The last time I bothered with a crossword I was in high school. I never really cared for them much. Not sure why, maybe because I wasn’t any good at them. It felt like a game for obsessed dictionary nerds who knew every obscure definition known to man.
When I moved to England I ended up trying out Sudoku – as did half the English population for that matter. For me part of it was having a tie back to Japan where it first got popular, but I enjoyed the logic behind it. It was a simple and direct challenge/reward ratio.
But in the past few weeks I’ve been taking a lot of long drives with Gill and the family, down to Vancouver and over into the States, and once the novelty wore off I looked for ways to pass the time. Then I remembered on my Nintendo DS I have a cartridge that has the New York Times Crosswords on it, and I thought I’d give it a chance.
I had no idea what I was missing. Either I missed the point entirely back in the day or I just had some badly designed crosswords. See, Sudoku puzzles are all about math and logic, but Crosswords are about psychology. It isn’t enough to know what a definition could be, because with a clever crossword several words of the same length might apply. It’s about picking up on subtle hints in the phrasing, conventions within the way clues are presented, seeing how things interconnect, and reevaluating several of your choices just because of one new word.
It’s a battle of wits. It’s mind reading. It’s sitting down in a dark cave trading riddles with Gollum. You feel a human presence behind this (though I suspect the crosswords themselves are largely computer generated now the clues have to be done by people).
I don’t want to put down Sudoku, but as complex as it is in the harder difficulties, the difference between the two is checkers and chess. Recently a computer was programmed in such a way that it is literally unbeatable at checkers. The best any human or other computer can do is a draw. This isn’t a matter of finding a checkers version of Bobby Fisher, it’s mathematical fact. The program knows every possible outcome to every possible move and it’s been mathematically proven that it cannot be beaten. That’s because checkers is a relatively simple game, with a limited number or permutations possible.
Chess on the other hand is far too complex for any computer to do this right now, though I believe it’s theoretically possible. As any grandmaster will tell you chess has as much to do with knowing your opponent as it does knowing the game. Crosswords feel the same. You’re trying to get a grasp on the way its creator uses puns and plays on words, how they might put you on the wrong track because there is an obvious answer, and a not-so-obvious one that fits just as well, sometimes including several of the same letters.
For me, Sudoku has been dethroned. Long Live the Crossword!