A Chappaqua Toy Story

See “Read more” for a sample sheet of puzzles. More photos in Photo Gallery
From December 18, 2009, REPRINTED December 25, 2009
by Christine Yeres

When I called Bob Fuhrer to ask him a few last questions for this piece, he was in his car on his way into the City.  “KenKen-related?” I asked.  “Everything’s KenKen-related!” he responded For Fuhrer everything has been all about KenKen for the last two years, since discovering the math logic puzzle product for which he considers the whole world his market.

At 54, Fuhrer is a fixture in Japanese toy marketing circles, a 6-foot-1 American businessman who makes his living by bridging the cultural gap between the firm handshake and the diffident bow. He matches Japanese toy inventors and producers with overseas businesses interested in licensing opportunities in their own or other countries.

“There’s a lot of anxiety between the cultures,” Fuhrer explained.  “Americans going to Japan get very anxious about how to act, what to say. And the Japanese are anxious about Americans. [They think] we have short tempers, we change our minds, we’re impulsive, we quit or are fired and change jobs.”  Fuhrer has made it his job for the last 25 years to soothe those anxieties and find his next toy. Indeed, his company is called “Nextoy.”

Father and son: books to games, and back to books

Fuhrer’s father first worked in the book business for Simon & Schuster, coincidentally the publishing house that produced the very first crossword puzzle book in 1924, then took a job on the corporate side of the toy business. As a kid, Fuhrer loved sketching toy ideas.  “It’s funny,” noted Fuhrer. “My father went from the book business to the toy business, and now I’ve gone from the toy business to the book business.”  KenKen, the Japanese math puzzle Fuhrer discovered two years ago and has marketed since now appears in 100 newspapers; 35,000 people play 85,000 KenKen games online each day, and about 15 KenKen books have been published so far.

Fuhrer used to make five or six trips a year to Japan, but not anymore. In April of 2007, on a routine business trip there while trolling for his next toy, Fuhrer was shown a new puzzle called “Kashikoku Naru,” which when translated means “It will make you smarter.” Its licensor, giant Japanese toy producer Gakken, believed KenKen might become the hot new successor to Sudoku.

Fuhrer’s friend and Gakken contact, Tak Kubodera, had just returned from the Bologna Children’s Book Fair where, he told Fuhrer, KenKen puzzle books were a big hit. At the time, Gakken was marketing KenKen with the tag line, “Tired of Sudoku?  Try KenKen.”  The year before, Gakken had introduced KenKen in Japan, and the puzzle books had sold like hotcakes – 1.3 million of them in the first ten months.

How KenKen differs from Sudoku

Like Sudoku, KenKen is played on a square grid and requires that no digit be used more than once in each column or row. But in Sudoku the numbers are just symbols – if you replaced the numbers by letters or pictures of fruit you could still play the game – whereas KenKen requires that numbers be applied in basic operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

Some cells in the KenKen grid (whether a 4x4, 5x5, 6x6, 7x7 or 9x9) carry a tiny number as well as an operations symbol of “plus,” “minus,” “multiply” or “divide” in the upper left corner. The tiny number is the sum, if addition or subtraction, or the product, if multiplication or division, of the indicated operation you must apply to the numbers you must guess at to fill in the puzzle.

If you were to find a “2-“ in the upper left corner of a cell that was one of two cells outlined more darkly than others, you would have to choose two numbers from the set of consecutive numbers from 1 to 6 (if you are playing a 6x6 square game) that, when subtracted, would equal 2.  Those numbers could be 1 and 3, 2 and 4, or 4 and 6.  The order of the two numbers you place in the boxes is not important for the operation, but it is important that no number be repeated within the same row or column.

As in Sudoku, numbers may be used only once per row or column. The cell containing the tiny number and operation symbol governs the set of cells that is outlined in bolder lines. As in crossword puzzles, these sets of cells might cross over into another row or column for purposes of the operation, but still, players must use a number only once per row or column. Click HERE for a video tutorial by Will Shortz.

