Sudoku Creator Happy to See Game Blossom

Maki Kaji shared his story with dozens of fans.
Maki Kaji shared his story with dozens of fans. (Marvin Joseph/twp - The Washington Post)
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By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

And now, some numbers for Maki Kaji, the man who helped invent Sudoku:

1984 -- year he created the puzzle, which was based on an American game called Numbers Place;

35 -- seconds it took for him to come up with the game's Japanese name ("su" means number; "doku" means single);

0 -- trademarks that Kaji secured before his game was reproduced around the world.

"Some friends said, 'Maki, you should have trademarked Sudoku. You could have been a millionaire,' " Kaji told a crowd of about 50 yesterday during an appearance at the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival in downtown Washington. "I said: 'No, that's not what I want. I'm happy to see everyone enjoy Sudoku more easily.' "

Not to worry. Kaji, 57, who owns a puzzle company called Nikoli, is doing just fine: He's publishing new games, traveling the world to promote them (he was in Spain last week and Mozambique last month) and feeling the love from Sudoku devotees. When Kaji left the stage at 12th Street and Constitution Avenue to pass out brochures, he was mobbed by fans.

The game, for the few who might not have tried it, involves ordering the numbers one through nine in nine boxes of nine squares, with each column having all nine numbers vertically and horizontally. Howard Garns, an American architect, is credited with inventing the basic concept in 1979, calling it Numbers Place. Much like the New York Times crossword puzzle, Sudoku games range from easy to difficult.

Lisa Lawler, 43, a Census Bureau employee, and Mariyam Al-Shatti, 18, a Montgomery College student, thrust Sudoku books in Kaji's face and asked for autographs.

"My sister just loves the game. I just play a little, but I admire her because she's so good," Lawler said, thanking Kaji with an "arigato" and bowing. Al-Shatti eagerly volunteered to compete in one of the two Sudoku contests.

They were won by Heidi Lee, 27, a painter from Manhattan, and Brandon Bear, 21, a college senior from York, Pa., who finished the puzzles in about five minutes.

"I used to play a lot," Lee said. "But I don't have too much time."

Charles Snyder, 67, a retired journalist from Montgomery County, was sitting in the front row. He plays several times a day.

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