Puzzled by a new attraction

Temptation lurks as I read the morning paper. Just when I've convinced myself I can resist, I turn to the last page. There it is, a handsome 9-by-9 square grid with random digits occupying a few of the squares.

It's the blank squares that intrigue me. In each, just out of sight, hover phantom, shape-shifting figures. Only one can be valid, the others tricky impostors. And even though I have other tasks I should be doing, I give in. I must discover the one true tenant for each vacancy. I must solve the Sudoku.

I admit I'm infatuated with this newcomer, but I don't know if it has enough depth and complexity for a long relationship. I've gone through puzzle obsessions in the past, so I know they don't always last. As a teenager, I was crazy about cryptograms. Over the years I've flirted with diagramless and logic puzzles. I'm still fond of acrostics and anagrams, but they can't compete with my true love - crosswords.

I started solving crosswords when I got married. I was impressed that my new husband could dispatch the daily puzzle so quickly, that he knew odd words such as "ort," "adit," and "ria."

At first glance, Sudoku looks like a number puzzle, but it really isn't. The numbers don't interact - 8 isn't any more than 3. We don't get to appreciate 9's magic, 5's predictability, or 2's evenness.

Solving Sudoku requires neither knowledge nor math skills, only keen observation and logic. At times, logic may desert you, leaving you to wander in a forest of possibilities. Then you must have the courage to choose one path, knowing it may turn out to be wrong, forcing you to retrace your steps to choose another.

Each Sudoku answer builds on previous answers, making errors hard to trace and fix. So I proceed carefully, double-checking all notations. I become so engrossed in the slow and methodical process that the rest of the world ceases to exist. Sudoku is a beguiling compulsion, a seductive time-waster.

Working a crossword puzzle, on the other hand, is a more freewheeling exercise. Mistakes are easily fixed. A crossword doesn't require total concentration. You can watch TV at the same time, or put it down to answer the phone and come back to it later.

Once a week, my husband and I sit in the living room, each with our own copy of the Sunday puzzle. We race to see who can finish first. We don't talk much during the contest. I might mutter, "I've never heard of that before." He might chuckle and say, "That's a clever clue." I usually know the one he means when I get to it.

We work differently. He always starts with 1 Across. I scan clues until I find one I'm sure of and start there. He uses pen; I, pencil. He usually wins, but not always. When I win, I gloat more.

Afterward we talk about answers that resonate with something we've recently seen or discussed. It's fun to compare troublesome places in the puzzle. Usually it's the same spot for both of us. After 36 years of traveling together, seeing the same movies, and reading many of the same books, our spheres of knowledge have nearly coincided.

I suppose we could have a Sudoku race, but there wouldn't be anything to discuss afterward. It's an aloof and abstract puzzle; no tentacles of meaning reach beyond its borders.

But despite its shallow character, Sudoku is deeply satisfying to solve. The nine stalwart figures each occur nine times, poised in perfect equilibrium, no two alike occupying the same rank or file, or the same inner chamber. Like a photograph of dancers frozen in an intricate pattern, Sudoku is a silent and timeless ballet.

Crosswords are more clamorous. The answers echo with formality and slang, seriousness and humor. They call out people's names, trivia, book titles, places you've been, and half-remembered facts. Crosswords reinforce seldom-used words and teach new ones, while dredging up scores of memories.

That's why I'll always remain devoted to crosswords. As for Sudoku, I've only been acquainted since June - it may just be a summer fling that will play itself out by wintertime. But who wants to think about the future when in the throes of a new romance?

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