC saw a slight drop with only 36 participants from 6 countries competing in the Open section, a stark contrast with the youth groups whose total are comfortably in the hundreds. Both previous editions also saw an impressive turnout in the children’s groups.
When I saw the dates of the ASC I was convinced there was an exam clash. Upon being enquired about participating, my answer had always been “no”. It wasn’t until after New Years I realized the exam was to be held a couple of days after, though travelling just 2 days before a nationwide test might not be too helpful for my performances (both for the ASC and the exam). Nonetheless, the chance to visit Philippines for the first time proved too alluring to miss out. Sinchai Rungsangrattanakul was also keen to take part.
Philippines wouldn’t come to mind as a flourishing puzzle-solving country. Their current leading player, Candice Solidarios, went on to finish 10th here. Things were different a decade ago. Before the growth of Sudoku variants; the Filipino team that made the annual trip to Singapore’s (now defunct) and Thailand’s Brands Sudoku Tournaments consisted of quite strong solvers, though their strength is limited to only classics and a handful of basic variants. Sarah Jane Cua would regularly top the standings and, in 2009, John Robert Acqueros took home the King’s Cup (That year, I happened to be in the audience and have to say it was quite controversial, but let’s get back to the ASC).
My enthusiasm (and Sinchai’s) quickly waned during the run up to the ASC. Awarding a place such as Pampanga to host the event might not be as convenient for overseas participants since there were hardly any direct flights. Rishi Puri had to take his two kids bustling through Manila’s traffic in a 4 hour bus ride just to reach the venue.
And that wasn’t the only problem. With about one month to go, the organizers decided to update their e-mail so all correspondence with urgent questions were sent to no readers. Maybe potential entrants can seek further info on their webpage? Nope, they can’t do that either since the website was down one week before the event. That meant we also had no idea who else were competing and what the turn-out rate would be like. And when things look quite bleak, a new-low is reached when no one bothered sending finalized instruction booklets with points. Any little glimmer of thoughts to realistically prepare during the last few days were completely shot down when all my polite nudges via email were totally ignored.
My trip to Clark and back took 6 flights with five different airlines. After a transit in Macau, we arrived into Clark at 2am. We notified the organizers beforehand of our untimely arrival and were given a phone number to call once we land. Unsurprisingly, all our calls were unanswered. At this point, I was trying very hard to stay positive while profusely refusing multiple shady taxi offers. About half an hour later, a van with our names popped up and I was just glad to finally reach the hotel.
Luckily, the venue was very close to the airport and we reached our rooms by 3am. The always-friendly Yuhei Kusui graciously private-messaged me the points distribution from the newly updated IBs. This was six hours before the start of round one. Sinchai quickly went under the blanket while I unpack, take a shower, and unwisely surf social media well into early morning. I clocked in about 2 hours of sleep; still a luxury if compared to the 24HPC.
Breakfast was the only opportunity to see what the field is like before being thrown into round one. India was represented by Rohan Rao, Prasanna Seshadri and Rishi Puri. Rishi’s main focus was arming his two kids with enough ammunition to battle against the horde of young Chinese talents. Team Japan consisted of Kota Morinishi, Ken Endo, Yoichi Enta and Tomoe Tokumoto. Yuki Yamamoto was present in the Philippines but somehow didn’t compete since the federation thought they were allowed no more than 4 members per country, which was certainly not the case since Philippines fielded in their top 10 from a nationwide qualifying event. It was borderline morose to see Yuki on the sidelines missing out while everyone was competing. China and Korea were present with not their strongest lineup and were led by Weifan Wang and Seungjae Kwak respectively.
The competition had 5 individual rounds (first 3 held before lunch followed by the remaining 2) and 2 team rounds, all squished into one day. We learnt that the puzzles were provided by Japan. I suspect the team of authors was the same as the one that write for Tetsuya Nishio’s brand of books. Puzzles were printed in colour with the page layout mirroring that of the GP. In general, a nice format.
A recurring theme of the event is that the youth section was heavily overtimed. Each round typically last 60 minutes (to match the schedule of the Open section), but after 5 minutes or so you start to hear Chinese girls claiming time bonuses. After 10-15 minutes, you would’ve heard every individual in the youth section announcing “finish”. And if that’s not demoralizing enough, during the afternoon rounds, the neighbouring hall was rented out to what I think is a corporate party. The organizers did warn us about this and were thoughtful enough to provide earplugs, but the flimsy plugs were no match for the disco music jamming rhythmically next door.
In conclusion, I genuinely had fun catching up with friends and just enjoy the weekend solving puzzles. However, if the ASC is to be taken seriously in the future, certain standards should be met. The environment was just not suitable to find Asia’s best solver. Not that Kota Morinishi, the eventual winner, minded.
Team rounds concluded the event (the team round will be elaborated in Part 2 of this recap). At the end of day one, only one round of the results were posted but it seemed pretty clear that it would require (a lot of) mistakes from Kota for him not to win since he was first to raise his hand in every round.
The next morning, the sleep-deprived and probably flu-stricken Sinchai couldn’t make it out of bed leaving myself having to chow breakfast solo. I wanted to see what the excursion offered but since my teammate was not at his peak of health, we decided to stay behind.
Results were only updated for round 3 and no papers were given back. A very brave and risky decision (and unacceptable, in my point of view) from the organizers since there will be no chances to protest any disagreement in the judges’ marking. Final results were to be announced straight at the public closing ceremony.
Shortly after noon, we checked out of the hotel and got escorted to SM City mall where the closing ceremony would take place. Lunch came in the form of an envelope with 500 Pesos and given the array of restaurants in the mall, we easily overspent our budget. At the ground floor, a part of the foyer was roped off and housed numerous seats, tables and a center stage for the award ceremony. This layout gave me flashbacks of what Sudoku tournaments in Thailand are like: slapped in the middle of a noisy department store.
Here though, I find the initiative very thoughtful. Sudoku needs all the publicity it can get and Philippines is certainly experiencing another Sudoku boom. After a ramen and bubble tea lunch; we joined the closing ceremony.
The events kicked off with a couple of dance troupes and short speeches by the organizers and local officials. It concluded with a very generous distribution of medals. I have to repeat. Very. Generous. Normally you’d expect a gold, silver and bronze to be awarded in each category, but here, three times the norm number of medals was prepared. In the Open section; the top 4 got gold medals, the next 8 got silver and the next 12 got bronze. That’s two thirds of the field going home with a medal. This generosity was even higher in the children’s section. In some age categories everyone was a winner with the medal distribution being something like top-quarter got gold, the next third got silver and the rest bronze. Apart from inspiring a lot of children, this wacky medal distribution also result in euphemistic national headlines. See below.
I would argue that the drawback of giving a lot of medals would be that children who end up without one would feel even worse. (Almost everyone went home with a medal, how bad did I have to be to not get one!?). We left straight for the airport shortly after saying goodbyes to fellow competitors.
In 2020, ASC moves to Hyderabad where Rishi Puri plays a prominent role hosting the event. I still have Indian currency left from 2017 WPC, so if opportunity knocks I’d love to revisit India.
Until next time!