Farewell, Maki Kaji.

maki kaji 1

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 2

[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!

maki kaji 3

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.

nikoli puzzles

“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.

maki kaji 4

[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.

snyder wordoku

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.

[Source links: Kotaku, The Guardian, Wikipedia.]


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Two Crossword Anniversaries This Week!

exercise-brain-crossword-670x335

Crossword history isn’t exactly a field of study that dates back to ancient times — I mean, we only celebrated the centennial of the crossword back in 2013 — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge amount of historical crossword material out there to be commemorated.

In fact, this week marks two fairly meaningful crossword anniversaries, one to be celebrated today, the other tomorrow.

The first crossword anniversary to observe is the 150th birthday of Arthur Wynne.

[Image courtesy of express.co.uk.]

In 1913, Arthur Wynne created the first modern crossword puzzle — which he called a Word-Cross puzzle — and over a hundred years later, we are still enjoying the ever-increasing variety of puzzles and clues spawned by that “fun”-filled grid.

Wynne was born on June 22, 1871 in Liverpool, England, but moved to the states in the early 1890s, spending time in Pittsburgh and New York City before creating his Word-Cross puzzle for the New York Sunday World.

Of course, the crossword as we know it — with its square grid and the black-and-white square patterning — are due not to Mr. Wynne, but to his former associate, future first New York Times crossword editor Margaret Farrar.

But, speaking of figures who helped elevate crosswords to greater prominence, that brings us to our second anniversary.

Tomorrow marks the 15th anniversary of the release of the influential crossword documentary Wordplay.

Wordplaymp

Wordplay introduced several famous names in crossword tournament circles, like Ellen Ripstein, Trip Payne, Tyler Hinman, Jon Delfin, and Al Sanders, as well as highlighting many celebrity crossword solvers like Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Bill Clinton, and more. The documentary also chronicled the 2005 edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, bringing national attention to the tournament (and inspiring a Simpsons episode about crosswords).

Wordplay sparked a 40% increase in attendance the year after it aired, and the growing interest in the yearly event caused the tournament to actually change locations to a larger venue in New York City for 7 years!

(It has since returned to the Stamford Marriott, its traditional setting, despite actually topping the biggest NYC attendance in 2019, and again virtually in 2021.)

But the impact Wordplay had on the tournament itself, and interest in crosswords in general, cannot be overstated.

And this week, we celebrate both crossword anniversaries, one marking the genesis of crosswords, and the other marking how far crosswords had come, and how much farther they could go in the future.

It’s a pretty cool confluence of dates, to be sure.


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A Mysterious Message, Inscribed on a Sword, Found in a River

_103722388_d0c23635-6379-4bf7-bac8-478493c2d1c7

A few years ago, a very curious news story broke about an 8-year-old girl pulling a thousand-year-old sword out of a lake in Sweden.

Saga Vanecek — which sounds like the heroine of a YA novel series begging for a Netflix adaptation — discovered the sword while playing in the lake. The Jönköpings Läns Museum estimated that the sword is at least a thousand years old, and could be as old as 5th or 6th century.

No one is sure how it got there, but everyone agrees it’s an amazing find. (And many agree that Saga should now be queen. Hey, there are worse ways to choose a ruler.)

But there’s another story about a sword found in a body of water with an even stranger mystery attached: the River Witham sword.

river witham sword 1

There are actually two River Witham swords — it’s just the right river to go sword-hunting in, I suppose — but we’re talking about what’s known as the River Witham “knightly sword.”

It was discovered in the river in 1825 and turned over to the Royal Archaeological Institute. It is now in the hands of the British Library.

And for more than two centuries, the meaning of the inscription has remained a mystery.

Inlaid along one of the sword’s edges, spelled out in gold wire, curious eyes find the following chain of letters:

+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+

Is it an abbreviation? An encryption? Or simply patterning in the shape of letters? No solid answers emerged during decades of study.

Eventually, the British Library decided to crowdsource the puzzle in the hopes of finding a solution. In 2015, officials from the library officially reached out to the public to finally crack the code detailed along the blade.

