The 'Godfather of Sudoku' Maki Kaji Has Died at 69 Years Old

He named the game that spread around the world.
Brad Bergan
Maki Kaji, at a gaming festival.S Pakhrin / Flickr

Some college dropouts make waves.

And Maki Kaji, a university dropout who transformed a numbers game into one of the most popular logic puzzles ever known has died in his Tokyo abode, according to an initial report from The New York Times.

The "Godfather of Sudoku" was 69 years old when he passed.

Maki Kaji, co-founder of Nikoli and 'Godfather of Sudoku'

Maki Kaji's passing was shared by the puzzle company he co-founded, called Nikoli, with the cause of death attributed to bile duct cancer, according to a company statement. Back in 2008, Kaji gave a speech in which he claimed to have fallen "in love" with a game called Number Place in the year 1984. He later gave it a new name: Sudoku. "I wanted to create a Japanese name," said Kaji in his speech. "I created the name in about 25 seconds." He named it quickly because he was in a hurry to reach a horse race, and so didn't expect the name to remain the same, especially since "Sudoku" translates roughly to "single numbers."

Then Kaji co-founded a company with his childhood friends that would later become Nikoli, which claims to be one of the best global publishers of puzzle books and magazines. The company played a crucial role in bringing Sudoku to the mainstream in the mid-200s, and became Japan's first-ever puzzle magazine, according to the company statement. But the company hasn't invented many new puzzles (an earlier version of Sudoku may have been invented by an American, or the 18th-century Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, among other candidates). Beyond the origin of the puzzle, Kaji's company popularized Sudoku and other comparable puzzles globally, emphasizing pre-tested and perfected games, according to a 2007 interview with The New York Times.

"I want to make Nikoli into the world's source for puzzle games," said Kaji at the time. "We have a lot more puzzles where Sudoku came from." Short before the turn of the millennium, he pitched the game to publishers in London and New York, but the game didn't catch on, he explained in the NYTimes interview. But less than a decade later, the puzzle was published throughout hundreds of newspapers around the world, at millions of dollars. Nikoli estimated that 200 million people across 100 countries had solved the logic puzzle, which requires players to work with a number grid. There's even an annual world championship.

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In the wake of the 2011 earthquake, an elderly man living in temporary housing in Otsuchi, northern Japan, wrote Kaji in 2017 to say his puzzles were too hard. So the company created more accessible puzzles for children and elderly players to enjoy. Kaji himself was born on Oct. 8, 1951, in Sapporo, Japan. His father was an engineer at a telecom company, and his mother worked at a kimono shop, according to a book on the popularity of Sudoku that Kaji wrote. He graduated from Shakujii High School in Tokyo, but didn't complete his work at Keio University, and dropped out.

Kaji's wife, Naomi, along with two daughters, has survived him, in addition to puzzle experts who have described his contribution to the world of mind games as having imbued it with "soul." "His most important contribution to the world of logic puzzles is subtle and underappreciated," wrote Captain Nick Baxter of the U.S. Puzzle Team, which competes in the World Sudoku Championship, in an email to the NYTimes.

Puzzle sales surged globally in 2020 amid the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, which forced many citizens to quarantine at home, often at the price of ongoing employment. Consequently, many sought stimulating, yet less costly means to pass the time in enjoyable ways. Ravensburger North America, a German-owned puzzle publisher, saw sales jump 70% in 2020 compared to 2019, with a 370% leap in sales year-over-year during the last two weeks of March 2020, at the dawn of the pandemic for the West. And this goes to show us that, even at our most desperate, people like Kaji, and the games they offer the world, are more than a fun challenge: They can serve to reaffirm our sense of skill and purpose in the most precarious circumstances, reminding us with low tech solutions that we should never give up on our high aspirations.

This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.