KenKen’s creator, a cram school math teacher

Originally, Tetsuya Miyamoto, the Japanese math teacher who invented KenKen, crafted his own puzzles for his students. Designed to painlessly pique the puzzler part of every brain – even those disinclined to math – the purpose of the math logic puzzles is to allow math proficiency to slip in by the gaming back door of the brain, while the player thinks all she is doing is having fun. Miyamoto described the art of the puzzle as “teaching without teaching.”  Gakken, the Japanese toy company had named it “Kashikoku Naru” or, in translation, “It will make you smarter.”  “KenKen” is the Japanese equivalent of “cleverness squared.”

Gakken had acquired the rights from Miaymoto, was buoyed by KenKen’s success first in the Japanese market and then at the Bologna Book Fair, and now wanted to gauge the American market for it. Fuhrer recalled the day that Gakken’s Kubodera introduced him to KenKen.  “Tak told me that in Gakken’s 60-year history, they hadn’t had many international success stories,” said Fuhrer, “but now that they had this cross-border product, with numbers, would I be interested in helping them to commercialize it in the United States.”

So where’s the fun?

But when Kubodera first showed Fuhrer the puzzle, “my eyes glazed over,” Fuhrer recalled.  Not that he was math-averse himself, but his antenna for toys wasn’t getting much of a signal.  “All I saw were math symbols and dark and light lines.  I’m not really a puzzle person myself, so I didn’t feel particularly compelled to figure it out.”

“Instead,” said Fuhrer, “I listened to the black-and-white business side of the story:  1.3 million books sold in the first ten months; a puzzle described as ‘addictive,’ that players wanted to keep challenging themselves with, and I found myself wondering ‘Is it a Japanese type personality project, or did it have a chance for a wider audience?’”

Fuhrer accepted a stack of Japanese KenKen books from Tak, agreeing to think about the puzzle’s possibilities in the American market, but more out of politeness than excitement about the puzzle.

Fuhrer’s custom is to have clients accompany him on his trips to Japan, and this time two American businessmen had joined him, both around 60, one from a gift company, the other from a toy company. “I showed them the books and they both loved the puzzle.  One said right away, ‘When you do this, I want the electronic rights.’ So now they both loved it and I still hadn’t really done one myself.”

Reporting back to his friend at Gakken, Fuhrer said that his two business associates had fallen hard for KenKen, “but I told Tak it really doesn’t matter if it’s the greatest product in the world if nobody knows about it.  And then we started talking about newspapers, and the wheels were turning in my head.”

Puzzle passes muster with puzzle master Will Shortz

Fuhrer knew that Sudoku’s appearance in the London Times had been a critical boost for the puzzle in its path to widespread success. He was sure that newspaper exposure would be key for for KenKen, too.  “I knew that Will Shortz lived nearby [in Pleasantville] and thought he might pitch it to The New York Times.” He asked a friend to introduce him to Shortz.  Fuhrer left Shortz with a treasure trove of KenKen books. Forty-eight hours and 75 puzzles later Shortz confirmed that KenKen was indeed addictive and a worthy addition to the puzzle world. He also committed to pitch it to The New York Times.

Fuhrer ran with this endorsement, and began to emblazon “Will Shortz loves KenKen” on his KenKen products. It would take another year for the NYTimes to sign on to KenKen, first for its online NYTimes in late 2008, and then in March 2009 in its newspaper, with a warm introduction and some explanation by Shortz

During the summer, Fuhrer drove to New Jersey to pay a visit to his friend Lisa Shamus, who had a respected background in licensing.  She loved KenKen right away. “From that time, I kept Lisa in the loop,” said Fuhrer, and with Shamus on board, he began to file trademark applications. “Very gradually and organically, I continued as rainmaker and every time I came across a deal – with countries, magazines, hand-held electronics, whatever – I’d turn it over to Lisa for terms and conditions and inquiries.”  Shamus is now senior vice president of marketing at Nextoy.