All sorts of amateurs and professionals weighed in, exploring possibilities in Latin, Welsh, German, Irish, Sicilian, and others. They compared it to the medal of St. Benedict and other medieval engravings in search of patterns.

And the British Library shared one contributor’s thoughts as an addendum to their original post about the River Witham sword.

alphen blade

[The Alphen aan den Rijn sword-blade.]

Historian Marc van Hasselt compared the sword to others from the same time period, roughly around the year 1200, and believed it was safe to assume the language was Latin.

He compared the inscription from the River Witham sword — +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+ — with an inscription on a Dutch sword-blade found in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands. That blade was inscribed on both sides:

+BENEDOXOFTISSCSDRRISCDICECMTINIUSCSDNI+

+DIOXMTINIUSESDIOMTINIUSCSDICCCMTDICIIZISI+

He explains his thought process:

To elaborate, let’s compare the River Witham sword to the sword from Alphen: both start with some sort of invocation. On the River Witham sword, it is NDXOX, possibly standing for Nostrum Dominus (our Lord) or Nomine Domini (name of the Lord) followed by XOX.

On the sword from Alphen, the starting letters read BENEDOXO. Quite likely, this reads as Benedicat (A blessing), followed by OXO. Perhaps these letter combinations – XOX and OXO – refer to the Holy Trinity. On the sword from Alphen, one letter combination is then repeated three times: MTINIUSCS, which I interpret as Martinius Sanctus – Saint Martin. Perhaps a saint is being invoked on the River Witham sword as well?

Unfortunately, the British Library’s investigation seems to have stopped there after the intriguing contributions of van Hasselt.

But, thankfully, there is always SOMEONE on the Internet trying to solve a seemingly unsolvable mystery. I did a bit of sleuthing and found a post on medium.com, originally posted in February of 2017, with a very through breakdown of a potential solution to the River Witham sword!

river witham sword 2

[A closer look at the River Witham sword inscription.]

The author of the piece, Stieg Hedlund, started by focusing on the W in the inscription, since the classical Latin alphabet didn’t have a W. Surmising that the inscription was an initialism — which is common for Latin inscriptions — he started looking for an aristocratic name starting with W.

Why aristocratic? Well, not just anyone in the 1200s or 1300s could afford a sword with gold wire inscriptions.

He quickly settled on some variation of William for the W, and then narrowed his search to Willem II of Holland, a count, and the initialism CHW on the sword could mean Comes Hollandia Willelmus, his name and title in Latin.

william of holland

Following that line of thought and digging into the history of Willem II revealed that he ruled not only Germany, but the southern Belgian region of Hainault as well.

This gives him “Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei gratia, Rex Germania et Hainault Dei nutu” to cover CHWDRGHD in the inscription.

When he turned his attention to the first five letters, he agreed with the supposition of Marc van Hasselt and others that it referenced “in Nomine Domini” and the XOX represented the Holy Trinity.

So that covers NDXOXCHWDRGHD, approximately two-thirds of the inscription. What about XORVI?

Well, Hedlund believes the solution lies in Laudes Regiæ, a Catholic hymn most famous for its opening words: Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (In English: Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ commands.)

Abbreviated versions of these words were often used by kings and royalty to solidify their position by tying themselves to the church. On a coin issued by Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in 1384, you can read one rendition of the phrase: XPiσtoC VinCIT XPiσtoC RegnAT XPiσtoC InPERAT.

He believes XORVI is an abbreviated version, reading “XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!” where the capital letters form the inscribed message.

So, the completed message would read:

(in) Nomine Domini
Comes Hollandia Willelmus Dei (gratia), Rex Germania et Hainault Dei (nutu)
XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!

Or, in English:

In the Name of the Lord; of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
Count of Holland Willem by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God
Christ reigns! Christ conquers! Christ commands!

It’s a compelling case, and certainly the most complete interpretation and explanation I’ve been able to find.

Imagine. All of that in that brief, beautiful, confusing inscription. It’s fascinating, and makes the mind positively whirl with possibilities.

Oh, and if you find any centuries-old swords while you’re perusing the nearby waterways, let me know! We might have a new mystery to solve.


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A Puzzly Discovery Under the Sea!

