Class of ’96, ’03, ’09 | This past February, puzzle aficionados got an exotic new treat in the online Crossword/Games page of The New York Times: KenKen, a Japanese arithmetical logic puzzle that “allows you to test your puzzle acumen and improve your math skills at the same time,” as the accompanying notes put it.
The fact that it’s there at all is due in no small part to the efforts of three Penn alumni: Suma CM C’96 WG’00, Jeremy Dubert C’03, and Jake Yormak C’09. CM and Dubert both work for United Feature Syndicate (UFS), which distributes KenKen as well as such newspaper staples as Peanuts, Dilbert, and Miss Manners. CM is an executive editor at UFS, and Dubert is its promotions associate. Yormak works with the puzzle’s U.S. distributor, Nextoy, in product development and marketing.
There’s no fixed pathway that takes a puzzle from obscurity to syndication. “We receive hundreds of puzzle proposals at our syndicate,” says CM, “but as soon as I saw KenKen, I was very excited about the potential for this property.”
Invented in 2004 by Japanese math teacher Tetsuya Miyamoto, who said he devised it as a way to “teach without teaching,” KenKen loosely translates as “cleverness squared,” and is a mental cousin to the popular puzzle Sudoku. But whereas Sudoku can be played with numbers, symbols, or pictures, KenKen requires mathematics. Times subscribers also have a choice of three levels of difficulty, as well as six new puzzles each day.
New York Times puzzle guru Will Shortz summarized the rules of KenKen as follows: “Fill the grid with digits so as not to repeat a digit within any row or column, and so the digits within each heavily outlined box (called a cage) go together using the arithmetic operation shown to make the target number indicated.”
“KenKen appeals to people of all ages,” says CM. “Even diehard crossword aficionados who say they hate math puzzles often try KenKen and end up liking it. In fact, it’s being used in schools to make math fun for students.”
UFS started working with the puzzle creators in early summer of 2008, notes CM. “In fact, when we started working with them, we were all laughing about how three of us were Penn people, and thought that was very cool.”
Miyamoto’s game was originally “discovered” by Nextoy’s Robert Fuhrer, a toy inventor who purchased the North American rights. Fuhrer and international chess master David Levy showed the puzzles to the features editor of The Times of London, which began publishing them in March 2008. Less than a year later, The New York Times followed suit.
Thanks in no small part to Dubert’s efforts, the puzzle is now in major markets in the U.S., Europe—even Australia. Yormak was instrumental in launching kenken.com, where puzzle addicts can download the application to their iPhones, get free puzzles, and find tips for teachers and students.
CM, who got involved during the negotiations for KenKen’s distribution rights, has been instrumental in creating the schedule, sizes, and formats for newspaper distribution. She also helped edit the instructions, and chose the appropriate difficulty levels.
“Basically the team members and I lived and breathed KenKen for several months,” says CM. “It’s been amazing to see how the property has taken off. The biggest challenge for us, given today’s economic environment, is to get newspapers to make space for it in their pages.”
All three Penn grads admit to being puzzle addicts.
“While I have tackled Sudoku from time to time,
I actually prefer KenKen because it involves arithmetic, not just logic,” says CM. “It probably appeals to the Wharton MBA side of me. I even started an ‘Addicted to KenKen’ group on Facebook!”
—Jordana Horn C’95 L’99