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Dr. Puzzle

Meet the sudoku master

Thomas Snyder feels the need for speed.

Talking as fast as his fingers fly over the sudoku grid, the 27-year-old Stanford bioengineering postdoctoral scholar issues a torrent of puzzle trivia, from the sliding puzzle’s popularity of the late 1800s, to the Rubik’s cube’s dominance in 1980 to the sudoku boon today — all in about three minutes flat.

At the first-ever U.S. National Sudoku Championship, in Philadelphia last October, with more than 850 competitors, Snyder took the crown — and a check for $10,000. His time for the winning puzzle: seven minutes, seven seconds. Even more impressive, he finished the first qualifying round eight minutes before anyone else.

“Whiz kid” quickly comes to mind.

puzzle
A puzzle by Thomas Snyder, inspired by Stanfordís unofficial mascot. For the solution: Click here

“If you put my brain under an fMRI machine while doing a sudoku puzzle, you’d probably see this endorphin rush,” Snyder says. “It can be fairly exciting.”

For those unaware of the craze, sudoku is a number puzzle that appeared in Japanese newspapers in 1984 and caught fire internationally after running in The Times in Britain in 2004. The goal is to fill a nine-by-nine square grid so each row, column and three-by-three internal square includes the numbers one through nine with no repeats. The puzzler starts with about 20 boxes already filled in (the givens).

“They’re like my morning cup of coffee to wake up and get the neurons firing,” says Snyder, who has also found logic puzzles handy for helping him see the world. Puzzle competitions have taken him to Brazil, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.

Snyder, who discovered a niche for his amazing puzzle skills while in graduate school at Harvard, picked up three major puzzle matches last year, traveling with the U.S. puzzle team to Prague where he won the world sudoku championship last spring after two days of solving more than 50 puzzles.

“In Prague, I met the president of the Czech Republic,” Snyder says. “Meeting a head of state because you’re good at puzzles is kinda cool.”

While his puzzle mania is relegated to hobby status, he does hope to make some money off his sudoku book coming out in April after he competes in this year’s world championship, in India.

But mostly, this is just for fun. And he’s ready to hand out tips to any fellow sudoku enthusiasts.

“Look at where the numbers are,” he says. “Fill in the easiest rows first.” He’s not worried about tipping his hand. He’s confident in his need for speed. It’s just plain tough for anyone to catch up.

See more videos of Thomas Syder explaining his strategies.

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The Master at Work

Thomas Snyder explains the history of puzzles and his fascination with sudoku.

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