We’ve talked quite a bit about the importance of Enigma machines in the past.

The quest to crack the unbreakable Nazi code machine spanned the Atlantic Ocean and resulted in never-before-seen collaborations between analysts, codebreakers, and puzzlers from all walks of life, dedicating hours upon hours every day to trying to unravel the secrets of German communications. Cracking the code would be the key to intercepting crucial information and outmaneuvering the Nazi war machine.

We’ve discussed those twin decryption locations — Arlington Hall in the US and Bletchley Park in the UK — as well as the efforts of codebreakers like Elizebeth Smith Friedman to dismantle the work of Nazi spymasters both during and after World War II.

The story of Alan Turing is inextricably linked with that of the Enigma device, even though there were three Polish mathematicians — Rejewski, Rózycki & Zygalski — who had already demonstrated that the Nazi code was breakable and even managed to reverse engineer an Enigma machine.

Strangely, we rarely talk about the Enigma machines themselves. They were dangerously efficient, as explained in this article from Atlas Obscura:

When the Nazis needed to send confidential messages, they entered the dispatches into the machine, which substituted every letter using a system of three or four rotors and a reflector, encrypting the message for a recipient Enigma machine to decode.

Getting Allied hands on one during the war was a top priority, so much so that the standing orders on German ships and U-boats was to throw them overboard and let the sea claim them, rather than risking the chance of the Allies getting ahold of one.

underwater enigma

But the sea doesn’t always keep secrets forever, and a recent dive by a marine biologist team discovered the remains of an Enigma machine in the Bay of Gelting:

He noticed a contraption tangled up in the fishing line the crew had headed down to collect. The device, which at first seemed like an old typewriter sitting under at least 30 feet of water, was a Nazi Enigma machine, likely one of hundreds abandoned and thrown overboard in the dying days of the German war effort.

And those devices still contain valuable information decades later.

Each Enigma machine has a serial number, and if this machine’s number is still legible after decades underwater, it could reveal which ship or Nazi unit the Enigma machine belonged to. This would allow researchers to track the use of the device and what impact its use or its absence had on the war effort overall.

Yes, it’s not just mussels and fish that call this device home, but a readily accessible history of the device itself, if we can only read it.

underwater enigma 2

And now, instead of being protected at all costs by German officers, this machine is now protected by archaeologists and researchers, sitting in a tank of demineralized water in order to flush out the salt and salt water that has so corroded the machine over time. It will spend almost a year in that tank before any restoration efforts can proceed.

Successful recoveries of these machines are understandably rare, and this is a chance to add to the historical record of codebreaking and puzzling during World War II. Here’s hoping we can stumble upon more of these lost treasures in the future.


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Voltaire and Frederick the Great: Puzzle Pals?

frederick and voltaire

One of the most curious – and tumultuous – friendships in history was that of Frederick the Great and Voltaire.

Voltaire, the 18th-century philosopher and writer, never shied from criticizing the monarchy in his outspoken defenses of civil liberties. That makes it all the more curious that he became friends with the Prussian King Frederick II, aka Frederick the Great.

They bonded over a shared interest in the arts — a passion for Frederick all his life, despite his father’s disapproval.

From Joshua Figueroa’s marvelous article on KMFA.org:

Through Frederick’s public admiration, Voltaire was given a status few other philosophers of the era had. Likewise, Voltaire helped spread the word of Frederick’s flattering image as a philosopher-king.

As it turns out, they were mutual wordplay enthusiasts as well.

The story goes that Frederick the Great wanted to invite Voltaire to lunch, but did so with a rebus:

the question

Voltaire replied simply:

the answer

Which left Frederick confused as to why Voltaire would reply in German. Voltaire retorted that he hadn’t.

There’s a lot going on here, all to do with how things sound when said aloud.

Let’s look at Frederick’s message first:

the question

You have the letter P above the number 1 and the word Si above the number 100, with the letter a between them.

Anyone familiar with rebuses knows that a horizontal line between two words means “over/above” or “under.”

But remember that we’re working in French. So that’s un for 1 and sous for under. Un sous p.

Aloud you get un souper, or “a supper.”

