In the swirl of media hype surrounding the number puzzle Sudoku, one surprising fact has gone unnoticed - the large numbers of women and girls who are confessing to the addiction. As a female player competing in the chauvinistic world of chess, I find this genuinely exciting.
According to Michael Harvey, features editor of the Times, Sudoku attracts equal numbers of fanatical responses from male and female readers. The man who brought the puzzle to the UK, Wayne Gould, concurs: "I have seen nothing to suggest that women have a lesser aptitude. My own wife is exceptionally good at it - better than I am." In fact, the Independent's puzzle composer, Mark Huckvale, originally created his Sudoku computer generating program for his wife when she was unable to find enough puzzles to satisfy her craving.
In case you have been on Mars and missed it, Sudoku consists of a grid of 81 squares, divided into boxes measuring 3x3. Each row, each column and each box must contain the digits one to nine. Both chess and Sudoku lead you down the tortuous path of "if x goes there then y goes there . . ." and on and on towards brain explosion. Yet there is one huge difference between this new craze and the ancient game of chess. Sudoku is free from a deep-rooted culture of male domination.
From my first tournament at the age of eight, it was clear that, as a girl chess player, I was in a tiny minority. A sexist attitude was not confined to my young, sniggering opponents. On one occasion the father of my defeated rival declared to my mum: "If your daughter hadn't fluttered her eyelashes, she wouldn't have stood a chance." I now coach at all-girls tournaments in an attempt to redress the balance. The aim is to help girls develop the confidence and resilience they will need to survive in this male world. But it is an uphill struggle.
In tournaments boys still outnumber girls by 5:1. The situation is even worse at top level; a quick glance at the Chess International Rating list shows only one woman, Judit Polgar, ranked in the world's top 100 players.
Yet attempts to explain this gender imbalance are dismissive of the cultural factors that discourage girls from playing. Crass Freudian theories are no longer in vogue, but some male chess players have seized on Simon Baron-Cohen's recent book, The Essential Difference: men, women and the extreme male brain, to provide a biological explanation.
Baron-Cohen argues that, from birth, there is a stronger drive for systemising in the male brain, while the female brain type is better at empathising. So theoretically, chess and Sudoku are perfect examples of activities in which the average male should be more successful.
Sudoku could provide an important challenge to this bigoted attitude. It appears that women and girls are pas-sionate about this systematic, logical puzzle. This suggests that it is the cul- ture of chess, not biological difference, which has turned women off. Perhaps this seemingly innocuous craze for a Japanese puzzle may yet have an unexpected spin-off for female chess players. I hope so.