Nextoy currently owns the trademark and property of KenKen worldwide except in Japan (though Fuhrer still has some Japan rights) and pays a royalty to both Gakken and Miyamoto.

Dinner in New York with British puzzle master David Levy

Fuhrer had been working on a chess product with British international chess master and artificial intelligence expert David Levy. In November, Levy asked Fuhrer to join him for dinner in New York.  “He’d just written a book,” said Fuhrer, “The Colbert Report people were flying him in for the show and he’d be in New York for a few days.”

“Judy [Fuhrer’s wife] and I went into the City. The writers’ strike had just been announced and David’s appearance was cancelled.”  Over dinner, Levy told the couple, ‘It’s just as well, because I have to get back to London to run the International Sudoku Championship for the [London] Times.’”  The proverbial light bulb appeared over Fuhrer’s head.

Fuhrer said to Levy, “Wait a minute, I have this new puzzle,” and the next day returned to the City to drop off a box of KenKen books at Levy’s hotel. Levy phoned Fuhrer the minute he touched down in London and told him “the [KenKen] puzzles are fantastic.  It’s been four years since Sudoku was introduced and the [London] Times is looking for something new. I’ll pitch this to them for you.”

In October 2008, Reader’s Digest decided to publish KenKen, the happy result, says Fuhrer, of a conversation on the sidelines at a freshman lacrosse game with Andrea Newborn, who worked at the Digest. A big Sudoku fan herself, after hearing about KenKen from Fuhrer, she visited his KenKen website, printed out one of the puzzles and tried it. She told Fuhrer she would introduce him to a friend at the Digest, and it proved an easy sell.  “They loved it, I loved it,” said Newborn. “It’s completely replaced Sudoku for me.”

The Kenerator customizes KenKen

The growing demand for KenKen puzzles was being met through an arrangement with Levy and his team of programmers who still generate the puzzles through a computer program called “The Kenerator.”  Now Fuhrer was able to provide games tailored to every level imaginable, and began to promote KenKen puzzles—which, after all, had been invented by a teacher for his pupils—to the education industry.

“It’s a universal product,” explained Fuhrer, “but everybody has different needs. For example, The Math Forum @ Drexel has just introduced us on its website, with a bunch of specialized puzzles. We can generate brain-training KenKen puzzles tailored to first graders, tenth graders, educators, and we can make them single-operations puzzles, like all-multiplication or all-division. We supply them puzzles that are appropriate for grades 1-5, 6-8 and 9-12.  The great thing about KenKen is that within those categories – and outside them – kids can find the puzzles they can and want to do next.” Beginning in January, education.com will also sport the KenKen banner on its website.

Recently, Fuhrer accepted an invitation to visit Barbara Widder’s two fifth grade classes at Bell Middle School.  “The kids loved the puzzles and they loved Bob,” said Widder.  “They wanted to get his autograph and loved hearing the story of Miyamoto. The kids enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure out things on their own, then feeling successful once they realized some of the strategies and the patterns.”  Had Widder tried it herself?  “Of course. But I didn’t get it right away,” she said. “I began to be comfortable with some of the easier ones.” Her classes wrote effusive thank you cards to Fuhrer afterwards, which he keeps in a stack in front of him on his desk.

KenKen and Fuhrer become the subjects of a business school case study

Elissa Grossman, a 40-year-old assistant professor of management at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a 1986 graduate of Greeley, had become hooked on puzzles in 2008 when her brother gave her a ticket to Will Shortz’ American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in New York City.

“I teach entrepreneurship to seniors and MBA students.” said Grossman.  “Business school is taught on a case method, which I like a lot, and I’ve recently started to write my own cases.”

