When Simon Anthony quit his lucrative but miserable job at a London investment bank to solve sudoku puzzles on YouTube, it looked like a bit of a leap. His early posts had done well to gain 100 views. Perhaps he had overestimated the demand for long videos of a 46-year-old man putting numbers in a grid from his spare room in Surrey.
A year later, Anthony is one half of an unlikely viral sensation: Cracking the Cryptic, the channel he runs with his old friend Mark Goodliffe, has become a lockdown fixture for millions. Much to the puzzlement of both men, they have turned sudoku into what right now might be the world’s most popular spectator sport.
“It’s amazing when a video goes viral because it just goes everywhere,” Anthony says from his home in Reigate. The channel he launched three years ago has taken off in the past few weeks, attracting more than 200,000 rapt subscribers and almost 30m views. “It’s just very, very surreal,” he adds.
Anthony’s latest hit is The Miracle Sudoku, a strangely compelling 25-minute video in which he takes on a seemingly impossible grid. In each video, a live view of the puzzle fills the left half of the screen, next to a webcam view of Anthony or Goodliffe, who commentate on their attempts to solve it.
“You’ve got to be joking,” Anthony says as he considers a grid that contains only two given numbers. As well as the normal rules (each row, column and block of little squares must contain the numbers one to nine) this puzzle contains a series of constraints. Adjacent cells can’t contain consecutive digits, for example.
At first Anthony thinks the compiler must be trolling him. Then slowly he begins to add numbers to the screen. When, 10 minutes in, he finds a place for all the ones and twos, Anthony dares to dream. “This is just staggering,” he says as the threes then fall into place, never departing from a soothing Home Counties monotone. “We are watching magic unfold here.”
Soon it becomes clear that Anthony is going to solve the puzzle. “I’m not sure I’ve got the adjectives to describe what is going on here,” he says as numbers pour into the grid like rain on a desert. “It’s like the universe is singing to us.”
That excitement swept across the web this week, particularly in America, home to 27% of Anthony’s audience. “I swear to God, this 25-minute video of a guy doing a Sudoku puzzle is the most riveting television I’ve seen all year,” tweeted Dana Schwartz, a 27-year-old Los Angeles-based author and screenwriter not hitherto known to the English puzzling community. The Guardian’s resident mathematician and puzzle master, Alex Bellos, also highlighted the channel and set the “miracle” puzzle for his devotees, noting: “What makes the videos so joyous is the constant stream of ‘aha!’ moments.”
Demand had already surged in lockdown. Anthony launched the channel in June 2017 but with its spare-room scenery, low-fi design and split-screen webcam format, it looks like it was made for this moment. Anthony suspects something else is happening. “We’re getting an awful lot of emails saying we’re helping people with their mental health,” he says. “There seems to be a sort of ASMR-type quality to the videos.”
Before the “miracle” post, the big breakthrough came last month when Anthony put up another 25-minute video. It elicited phrases such as “good grief!” and “that’s quite startling, it really is”, but didn’t really stand out. Anthony has watched it race towards 4 million views. “It’s just bonkers,” he says, still baffled. “We focus all our time on solving puzzles but the YouTube algorithm is one that we have not cracked.”
Tweets poured in from maths royalty. Simon Singh, the writer, Rachel Riley of Countdown fame and Bobby Seagull, the teacher and University Challenge star, are all fans. But fame has gone quickly mainstream – and global.
“I’ve officially unlocked a new level of boredom… currently watching videos of a man solving sudoku puzzles,” James Charles, a 20-year-old millionaire American makeup artist with 19 million YouTube subscribers and 2bn views, tweeted last month. He had been binge watching the channel for days. “The videos are SO interesting but also help me relax!” he told his 5.5 million Twitter followers. “WTF IM LEGIT WATCHING HIM RN,” one replied.
Anthony and Goodliffe, who is 53 and lives in Gloucestershire, have now increased output to two daily videos and receive dozens of submissions a day from sudoku constructors. They have launched three apps and a range of merchandise.
Anthony, who has two young children, does not regret quitting his City job. “I only did it for one reason and was constantly aware I was working my youth away,” he says. He left with some savings and a notion that money from YouTube ads might then pay the bills. His income is still lower than it was – but it’s now climbing fast.
Anthony met Goodliffe at a crossword championships 20 years ago, before the sudoku boom of 2005. Puzzling then was exclusively a pencil affair and newspapers were the only outlet. “Now there is a way to reach these vast audiences from a loft in Reigate. It’s…” For the second time this month, Anthony struggles to find the adjectives.