If you have ever tackled the Sudoku logic game, the craze that is threatening to displace crossword puzzles as the office time killer, you know that it can take a lot longer than 15 minutes to solve.
Just don't tell that to Jana Tylová.
Tylová, 31, usually only needs about that much time to work through even the hardest versions of the popular puzzle, and that speed helped her recently take first place in the first-ever World Sudoku Championship in the Italian city of Lucca.
The accountant from Most, north Bohemia, edged out 87 other competitors from 22 countries on her way to the title March 10 and 11. Heading into the final day of the tournament, she was as far back as eighth place before making a late charge.
"I was very surprised," she told The Prague Post. "I thought I could maybe finish among the top 10 or 15 but I did not expect to win."
People passionate about logic games have long known about Sudoku, which has its origins in Japan and means "The digits must remain single."
The game has been a regular part of larger logic tournaments for years. But only recently, in the past three years or so, has Sudoku burst into the public sphere, with not only newspapers dedicating regular space to the bafflers but many publishing houses producing thick books of Sudoku puzzles for all ability levels.
Sudoku involves nine separate grids, with each grid containing nine boxes, some of which have a number ranging from 1 to 9 in them. The object is to fill out each grid completely, assigning each of the nine boxes a number. But no row, column and grid can repeat a number.
Puzzles get harder when more grids are added and fewer numbers are provided at the outset. With all Sudoku games there is only one possible solution.
At her fastest, Tylová can solve one in two minutes.
"I like Sudoku because all you need is a piece of paper, a pencil, and some logical thinking," said Tylová. "But the difficulty really depends on how many numbers are filled out to start with. I try one approach and if I discover an error, I go back and start again, differently."
The game's popularity here has spread like wildfire in the past year. Most daily newspapers now carry Sudoku puzzles. An online competitive league www.Sudoku-league.com/cz launched last September and already counts 10,000 registered users. There are regular regional and national tournaments, and there is even talk of bringing the second annual world championship to Prague next year.
"Czechs have always loved solving classical crossword puzzles," said Marek Čierny, who runs the Web site.
Kanzelsberger, a Czech book publisher who is the online league's general partner, was the first to release a Czech Sudoku book in 2005.
"Ever since we began publishing them, Sudoku books have always finished among the 10 most popular of our sold titles," said company spokesman Zdeněk Fekar.
Working to a championship
Tylová began getting serious about Sudoku last September and since then has completed more than 1,000 puzzles, 10 each day on average.
A graduate of the Economic Faculty of the Czech Agricultural University in Prague, Tylová said she has always been interested in tests of logic. She has competed in five world championships in another game of logic, the Chinese board game Go.
Last month, Tylová won the Czech Sudoku Championship, held in Brno, which qualified her for the world championship.
Five other Czechs competed in Italy, all of whom finished in the top half of the field.
"In Lucca, the media paid a lot of attention to the championship. But there was no audience, so the atmosphere was fairly quiet," Tylová recalled. On the first day of the tournament, competitors spent more than eight hours standing at large boards solving puzzles.
Nine made it through to the second day of the tournament.
"Then we had six 15-minute rounds, and after each round one competitor was eliminated until three of us were left to compete in the final," Tylová said.
In case all competitors had a correct solution, the slowest one was eliminated.
"I was maybe a little nervous, but then again, I have a good deal of experience from other competitions so it wasn't anything serious," Tylová said.
In the end, Tylová was left standing, having out-raced tournament favorites Thomas Snyder, a Harvard University postgraduate student, and Wei-Ha Huang, who works for Internet search engine Google.
One other Czech, Robert Babilon of Prague, finished in the top 10.
After the tournament
Tylová will continue to compete online in the league, with an eye to next year's world championship. The league works as a monthly tournament with one new puzzle every day. The computer tracks how long players take to solve the puzzles, and the fastest player by the end of the month is named the winner.
"She is one of the best Sudoku league players, but she has never managed to beat all players in a whole month," said Čierny of Tylová.
Čierny said the problem with playing Sudoku online is that there is never 100 percent certainty that players are not cheating: Some have been known to write complicated computer programs that help them solve games quickly.
The strong showing of Czechs in the world championship bodes well for the game here in the future, Tylová said.
"The results achieved by the whole Czech team are very significant. That's an excellent result and one I hope will yet boost people's interest in Sudoku," she said.
Petr Kašpar contributed to this report.