Following the same logic, you’ve got 100 (cent) under (sous) si, which sounds like Sanssouci, Frederick’s castle.

Put it all together, and it’s the lunch invite Frederick intended, souper à Sanssouci. Pretty clever.

But what about Voltaire’s reply?

the answer

It sure looks like the German word for yes.

But if you’re very literal about what you’re seeing, you’ve got a large J and a small A.

Large in French is grande (as Starbucks customers know). Small in French is petit.

J grande A petit.

Or, said aloud, J’ai grand appétit. Which means “I have a great appetite.”

You know, I’m starting to see why these two became pals.


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Does the History of Cryptography Begin in Ancient Egypt?

Puzzles in various forms have been with us for thousands of years.

We can look back at examples like riddles from ancient Greece and Sumeria, the Smyrna word square from 79 AD, or inscriptions from New Kingdom-era Egypt between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, which can be read both across the rows and down the columns. (These are informally referred to as “Egyptian crossword puzzles.”)

As it turns out, if we turn our attention to ancient Egypt, we may just find the earliest known example of an encrypted message as well.

If you go hunting on the Internet for the earliest examples of cryptography or encryption, you pretty much get one of three results:

  • The ancient Greek scytale
  • The Caesar cipher
  • The Tomb of Khnumhotep II

Naturally, as someone who fancies himself a puzzle historian, I’ve heard of the first two entries on that list.

The scytale is an encryption method where a piece of leather, hide, or parchment (let’s say leather for this example) is wound around a wooden cylinder of a certain width and length. A message is then written on the wound piece of leather. When removed from the cylinder, the message disappears, leaving only a strip of leather with what looks like a jumble of letters on it. Only someone with an identical cylinder can wrap the piece of leather around it and read the intended message. Our earliest verifiable reference to the scytale is from the Greek poet Archilochus in the 7th century BC.

The Caesar cipher is the most famous example of a letter-shifting substitution code where numbers or other letters represent the letters in your message. For example, if B is K in your cipher, then C is L and D is M, as if the alphabet has shifted. See? Simple. Your average cryptogram puzzle is more complex because you’re not simply shifting your letter choices, you’re randomizing them. The Roman historian Suetonius references Caesar’s use of the cipher in his writings during the rule of Hadrian in the second century AD.

But what about this Egyptian tomb?

The tomb in question was built for Khnumhotep II, a nobleman who lived in the twentieth century BC. He carried many impressive titles, including Great Chief of the Oryx nome, hereditary prince and count, foremost of actions, royal sealer, and overseer of the Eastern Desert. (Seriously, with titles like this around, modern companies can clearly do better than manager, CEO, or senior editor. But I digress.)

The main chamber of his tomb features an inscription carved around 1900 BC. This inscription features some strange hieroglyphics. What makes them strange is that they’re in places where you would expect more common hieroglyphs, and it’s believed by some Egyptologists that these substitutions are no accident.

Some do pass it off as an intentional effort to describe the life of Khnumhotep II in more glowing or dignified terms, utilizing loftier verbiage that would be uncommon to any commonfolk readers, similar to how legalese is used today to impress others or intimidate readers.

But others believe it to be the earliest known example of a substitution cipher, utilizing hieroglyphs rather than letters or numbers. For what reason, you ask? To preserve the sacred nature of their religious rituals from the common people.

Unfortunately, this disagreement among scholars makes it hard to point definitively at the tomb of Khnumhotep II as the first written evidence of cryptography.

I guess this falls into the same black hole as the first bit of wordplay, the first anagram, the first pun, or the first riddle. We’ll never know, because the first examples of all of these would most likely be spoken, not written. It’s not until someone decides to record it — in pictograph form, in a carving, in a bit of ancient graffiti to be discovered centuries later — that it becomes evidence to be discovered centuries later.

And who’s to say that the linguists and cryptography believers aren’t both correct? A substitution cipher is, at heart, simply an agreed-upon way to say one thing represents or means another thing. A euphemism, an idiom, a common slang word… heck, a word you say in front of your kids instead of a swear. These are all very simple substitution ciphers.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

What we do know is that there was some wordplay afoot in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, even if we can’t be sure if the history of ciphers and codes started there.


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