The Satisfaction of a Good Puzzle
Alex Bellos has a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from Oxford. His bestselling, award-winning books Alex's Adventures in Numberland, Alex Through the Looking-Glass and Can You Solve My Problems? have been translated into more than 20 languages. He is the co-author of two mathematical colouring books and the children's series Football School. His YouTube videos have been seen by more than 20 million people. He writes a popular maths blog and a puzzle blog for the Guardian. For his new book Puzzle Ninja Alex has collected over 200 of the most ingenious puzzles, rated easy to excruciating, created by Japan's puzzle masters, including the god-father of Sudoku, the winner of the WorldPuzzle Championships, an inspiring teacher who uses games to enliven his students' maths lessons, and the puzzle poet whose name has become a Sudoku-solving technique. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Alex explains the joys of the Japanese puzzle and introduces some of his favourite puzzle books.
What is more engrossing and satisfying than a good puzzle? All worldly distractions disappear as you settle down to the job in hand. And of all the many puzzles out there, in my opinion the most perfectly designed are the ones that come from Japan.
I first went to the Far East ten years ago when I was researching my first maths book Alex’s Adventures in Numberland. It was a couple of years after Sudoku first appeared in the UK, and I wanted to meet the people responsible for creating what is now easily the most famous and ubiquitous mathematical puzzle in the world. In Tokyo I tracked down Sudoku’s ‘god-father’, Maki Kaji, who told me the puzzle’s intriguing story. Originally, it was an obscure American puzzle called Number Place. Kaji ‘refined’ it by giving it the Japanese name Sudoku, and arranging all the given numbers in symmetrical patterns. He published it in the 1980s in his puzzle magazine, where it gained a solid following. Twenty years later, the puzzle found its way back to the West, where as a ‘Japanese’ puzzle it became a huge success.
In Japan, Sudoku was very influential. It inspired Japanese puzzle inventors to come up with their own Sudoku-style puzzles. Kaji’s magazine published hundreds of these new types of puzzle, which established a national style. By ‘Japanese puzzle’, we tend to mean a pencil-and-paper puzzle, set in a grid, which has very simple rules and which can be solved using logical deduction alone. Sudoku is the most famous type, but Maki Kaji introduced me to dozens more. Now I find Sudoku a bit tiresome, since I always fall back on the same strategies, so rather than an exercise in creative thinking it has become a bit like a chore.
However, I have completely fallen for many other Japanese puzzles I have discovered thanks to Kaji and his friends and colleagues. I find these other puzzles – such as Nurikabe, Heyawake and Shakashaka – so much more thrilling than Sudoku: the grids always look beautiful, the rules are simple and intuitive, and the path to the solution so pleasurable. Japanese puzzles are also designed to appeal to everyone: they come in all levels from beginner to fiendish, which means you can progress at your own speed. Another reason the puzzles are so entertaining is that they are designed by hand, rather than by computer, so the paths to the solution are structured in a very human way.
I decided to write Puzzle Ninja so that people outside of Japan could have a taste of the phenomenal puzzles that have emerged in Japan over the last few decades. I spoke to many puzzle designers and selected my favourites. The Japanese puzzle is pretty much the most fun it is possible to have with a pencil and paper.
Here are my top 5 puzzle books.
The Moscow Puzzles
By Boris Kordemsky
Timeless selection of maths and logic puzzles, supposedly the most popular puzzle book ever published in the Soviet Union. It first appeared in 1956 and is still in print.
Mathematical Puzzles: A Connoisseur’s Collection
By Peter Winkler
Peter Winkler has the eye for the perfect puzzle, and here he chooses his favourites. For more advanced mathematical minds.
536 Puzzles and Curious Problems
by Henry E. Dudeney
A collection of the best puzzles by Henry E. Dudeney, the greatest British puzzle inventor of all time. Between the 1890s and 1930s, he devised some of our best-loved brainteasers.
My Best Mathematical and Logic Puzzles
By Martin Gardner
Martin Gardner was a very skilful writer of popular mathematics who could engage readers with sophisticated ideas, while never dumbing down. In this slim volume, he selects his favourite puzzles, many of which are now classics.
Puzzles 101: A Puzzlemaster’s Challenge
By Nobuyuki Yoshigahara
Nobuyuki Yoshigahara was a famous puzzle inventor and collector from Japan who died in 2004. His quirky humour and sense of fun are evident in these wonderful puzzles.
Author photo © Jonny Davies