Posted inInterviews

Cracking the Cryptic on the Beauty of Sudoku

Mark Goodliffe and Simon Anthony are the creators of YouTube channel Cracking the Cryptic, the biggest sudoku YouTube channel in the world. They’ve released seven different sudoku apps (so far) and have recently started a podcast. They’re two of the best sudoku solvers in the UK and have competed in both cryptic crossword and sudoku competitions. 

Their friendship started two decades ago after Simon, according to him, “basically stalked Mark who was – and still is- a very famous cryptic crossword solver”. He’s won The Times Crossword Competition a stunning twelve times. They met up after a crossword competition in London and quickly became friends as they both worked in the City. “I was desperate to get out,” says Simon, who was constantly thinking up “schemes” which Mark had to “audit”. One of these schemes, in 2017, was the “brilliant idea” of solving The Times Crossword everyday and putting it on YouTube. Mark took “loads of convincing” and, when they started, they “spent months making crosswords for a handful of people,” Simon tells me. However, they slowly introduced sudoku videos which started a “very slow snowball”. Over the last eighteen months the channel has really taken off, and they now make two videos a day and have nearly 400,000 subscribers.

They believe that their sudoku videos have been successful, in comparison to their crossword videos, as they are “language neutral”. As they note, cryptic crosswords are a very English thing. Simon always hoped that he “would meet his wife on a train by helping her with a crossword clue”. The culture here around crosswords “just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world”, whereas sudokus are popular across the globe. As numbers are understood almost universally, and English is spoken so much around the world, they see their sudoku content as far more accessible. There’s a far greater audience for sudoku content, and it’s far more diverse and Internet-savvy than the cryptic crossword community, according to Mark.

To their surprise, there was an audience for the different variants of sudokus which they solve at competitions. At some points it took off so fast that “even they couldn’t keep up”. Marks describes it as an “extraordinary ride”. Although they both find solving on camera stressful, the feeling of the pressure differs for them. Simon finds it less stressful than “exam-like” sudoku competitions as there is a “get out of jail free option”- if a video goes wrong “it never has to see the light of day”. But, he notes, that there is the pressure of knowing that anywhere between 30,000 and seven million people will watch the video. Mark finds YouTube much more like a competition as, with either, he is “aiming to finish any puzzle that [he] starts”. There’s also the pressure of wanting to produce content- neither of them had taken a day off in almost eighteen months until very recently. “It’s become more of a full-time job than our full-time jobs were,” Mark explained, “but it’s a lot more enjoyable.”

When asked about their advice for beginners, Simon dryly responds “watch the channel”. Mark offers the advice that “both disciplines [sudoku and crosswords] are not as difficult as they first appear”; once you’ve learnt the basic techniques, such as scanning in sudoku, it all gets a lot easier. Educating people was the motivation of the channel, but they “didn’t expect to be entertaining them”, which they see as an important reason for viewers returning to the channel. On the channel and in their apps, they solve various different variants of sudoku beyond the classic sudoku that can be found in most newspapers. I was keen to find out what their favourite variants are; Simon loves the geometry and basic arithmetic of killer sudokus whilst Mark isn’t sure that he has a favourite at all, but he would like to see more sudokus where you have to “tile the grid”, an unusual type of sudoku that includes shaded patterns on the grid. 

One area where they have learnt to agree to disagree is over what makes a good sudoku. Simon has to get on his “high horse” about computer-generated sudokus. If you’ve only done these, then you “haven’t experienced a proper sudoku” in his opinion, and you should try a proper one. To him, a good sudoku needs a “real logical flow” to how you’re meant to solve it which can create “moments of epiphany”; handcrafted sudokus have beauty in a way that computer generated puzzles don’t for him. Mark doesn’t have an issue with computer-generated sudokus, however a good sudoku for him  requires a “moment of surprise”. They both emphasise the “beauty that can be created in a sudoku grid”.

When they started their channel, there weren’t a lot of these puzzles around, but now there’s another puzzle that “has this level of beauty” everyday. Their channel has encouraged setters (creators of sudokus) to create such new and intelligent puzzles. “It’s extraordinary” is how Mark describes the quality of puzzles coming out now, which are both intelligent and beautiful. When I asked what their favourite sudoku is, I could tell it was a hard question. Simon’s first response was “goodness me”. After much agonising, they both concluded that their favourite sudoku is the miracle sudoku, which was, in Mark’s words, “so obvious that it was impossible” but turned out to be a solvable, valid sudoku to the surprise of the sudoku community. Despite not being the most difficult puzzle they’ve solved, the puzzle changed their lives as it went viral, garnering 3 million views.

One interesting moment from our discussion was around “epiphanies”. Mark raises the point that it’s not often in life that you can see a light-bulb moment, but as Simon says, you can see it everyday on Cracking the Cryptic. There’s something very special about those moments where something just clicks into place and someone “can explain it to you as they’ve just discovered it”.

These lightbulb moments have attracted an active following. Simon expressed how “incredible” the community around the channel is; they recently started a discord server which now has over 13,000 members which is clearly surprising to the two of them. Both of them are very keen to emphasise how polite and supportive their community is. Mark remarked that “it’s not just the quantity of the audience, it’s the quality- it’s extraordinary”.

Something which has been surprising and “humbling” for both of them is how the channel has been helpful and therapeutic for people. About one person a week reaches out to tell them that their videos have helped them through hard times. Some stories have left them “on the verge of tears”. One particularly moving story is of someone who had a stroke who had to relearn what sudoku was and used the channel to help. The individual claimed that the process helped them gain back some cognitive function and abilities. Both Simon and Mark are incredibly modest about the impact that they’ve had on their subscribers, but from their anecdotes, it’s obvious that their channel is having a meaningful impact on their viewers’ lives.

Despite talking about the future of Cracking the Cryptic “quite a bit”, they’re uncertain of where the channel will go due to how unpredictable their journey so far has been. They plan to potentially start streaming some games and believe that there’s a large audience out there which they can hopefully tap into. More apps are also on the cards and maybe another book. Overall, they’re optimistic about the future of their channel and exude passion and excitement about the “world-class” puzzles that are coming out almost daily. 

Illustration by Eliott Rose