Jerry Martin: Sudoku — The truth is in there
While training logical thinking habits and developing fluid intelligence (problem solving and creative inventiveness), which are particularly appropriate for the the malleable minds of children, Sudoku has other characteristics appealing for adults.
Solo Sudoku is a competition between a human and a non-human, a puzzle. It’s unlike most games and sports, which are generally between two humans or two teams of humans. The dynamics are different in several ways.
When we compete against other humans, every move we make is successful or not, depending on the human opponent’s response. This is true many times in every contest. For example, in tennis, if I hit the ball away from my opponent, but inside the court, and he can’t reach it, I win the point. But if he does reach it and hits it down the line past me, he wins the point.
But with Sudoku, my opponent, the puzzle, has already made all his moves; every move, right or wrong, is mine to make. So the outcome is 100% my responsibility. And there is no luck involved, as in card games and games with dice. Again, it’s all me. There’s no one or anything else to blame if I lose. We are totally independent when solving Sudoku puzzles.
As such, it’s a safe simulation we humans face when contesting non-human opponents, be they a virus or fire or drowning or a wild bear on a camping trip. Except when losing to Sudoku one pays a small price. Rip it up and start over again. Nor do we face the humiliating gloat of a kid sister who has just humbled us in a heated game of checkers.
Most human activities have two parts, the journey and the destination. This is sometimes seen as the process and the final product. It might be spending hours learning a song or baking a cake or driving to Yellowstone. There’s work to be done with a reward, a destination, at the end.
But Sudoku is all journey, all process, and when finished there is no appreciable tangible product. There’s only a small piece of paper with a scattering of meaningless numbers in small boxes. Totally useless, not worthy of display, not illuminating, an unproductive waste of time in some inexperienced evaluations. We just discard it and do another one.
Why would any sane, intelligent adult expend time and mental energy, even when successful, with nothing to show or eat or enjoy? There must be something emotionally satisfying about the process. There is. Meeting a challenge in your own time, any place you choose, proving to yourself a satisfying level of competence, feels good. And is proof that dementia hasn’t set in, and maybe won’t ever.
In this current age of misinformation, where lies are common, it’s becoming difficult to determine whom to trust. Where is there absolute truth? Since Sudoku requires 100% accuracy, it becomes a symbol for absolute truth. By filling in the correct answer 50 times each puzzle, we understand that truth is still possible somewhere, a comforting feeling in these mendacious times.
Knowing you can bring order from chaos, even if the results are insignificant, brings feelings of comfort and power. It’s another reason Sudoku solvers enjoy this escape from modern confusing life. Sudoku puts us in a simpler place where success (or failure) is easy to see. It’s a challenge that’s usually met, assuming you choose a puzzle of appropriate difficulty for your level of experience.
As all medical experts recommend physical exercise, whether walking, dancing, stretching, running or swimming, they say it’s important for maintaining strong physical bodies. We also recognize that reading, writing and calculating is important to maintain optimal mental strength. Sudoku, a form of mental exercise, fortifies our cognitive capacity, somewhat like a tune up for an engine or sharpening for a saw. It’s healthy for maintaining a mind that operates efficiently when making decisions or solving new problems.
Every day, more people are discovering the pleasure Sudokus bring, the sense of achievement we sometimes need to fulfill our self worth and the excitement competition presents in our sometimes mundane lives.
Knowing I’m addicted to teaching it for free to strangers, I’m sometimes asked for an introduction. In 15 minutes most people get the idea and are able (and usually excited) to start their new adventure of repeated mental stimulation.
I’m always available for beginners, even adults, particularly now when COVID-19 has closed school doors to me. Just ask me.
Jerry Martin lives in Grass Valley.
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