When you get right down to it, the puzzle world isn’t all that big. There are a few names that everyone knows, and plenty of names that people should, but generally don’t. And sadly, too many of those names aren’t celebrated until after they’re gone.
Maki Kaji is one of those names you should know.
He passed away recently, and different articles and obituaries called him everything from “puzzle enthusiast” to “Sudoku creator,” but the title he most deserves is the one he put on his business cards: Godfather of Sudoku.
Honestly, he’s one of the three most important people in the history of Sudoku.
Howard Garns is credited with creating Number Place for Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games in May 1979 (though a French variant of the puzzle appeared in the newspaper La France in the 1890s). Wayne Gould stumbled upon Sudoku puzzles in a magazine, then designed a generation program and sold it to the Times in London, kickstarting the craze in the UK that spread elsewhere.
[Maki Kaji at Brazil’s first national Sudoku competition in São Paulo in 2012.]
But it was Maki Kaji who championed the puzzle all over, using it in his puzzle magazine Nikoli starting in the early 80s, then taking advantage of the UK boom and selling it in dozens of countries. (Gould didn’t have the resources, so many newspapers and publishers came to Maki Kaji for them.)
The name Sudoku came from him. (In American puzzle magazines, it was Number Place or To the Nines.) Originally the puzzle was called Suuji wa dokushin ni kagiru, or “numbers should be single,” before taking the suggestion to shorten it to Sudoku.
Of course, despite his close association with Sudoku, Maki championed puzzles in all forms. He founded Nikoli (also known as Puzzle Communication Nikoli) with two school friends in 1980, four years before adding Sudoku to its roster of puzzles. It was Japan’s first puzzle magazine!
One of the goals of Nikoli was to feature what they called “culture independent” puzzles, meaning puzzles that didn’t rely on a specific language or alphabet. (Talk about accessibility!)
“When we create our puzzles, we want people to enjoy them and not feel stressed by them,” he said.
Because of this culture-independent style, Nikoli was famed for its many logic puzzles, because they relied less on words and more on numbers, symbols, and elegant grid positioning. Popular puzzles included familiar ones like Sudoku and Kakuro, as well as less familiar puzzles like Nurikabe and Hashiwokakero.
“I don’t want to just be the godfather of Sudoku,” Maki said. “I’d like to spread the fun of puzzles until I’m known as the person who established the puzzle genre in Japan.”
One of his key tools was a section in Nikoli that invited readers to submit their own ideas for puzzles. It quickly became the most popular part of the magazine. Readers submitted new puzzles, which other readers then refined and expanded on. Nikoli is credited with introducing hundreds of new logic and number puzzles to the world through this puzzle-loving fan-fueled pipeline.
Of course, even the Godfather of Sudoku ventured into crosswords from time to time. In fact, in 2017, it was reported that he published the world’s largest ever crossword, with 59,365 across clues and 59,381 down clues on a printed grid 30m long, kept in a scroll.
Go big or go home, I guess.
[Constructor Peter Gordon (and his Sudoku license plate) with Maki.
Maki stepped down as president of Nikoli just last month, and the company released this statement in response to his passing:
Kaji-san came up with the name Sudoku and was loved by puzzle fans from all over the world. We are grateful from the bottom of our hearts for the patronage you have shown throughout his life.
But, naturally, it takes a puzzler to truly honor a puzzler, and I think Thomas Snyder (aka Dr. Sudoku, no slouch himself when it comes to the famed number puzzle) offered the perfect tribute on his Art of Puzzles website:
A wordoku puzzle dedicated to Maki Kaji.
The puzzle world is a far richer and more varied place thanks to the creativity, hard work, and passion of Maki Kaji. You probably didn’t know his name before. But hopefully, you’ll remember it now.
Farewell, Maki. Thank you for bringing so many new eyes to the world of puzzles.
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