Letter of Recommendation: Cracking the Cryptic

By Charlotte S. ’21

I have tried everything. Well, not everything, but it sounds more dramatic that way. I’ve tried melatonin (a placebo in anyone under 50, which is much less effective if you know it), no screens before bed (by “tried” I mean briefly considered), blue light glasses (they look cute, but that’s about it), consistency (I’m sorry, I’m not going to wake up early on a weekend), calming rituals (I did do tai chi before bed for about a week) (then I got bored)–I just can’t fall asleep. 

Realistically, if I followed the science and made some major shifts in my routine, I would probably see results. But I’m a teenager, and I enjoy bemoaning my hardships far too much to actually do anything about them. But recently, I have found my miracle drug, the one thing that helps me fall asleep: watching British men solve sudokus on YouTube. 

Cracking The Cryptic is a humble YouTube channel hosted by Simon Anthony (former UK team member in World Sudoku and World Puzzle Championships) and Mark Goodliffe (12 time and reigning Times Crossword Champion and Times Sudoku Champion). When the channel was launched in 2017, most of the content was centered around The Times’ cryptic crosswords, with occasional solves of The Times’ deadly killer sudokus. Over the years it has transitioned to be almost entirely sudoku variant solves, featuring the latest and greatest handcrafted puzzles from the world’s top sudoku constructors. Since the beginning of the lockdown almost a year ago, the little channel has grown enormously to become the most popular sudoku channel on YouTube, with over 300k subscribers. Simon and Mark have risen to meet the demand, posting one video per day each, with video lengths ranging from under 10 minutes for a quick pencil puzzle to 3 hours and 20 minutes going through an entire sudoku puzzle hunt (a series of connected puzzles). 

Channel Stats (as of 1/10/2021)

SubscribersChannel ViewsFirst Upload# of PuzzlesVideo LengthMost Popular Constructors
314k57M11/6/2017Total: 1659 Simon: 1009 Mark: 645Average: 23:33 Longest (public): 1:41:43 Phistomephel (39)Aad van de Wetering (27)Sam Cappleman-Lynes (27)

Most Popular CTC Videos

Video TitleHostPuzzle TypePuzzle ConstructorVideo LengthViews (1/10/2021)
A Sudoku With Only 4 Given Digits?!SimonSudoku Variant: magic square, diagonal, knightAad van de Wetering25:115.6M
The Miracle SudokuSimonSudoku Variant: knight, king, nonconsecutiveMitchell Lee25:482.2M
The Sudoku Trick All Expert Solvers KnowSimonClassic SudokuUnknown (Source: NYTimes)17:531.2M
‘Hard’ sudoku made easy – with this simple methodMarkClassic SudokuUnknown (Source: NYTimes)15:331.1M
Sudoku Tricks: The X-Wing And How To Spot ItSimonClassic SudokuUnknown (Source: viewer requested)16:57839K

More channel stats can be found at the fan-created CTC Catalogue

Most people are familiar with the basic rules of classic sudoku: place the digits 1-9 in the 9×9 grid so that each row, column and 3×3 box contains each digit one time. Sudokus are a Japanese puzzle type derived from latin squares, only popularized in the western world within the last 15 years or so. Many sudoku apps, books, and websites are available for casual solving, but those computer-generated puzzles are a world away from the handcrafted ones featured on the channel. In a computer generated sudoku, you will rarely see more complex logic than simple process of elimination on “easy” or “medium” difficulty, and maybe a more advanced x-wing or swordfish technique for the “hard” puzzles (the x-wing and swordfish are the most simple and well-known advanced sudoku techniques. Simon has a wonderful video explaining them). In the puzzles that you’d find on the channel, the logical paths are mind-blowingly intricate and beautiful, frequently requiring the solvers to color-code the grid, add and subtract unknown groups of cells, and make use of their two different types of notation. We watch as Simon tests more and more elaborate ideas, combining every scrap of information into a jubilant a-ha moment. Sometimes more than 20 minutes of thinking, coloring, and pencil marking is required before a single digit can be placed.

Few puzzles featured on the channel are the classic sudokus that you’re probably familiar with, simply because it’s tough to find one difficult enough to pose a challenge to these two geniuses. Instead, they solve sudoku variants, sudoku puzzles with extra rules and constraints such as “killer cages” in which digits add up to a given sum, “thermometers” along which digits must increase, and “sandwich clues” where cells sandwiched between the 1 and 9 in a row or column sum to a given total, to name a few. 

