Jerry Martin: An unusual competition | TheUnion.com

Jerry Martin: An unusual competition

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Jerry Martin

Humans have created many forms of competition that match humans against humans, either one against one or teams opposing each other. Most are athletic, such as football, tennis, golf and marathons. Others are more cerebral, such as chess, poker or cribbage.

But all have humans as opponents, usually resulting in as many losers as winners. And a player's success or failure is partially determined by the opponent, who is playing defense. In most games, every move I make is good or bad, depending on my opponent's reaction.

Many games have an element of luck. If there are dice or cards or a football (funny bounces out of anyone's control), there are things that effect the outcome that can't be managed by humans. Luck partially determines one's success, in these cases.

Sudoku is a competition that lacks all these characteristics. It is a competition between a human and a puzzle. Team Sudoku is a competition between three or four humans and a puzzle. The puzzle plays no defense and has already made all his moves. My success or failure depends solely on my own actions. This is true for my team, as well. We all sink or swim together, meeting the same fate. If we make one mistake, we have constructed a plane that won't fly, a boat that won't float, and it's never the puzzle's fault. And luck plays no role.

Also, Sudoku can be done by a very wide range of humanity. Gaining popularity, solo Sudoku is done in many places in the world. Soon, I expect it will be done by teams, which started here in Nevada County. All ages, 6 to 96, enjoy the challenge. Both genders like it equally and demonstrate equal ability. It works with any language. Four players on one team who speak four different languages can be successful solving puzzles. There's no need for athleticism, which makes it fun for more people. And injuries are nonexistent. It's very cheap, requiring no more than a pencil and flat place to put the puzzle. No high tech digital instruments, no batteries, and it folds up in your pocket, traveling well, so not restricted to time limits. It's also very convenient, being done alone or with others.

Anyone who can count to nine can do Sudoku. Unlike crosswords, which require spelling and a familiarity with trivia, Sudoku requires none of these. It's a poor man's education, teaching how to think rather than what to think. Though it doesn't require much education, it can be devilishly difficult. There's nothing that is political, religious, cultural, racial or ethnic, so Sudoku bypasses these areas that sometimes separate us.

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But none of these unusual characteristics explain my enthusiasm. Sudoku teaches and trains several useful thinking habits, called critical thinking, or logic. Solving each cell, of which there are about 50 per puzzle, repeats an educating process of discerning relevance, recognizing useful patterns, operating under very strict demands for total accuracy (truth) and the necessity of withholding a final decision until there's enough necessary information. Guessing never works, and subjective feelings are counter-productive. It also develops focus and concentration in children and produces perseverance necessary for success. This is probably why most children under about 6 years are too young to succeed.

Team Sudoku, historically created here in Nevada County and held, for the first time in a tournament here last April, teaches children important social skills. Unlike most team sports, there is no division of labor. All teammates do the same things; find solutions. Experienced teams must employ good communication and cooperation, holding personal feelings back. There is only one correct answer and eight incorrect answer with every cell. So whenever a player has a solution, the teammates should (if they want to win and avoid mistakes) demand, "Prove it." Proof can be easily done if the proposed solution is correct. If not, it must be rejected until more information is determined. This eliminates long disagreements, all of which can be settled decisively, with universal agreement. The answer is either right or wrong; there's no gray in between answer. All arguments are over quickly.

Team Sudoku simulates challenging natural disasters, such as fires, floods, famine, earthquakes and pandemics that bring humans together to combat a mutual threat. A team solving a Sudoku puzzle must communicate and collaborate in order to succeed, in much the same way we did recently when fire destroyed parts of our community. This brought out the better angels of our nature, as it always does. But Sudoku does it without the danger and stress and life changing losses. It's good practice in togetherness.

I am reminded of a quote from Virgil, the Roman poet: "As the twig is bent the tree's inclined." If we can give our children good thinking skills, forming good mental habits, they will develop into rational thinkers. Sudoku and Team Sudoku are practical means to achieving this end. And kids love it after they learn what it is.

Jerry Martin lives in Grass Valley.

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