Himani Shah has always been a player. Maybe gamer would be a more accurate term.
She started early, playing cards with both sets of grandparents when she was a toddler. “I have photos of myself as a child holding playing cards. I’m not sure how much I understood back then, but that didn’t stop me from trying,” the 24-year-old says, laughing.
Her sporting streak extended to poker and chess as she grew older, but it was not limited to sedentary endeavours. She started playing tennis in school and went on to represent Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai, in inter-IIT competitions. “But I was a runner-up throughout—there was this girl from IIT-Madras who always won,” she says.
Things have changed since. Shah is today a winner in her own right, and it’s not a sport but a game that made her one. Shah is a national-level sudoku contestant and was in the Indian team in the second and third World Sudoku Championship in Prague and Goa, in 2007 and 2008, respectively. She has a day job with Deutsche Bank as an analyst in the commodities structuring cell.
Shah first became familiar with sudoku in 2007, thanks to a cousin who was addicted to the game. After she had had a go at cracking a couple of puzzles, she was hooked. “My cousin and I started timing and competing with each other,” she says.
Shah continued playing when she went back to her hostel in IIT, where she was studying mechanical engineering. She practised online as well as on paper, and at one point was solving 10-15 puzzles a day. “I started playing sudoku to relax, but it helps keep your mind sharp, even while you are lazing around,” she says.
Shah’s professional streak started when she participated in a sudoku competition at IIT. “There were two rounds and I took part in one because I had to go out to dinner. I finished first, and haven’t yet figured out how,” she says.
At sudoku competitions, players are given a certain number of puzzles which they have to finish in limited time, often between 45 minutes to an hour. Shah, who solved all her puzzles in that round, was inspired enough to participate in the national qualifying rounds. Winning that took her to Prague and the world championships. “I got to compete on a world level and see what others are doing in sudoku. The Japanese come up with new puzzles and techniques; they have their own books which they distribute to participants in the world championships,” she says. The championship puzzles feature almost 150-200 variations of the game.
Numero uno: Himani Shah has represented India in the sudoku world championships. Shriya Patil
That would be surprising for people who think sudoku is about arranging numbers on a square grid. The variations to this are only limited by the puzzle-maker’s imagination. Shah says the two common variations she’s good at are the XV and consecutive and non- consecutive sudoku puzzles. In the consecutive puzzles, two parallel lines are placed between two cells on different areas of the grid. The player has to ensure the numbers in the two squares on either side of the lines are consecutive. In the XV puzzles, if an X or V is placed between two cells, the sum of the numbers on either side of the cells has to be 10.
Though math was always her favourite subject, Shah doesn’t think sudoku has anything to do with mathematics. “It’s about picturing the whole grid in your mind, thinking fast and taking quick decisions,” she says. The combination of logic and strategy required to solve a puzzle is similar to the skills she applied while studying at IIT and in her present job. That’s probably why solving puzzles is not enough; Shah also enjoys the challenge of creating new ones. She’s part of Logic Masters, a group which organizes the national qualifying rounds in India. “The Indian team has much scope for improvement. Finding new talent and creating puzzles for them is as much fun as playing.”
For a professional player, the most important time of the sudoku calendar is March-April, which is when the World Sudoku Championship takes place. The Indian Sudoku Championship, which serves to determine the four-member team that represents India in the world championships, is held in January or February. The Sudoku Challenge Asia Pacific features three-four events annually; the first prize at these challenges is $5,000 (around Rs2.3 lakh). The US Sudoku Championship, held annually in October, awards $10,000 to the first-prize winner. Indian players have not yet taken part in this event, though non-resident Indians (NRIs) do participate regularly.
Shah did not figure in the top four at the national qualifying rounds for the 2010 edition of the World Sudoku Championship to be held in the US, and she’s content to create puzzles to help Indian players practise.
She doesn’t know how much time she spends on each puzzle, but when asked to solve one printed in a local newspaper, she readily picks up a pen. She finishes in about 4 minutes, chatting most of the time. If she’s unsure of a number, she writes it in between the cells. She has no set strategy for solving puzzles—each one requires an organic solution of its own.
And a lot of practice.