She liked her first tournament so much that she returned the following year. “I’m a mediocre crossword puzzle solver who thoroughly enjoys being mediocre,” explained Grossman. “I’d been vaguely aware of KenKen, having seen it on The New York Times page, and it was being showcased at the tournament and Miyamoto had even spoken. ‘This was clearly a new puzzle,’ I thought, ‘so how do you make a puzzle into a business?’ ”

From the KenKen website Grossman learned that Fuhrer lived in Chappaqua, and thought to contact the nearest puzzle person to Chappaqua she knew, Will Shortz.  “I told him that I though this might be a really interesting class case,” said Grossman, “and asked him if he would introduce me to Bob.”

“People might think that Bob might have been easier to get to than Will,” Grossman continued, “but last year I got it into my head that I would try to launch an LA crossword tournament and, in my quest to do that, I’d been given Will’s contact info. I’d realized that Will had some relationship to KenKen, but I didn’t know what it was. He’d provided puzzles for the LA tournament and he’d also allowed me to interview him for the KenKen case.”

Shortz made the introduction to Fuhrer, and Grossman interviewed both Fuhrer and his senior vice president of marketing, Shamas.  “Once the case was done, I needed to make a test run of it. The only way I can tell whether it would be useful for others is to bring it into the classroom,” explained Grossman.  She had already used it on her LMU students, but wanted to test it again. So last 2009, when Grossman was coming to New York to participate in an NYU conference on entrepreneurship, she phoned Fuhrer to tell him that she had arranged to test out her case study of KenKen in New York City. A colleague at Baruch College, where she had taught previously, would lend her an MBA class of about 30 students for an evening. She invited Fuhrer to attend the class.

She also warned Fuhrer of the routine: students would read the case study in advance, then details of his KenKen venture would be thrown open to the students to discuss and critique. The case studies method was meant also to elicit students’ opinion about what direction the actors in the real-life business story should take next. 

Fuhrer was game. The only momentary hitch was that the class was scheduled to meet on the evening of November 6, 2009, the date of the last game of the Yankee-Phillies World Series at Yankee Stadium, and Fuhrer had a ticket for a seat right behind home plate.

Fuhrer passes on World Series game

“A million out of a million people would have chosen the World Series seat,” said Grossman. Fuhrer attended the class instead, taking a seat in the back. Grossman had told him that, if he liked the idea, she wanted him to be a “stealth guest.” He would watch her lead the class through the case study and discussion, then she would announce that Fuhrer was present and the class would have a chance to question him directly.

“She told me,” said Fuhrer, “‘You have to be prepared to have the students very freely criticize your style, your business model. They might say what I did was great or stupid, then she would say, ‘Well, why don’t we ask this guy Fuhrer what he thinks.’”

“When I introduced Bob,” said Grossman, “I told the class that he’d given up tickets to the Series to come to the class, and they were completely blown away by the fact that he’s chosen them instead. They asked a lot of questions and even stayed around afterwards.”

“I was looking forward to doing the class and hearing what they had to say,” recalled Fuhrer. “And this is my livelihood, so I was interested. I felt a little like Huck Finn, disguised, watching his own funeral. I enjoyed listening to them. It made me see that because I live and breathe this, I might not realize that I really had something to offer. I wasn’t sure that I would, but I did. I was a real world guy talking to bright business school people. It also made me feel like I knew a lot, that a lot of what they were asking about, I’d been there and done that.”

“There are things like toilet paper and toothbrushes that everyone needs,” Fuhrer continued, “but most products in the toy business have a targeted customer in mind. With KenKen, the world is my market. KenKen has no words, just numbers. No language, gender, age or cultural barriers. Everybody in the world who can at least do addition is a potential customer. We have puzzles from the training-wheel level to puzzles that would challenge Albert Einstein. Listening to my story in that class also made me realize that, for example, going to dinner with David Levy to talk about a chess project and ending up giving him KenKen books, like Woody Allen said, ‘Ninety percent of life is just showing up.’ And I showed up.”
Click HERE for a sheet of KenKen puzzles and solutions as a Chanukah gift from Bob Fuhrer to our readers.  Visit KenKen’s websitehttp://www.newcastlenow.org/index.php/static/gallery/ to play online.

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