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Martin Gardner, Mathematician and Lifelong Chess Fan, Dies at 95 Print E-mail
By Tom Braunlich   
May 28, 2010
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Martin Gardner, Wikipedia Commons photo by Konrad Jacobs
Martin Gardner, one of the most eminent popular writers on science and mathematics in the world, and a longtime chess admirer, died on May 22 at age 95 in Norman, Oklahoma. I had the privilege of meeting him there last December at his nursing home residence. He is an example of how chess can have important and subtle effects on the careers of those people who have taken the time to learn and love the royal game.

Gardner was most famous for popularizing “recreational mathematics,” which he did as author (from 1956-1981) of the Mathematical Games column for Scientific American magazine. There he introduced readers to fascinating math diversions like tangrams, flexagons, fractals, and many dozens of other intriguing and important new concepts that later found applications in the modern digital world. (For instance, fractals form an underlying mathematical basis of modern computer movie graphics.) He wrote over 70 books on these subjects, as well as on philosophy, magic, literature, and pseudoscience.

But as I discovered when I talked with him, he was also an enduring fan of chess and once played two tournament games with Sammy Reshevsky! Gardner was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1914 and played chess there in high school until he was graduated in 1931. Later at the University of Chicago he continued as an enthusiastic amateur player. There he met the famous grandmaster. Gardner told me the story.

“In those days [the early 1930s] Reshevsky was having difficulty making a living as a professional chess player during the Great Depression, and he had decided to give up the game and take up accounting. He enrolled at the University of Chicago to study for a degree. We had a small chess club going at the university then where I would play, and of course we became aware that Reshevsky was at the school. But we were disappointed that he never came by the chess club to play. Of course, he had no reason to come, as we were all far below his level, and he was trying to give up the game anyway. But those of us in the club hatched a plan to get him. We took up a collection and raised $50 for a guaranteed first prize for a tournament. We put up flyers around the school advertising a double round robin event, making sure to put plenty of flyers around the accounting department. Sure enough, Reshevsky showed up to register for the tournament! $50 was a lot of money in those days and, as we expected, the temptation was too much for him.”

“Since it was a double-round robin, I got to play him twice,” Gardner said. “In the first game, I made an error in the opening leaving myself open to a direct attack. But I was surprised he didn’t take that opportunity, continuing instead to just make strong building moves and playing for position, eventually overwhelming me.” Reshevsky earned a degree in 1934 as an accountant, but thankfully he later came back to international competition.

Gardner said that although he loved chess, he decided during his college years he was spending too much time on it and like Reshevsky he needed to give it up and concentrate on his career. (He also gave up magic, his other great obsession at the time.) He earned a degree in philosophy, and served during World War II on a Navy destroyer escort ship in the Atlantic. After the war he found work as a freelance writer (including a stint as editor of Humpty Dumpty magazine), until he eventually found his niche writing about the fun side of mathematics.

But Gardner never really lost his love for chess, often using unusual chess puzzles in his columns, but only if they related to mathematical principles he was discussing. An example of this would be the “Eight Queens” puzzle (i.e., how do you place eight queens on a chessboard so that no two queens attack each other?), which could then be generalized to n number of queens on an n by n board and underlying principles revealed.

I remember reading one of his columns in April 1975 in which Gardner reported that a state-of-the-art computer program that had been left running for months had determined that the best first move in chess was “Pawn to Queens Rook Four”, leading to an advantage in all variations. I was rather distressed about this until I realized the date of the issue, and that it must be an April Fools joke. (He was fond of fooling his readers).

Later after his retirement, during the 1990s, Gardner became fascinated with computer chess programs. “I got hooked on them,” he said. “I could never seem to beat them, and began to play constantly in an effort to defeat the computer. I finally realized I was becoming obsessed with it when one day I was doing dishes with my wife, and I looked down and saw the pattern of the chessboard reflected in the water. I then said that as soon as I beat the computer I would give it up. Eventually I finally won a game and the obsession was over.”

After he gave up the Scientific American column in 1981, Gardner kept on writing essays and books, and his reputation among mathematicians and gamers continued to grow. Since 1994, there has been an international convention held in his honor in Atlanta every two years to swap puzzles and theories at an event called the G4G: the Gathering for Gardner.

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Martin Gardner (left) last December, with game inventor Joli Q. Kansil. Photo Tom Braunlich
I had many mutual friends with Gardner due to my long career in the game industry. But it was only last December 21 that I was finally able to meet him thanks to Joli Q. Kansil, a hall-of-fame game inventor who was visiting me from The Philippines and who had set up the meeting. Gardner greeted us in his small nursing home room, which was almost entirely dedicated as his office (only a small portion in one corner was his bedroom area).

The room was decorated with fascinating odd artwork related to his career, including an original work by M.C. Escher given to him personally by the artist in appreciation for popularizing Escher’s mathematically based art in Scientific American. Another wall held a large portrait of Gardner made entirely of domino tiles which looks like nothing close up, but from a distance looks just like him.

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A domino portrait of Martin Gardner, Photo Tom Braunlich


On the tables were hologram illusions and floating globes. His many bookshelves were overflowing with volumes on magic, math, and games.

We had a pleasant discussion about the state of the game industry and reminiscences of shared friends now gone by. He then performed some great new card tricks for us that a magician friend had recently told him about.

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Gardner performs a math-based card trick for us (no sleight-of-hand). Photo Tom Braunlich


Among his many talents Gardner was also a world-renowned expert on Lewis Carroll, the author of the “Alice in Wonderland” stories. Carroll was a gifted mathematician. Gardner’s book The Annotated Alice is considered authoritative on the subject by Carroll aficionados. Carroll of course uses chess as a major theme in the famous stories about Alice.

Gardner was excited when I told him there was a new movie based on Alice in Wonderland coming out in March, which I described to him. He had no idea who Johnny Depp was, but was interested to hear the movie was in 3D with computer graphics. “The disappearing smile of the Cheshire Cat should be good,” Gardner said. However, he said he would probably have to wait until it comes out on video to see it, saying he can no longer easily go to theaters. I don’t know if he was able to view it before he died.

Gardner had once merged his love for both Carroll and chess by designing the Lewis Carroll Chess Wordgame. It is an interesting variant for chess fans that can be purchased online at www.gamepuzzles.com. In it the players move letters instead of pieces around the chessboard, like queens, attempting to form words (Scrabble-style) and thus score points. There is no capturing, but blocking does come into play.

This week has seen obituaries on Gardner appearing in major newspapers and magazines, with different authors claiming him for different fields of endeavor. In the New York Times, he was described as a great “Polymath”. The Guardian newspaper (U.K.), described him as “one of the most influential figures in scepticism." Scientific American called him a “mathematical gamester.”
Tulsa World wrote that he was"one of the great intellects produced in this country in the 20th century," according to Douglas Hofstadter, and, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould "the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against mysticism and anti-intellectualism."

But we in the chess world can also claim credit for the unique person that was Martin Gardner — it was chess, after all, which was the catalyst that affected him as a young man and set him on his path through the worlds of games, magic, and mathematics.

 
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