22 May 2014

only amateurs use pencil

Something potentially dangerous has happened. Not super dangerous, mind. Just something that will most likely severely jeopardize any hope for productivity from me in the near future. I'm talking, of course, about sudoku.

I was somewhat of a sudoku addict in the past. Maybe (definitely) still am. But it was way worse before, trust me. I used to go through books and books of puzzles (this was before smartphones, obvs) to the point where I would stay up half the night with a pen in hand while working on the most fiendishly difficult games I could find. And, at any given point in time, there would be a sudoku book under my pillow, one in my bag, and at least three on my bedside table. When in the shower, or even whenever I closed my eyes, I would see tiles and numbers and would try to solve those imaginary puzzles in my head to see if the games I envisioned were actually solvable (they were).

So yeah, things were bad. I would get frustrated if they were too easy, but doubly frustrated if I couldn't figure them out. I'm not sure when I stopped playing obsessively. It just sort of faded to the background as other things, like life, emerged and demanded my attention. Eventually, I forgot about it and moved on.

The event that sucked me back in, however, is finite and still makes me laugh a little to myself when I recall it. Last week, by some miracle, I managed to snag a seat on BART while commuting to work and ended up next to a woman playing a comically large sudoku puzzle. As in, the numbers were about the length of my pinky finger. And, not to be a dick about it, but the puzzle was so easy that I couldn't help but stare at the page and solve it for myself. But she couldn't do it, and by the time I was ready for her to turn the page to the next puzzle, she had only filled in a couple of tiles. Rather than wait for her to finish, I whipped out my phone and immediately downloaded the first sudoku app that popped up so that I could play it for myself. I realize that that might make me kind of an asshole, but it was like waking a dormant volcano, with the expulsion being my suddenly overwhelming compulsion to play again. It couldn't be stifled or ignored, and I had no choice but to cave.

Upon rediscovering sudoku, I realized how rusty I had gotten in the interim. I used to be able to know at a glance which number was missing and could even use my peripheral vision to fill in the gaps, but I found myself having to consciously account for what numbers were where (as in, counting and tapping the corresponding numbers). But that sense of accomplishment when I correctly solved my first puzzle after my unintentional hiatus was just as I remembered it. After that, I knew its hooks were once again deeply embedded. There are few things as satisfying as filling in that one tile that sets off a chain reaction of filling in the rest, not unlike pulling a thread in just the right way that a giant knot unfurls and smooths itself out. Every number has its position, and its reason for being there is unequivocal. Ambiguity has no place in this game. The placement of every number makes sense. And, in a world that seems to revel in the fact that nothing really makes sense if you think about it too hard or for too long, sudoku is a welcome reminder that some things can be concrete.

Of course, playing on my phone is a drastically different experience from playing in a book. For one thing, there's a timer. I hate the timer. I don't need that extra stress in my life (edit: I found out that I can hide the timer. It still records the time, unfortunately, but at least I can pretend it's not there. I think that's a pretty good strategy to life as well.).

There's also a feature where, if you select a number on the board, the other tiles with that same number light up, so you quickly determine where they are. This new feature can certainly be helpful, but I find that sometimes the glowing distracts me to the point where I don't notice that there's a row with only one number missing because I'm so fixated on the light. I'm not going to blame that on the game, though, because the issue stems from my inability to focus when there's something bright or shiny around.

One thing that isn't my fault that I dislike about the app is that there is no differentiation between which numbers were on the board originally and which ones I filled in. This feature doesn't have a detrimental effect on the gameplay, but it still bothers me because, especially when I'm stuck, I like being able to retrace my thought process for why I put some numbers where. I like being able to see the logic behind each move. Plus, if there's a really obvious move available, I like being able to determine whether that move was there from the beginning or if that opportunity arose because of changed circumstances on the board. It makes me feel a little better if I know that I wasn't completely oblivious to something so easy.

My point is, I'm back on the horse. Or off it, depending on your perspective. At least I haven't started playing tetris again, right?


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