When puzzle constructors get bored with these common variants, they invent new ones, combining clues and constraints in ways that force the solver to consider every possible interaction between cells across the grid. Each puzzle presents a new challenge with different types of logic to consider; with so many brilliant minds in the puzzle community, innovations in sudoku logic come almost too fast to keep up with. Puzzle constructors frequently bounce ideas off of each other in the form of puzzles, one setter presenting a puzzle with a characteristic constraint, and another responding by taking the logic a step further, twisting the challenge in a whole new way. 

Those who insist they don’t like math or logic puzzles might have a hard time understanding how a sudoku can move a man to tears, and even the more open minded of us may never have considered that the words “beautiful,” “stunning,” and “absolutely gorgeous” could be applied to such things. These people have never watched Cracking The Cryptic. The beauty of watching a sudoku solve is that you can appreciate the puzzle without having to be clever enough to figure it out yourself. The average person does not have the time or dedication to become an expert puzzler on the level of Mark and Simon, but the live-solving nature of the videos allows us lesser beings to gaze upon and appreciate this secret world of logic in all its complexity and difficulty. We get to watch someone far cleverer than ourselves struggle to find the path, then lay it out for us to marvel at, even as we marvel at their brilliance for spotting it. 

When I first explained my newest obsession to my parents, they asked how watching someone solve a puzzle could be more fun than doing the puzzle myself. I’ve come to realize that the puzzles themselves are only half the magic. Watching the videos, you get to experience the puzzles through the eyes of someone who enjoys them absolutely. Many a time have I come across comments along the lines of “find someone who looks at you the way that Simon looks at a Phistomephel puzzle” or “I love it when he makes himself laugh to the point that he almost falls off his chair” (comment by DJMITT). To put it simply, Simon’s childlike wonder and enthusiasm, even exhilaration, as he solves these puzzles is highly contagious (no mask can protect you from this one). Passion multiplies when shared. Perhaps if more people celebrated each other’s interests, we might all appreciate one another a little more. 

So what is it about Simon and Mark that makes their videos so compelling? Aside from genuine enjoyment, you’d be amazed how much of one’s personality can come through in sudoku commentary. Fans have created bingo cards with Simon’s favorite phrases, including “now we are cooking with gas,” “that’s about as useful as a chocolate teapot,” “knowledge bomb from cracking the cryptic” (followed by some obvious statement such as “2 and 8 are not the same digit”), and of course, his signature “bobbins!” And we can’t forget the constant apologies for apparently being so very slow (I don’t think anyone would call these men slow). The best parts of the videos are the teasing comments as the two solvers make fun of each other’s different solving styles, and the occasional prank puzzles that have led to the new classification “approachable:” monstrously difficult, and practically impossible. 

Mark and Simon always encourage viewers to try the puzzle ourselves first, but I rarely do. Any puzzle that takes them more than a 15 minute video is almost certainly beyond my capabilities, and I barely have time to squeeze in 35-minute videos. By the time I get to my nightly sudoku video it’s far past time to be going to bed. So I do. It’s odd to think that sudoku of all things would put me to sleep. Haven’t I just spent 1400 words explaining how exciting it is? The key is that it’s just the right amount of exciting. It draws you in, pulls your mind away from the anxious thought spirals that plague the hours spent trying to fall asleep, and envelops you in the melodic embrace of a British accent (it is a popular opinion that Simon has one of the most soothing voices on YouTube). When you’re solving a sudoku (or watching someone else solve a sudoku), you aren’t thinking about all the things you need to do the next day, or how late it is and how tired you’re going to be in the morning. You aren’t forced, or even allowed to review all the day’s mistakes, because Simon Anthony has just spotted something, and he’s so excited that he might just explode if you don’t let him tell you all about it. It’s a wonderful relief from life even when you aren’t trying to fall asleep, but if you do want to, all you need to do is relax and let Mark do the work for you. Just make sure you turn off autoplay and plug in your computer before you settle in. 

Some people meditate. Some solve crosswords over breakfast each morning. Some work out, make art, or sing in the car. Everyone has a way to relax and forget about life for a while. I watch Simon and Mark solve sudokus. It’s appreciation of these simple beauties, small achievements like placing a digit and bigger ones like falling asleep, that allow us to cope with the stress of day-to-day life. Each day I get to marvel that there are such amazingly brilliant people in the world who can create and solve these puzzles. When we are constantly surrounded by reasons to be disillusioned with the human race, these small miracles remind us that there’s beauty and joy out there too, even if it doesn’t make the front-page news. So pull up YouTube, search for Cracking The Cryptic, and let’s get cracking.

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