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Off the Grid

Sometimes, a superhuman facility for math just isn’t enough

Author Tom Rowley

dispatches5LONDON – In the lobby of a suburban London hotel, Neil Zussman is preparing to shoulder his country’s expectations. It’s a few minutes before the start of the World Sudoku Championships, in which 180 players will vie for global supremacy, and the U.K.’s leading light is not brimming with optimism.

The Chinese team he’s facing today, says the 25-year-old Sudoku ace, trains for nine hours a day; the South Koreans spend weekends at Sudoku camp. Zussman does puzzles during his lunch break at the offices of a supermarket chain, where he works as a pricing analyst. “If there was prize money, I could afford to take it more seriously,” he says. “Some of us have to earn a living.”

In the hotel ballroom, contestants sit in fraught silence, tugging their hair, flicking through puzzle sheets and watching the clock count down. Slouched in his chair, Zussman seems relatively relaxed. He can finish a puzzle in under a minute, and he will complete about 200 over the two-day event. This is not enough to earn him a top spot, however, or even the highest ranking for a Brit (he finishes 50th, 13 places behind teammate David McNeil).

Still, he looks happy enough as the contestants mingle at the end. “This,” he says, “is one of the most fun weeks of the year.” As for the part he enjoys most, Zussman says he’s a fan of strip Sudoku.

“It involves laying strips of paper over the puzzle,” he adds with a pained smile. “It’s not like strip poker.”

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