It's become a cliche to say that we live in unsettling times. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to radically alter our world, threatening lives and disrupting things we once took for granted. Across the globe, and across the internet, reason and truth are being undermined by falsehood and conspiracy theories. The psychological effect of this has become apparent in recent months, as mental health services across the world report an increased volume of calls, and meditation and mindfulness apps grow in popularity.
But my own attempts to stay on an even keel have been helped by the unlikeliest of things: sudoku. Daily immersion in logic puzzles has provided me with a source of certainty in a chaotic world.
A YouTube channel, Cracking the Cryptic, gets credit for providing me with this daily salve, but I'm not the only one who eagerly awaits its twice-daily videos of puzzle-solving and other digital goodies. In the past year, its viewership has ballooned; hundreds of thousands of people have become devoted to the seemingly mundane daily spectacle of two British men sitting at home and working their way through puzzles. Simon Anthony and Mark Goodliffe, both seasoned puzzlers, originally set up the channel as a repository of hints and tips, but became aware last year that their efforts had taken a therapeutic turn.
“We’ve received some harrowing emails from people who have said that they’ve been on the verge of suicide, but seem to get a good night’s sleep after watching our videos,” says Anthony. “I have a friend who’s a mental health campaigner, and he has no interest in sudoku, but he watched a video and said he had his best night’s sleep for years. I don’t know why it happens. It seems to be performing some sort of role that it wasn’t designed for, but does seem to be valuable.”
As Anthony and Goodliffe methodically work their way through puzzles, they take you on little journeys of discovery where obstacles are overcome and truth is unveiled. Most of us are familiar with the standard sudoku rules, where each row, column and square of a 9x9 grid need to be filled with the numbers 1 to 9 without repeating numbers in the row, column or square. But new rules add intrigue into the mix. Take Anthony's solve of the "Miracle Sudoku" by Mitchell Lee (2.2 million views since being uploaded last May), where a grid with digits and a couple of extra rules leads to a unique and hard-won solution. Word of mouth caused this video to go viral, as politicians and celebrities alike expressed their admiration – and deep satisfaction – on social media.
“I have wondered [about the appeal],” says Anthony. “Whether it’s because these puzzles have a solution, and that’s not like the real world where we worry about money, health and problems for which are there are no answers. It feels as if the world works when you do a good sudoku and it finishes correctly.”
It can also lead to moments of strange profundity. "The universe is singing to us," Anthony has said on more than one occasion, as a particularly beautiful twist of logical reasoning makes a solution unfold. For people like myself who consider puzzles as merely a way of passing time, this was a revelation: that a grid of 81 digits could contain beauty, almost art, and was so involving that all troubles seem to melt away. As a consequence, the setters of these puzzles have been afforded a kind of celebrity status; names such as Bastien Vial-Jaime, the aforementioned Lee and Phistomefel are finally being recognised for what Anthony believes to be genius.
"It used to be very niche," he says. "The people competing at the World Sudoku Championship would be an incredibly introverted group. They all knew, respected and venerated each other, but then they would go back into the world and nobody would know that was their hobby. Now we're able to put their names in lights, and they really deserve it."
The two men who began the channel with no confidence about their on-screen personalities have unwittingly found themselves to be solvers first, entertainers second, and perhaps therapists third. “People email us to say how they rely on this, and we do feel a great responsibility to keep it going,” says Anthony. “But we’re so lucky. I spent most of my youth doing a job that I detested, and now I’m able to do something I really enjoy.”
Lucky also are viewers such as myself, who have found this unusual but delightful way of taking the sharp edges off today’s world.