By Danny Purvis
Martin Gardner wrote his short story Nora Says 'Check' for the magazine Esquire, January 1948, and it was subsequently reprinted in The No-Sided Professor, a volume of Gardner’s early fiction. In this story Sierpinsky, world champion, alleviates his chess boredom by guiding a not very bright waitress named Nora to chess fame with the help of a confederate. During each of Nora’s tournaments the confederate watches from the audience, communicating with a hidden Sierpinsky via a toe-interfaced shoe radio and with the waitress through a language of gestures. The story also anticipates the so-called hippopotamus chess opening – further Sierpinsky boredom alleviation – by nine years. A third Gardnerian anticipation of future chess history flows out of the success of Sierpinski’s hijinks. A world championship chess match transcends all previous bounds of public attention, inflaming the masses from the front page of Pravda to the cover of Time. Of course, this particular world championship match is especially amusing: puppet master and puppet on stage together, still mediated by cigar chomping confederate. Even more amusing is the Frankensteinian catastrophe that befalls Sierpinski at the very climax of his carefully constructed finale. A fourth manifestation of chess prescience – this one almost spooky – appears in the last sentences of the story in the form of an eight-year-old boy from the Bronx.
Martin Gardner, the son of a geologist, received an extremely solid humanistic education at the extremely solid University of Chicago. During this time a world class chess player happened to take classes there also, and Gardner contrived a school tournament for the sole purpose of luring the famous player into action. The plan worked, and Gardner thereafter truthfully could say that he had played a tournament chess game against Sammy Reshevsky.
After serving a wartime stint on the North Atlantic, evoked affectingly in his sole novel, the much underrated The Flight of Peter Fromm, Gardner returned to the University of Chicago on scholarship as a graduate student in philosophy, but he soon decided not to become a professor but rather to “see if I could earn a living as a writer,” ironically beginning this venture with a flurry of clever short stories featuring cozily eccentric academics.
It soon transpired that Gardner had a genius for delving into all manner of sophisticated oddities and for inspiring others to do the same. Perhaps his adolescent obsession with conjuring technique helped – he had published in arcane journals for professional magicians even before beginning college. But he developed a worldwide cult following of intellectuals, whom he led on an ideally merry chase through the unfolding esoterica of postwar mathematics, science, philosophy, puzzles, magic, games, literature, fantasy, art, jazz, and much else. Physicist Ron Edge has described the strange energy that a simple conversation with Gardner could instill.
Gardner wrote the Mathematical Games column in Scientific American from 1956 to 1981 and the Notes of a Fringe-Watcher column in Skeptical Inquirer from 1983 to 2002. He is well known for his uncompromising attitude toward pseudoscience, and his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952, revised 1957) is a seminal work of the skeptical movement. This and his subsequent efforts earned him a wealth of detractors and antagonists in the fields of "fringe science" and New Age philosophy, with many of whom he kept up running dialogs (both public and private) for decades. ChessBase’s Frederic Friedel, who corresponded with Martin Gardner in his teen years, visited him in Hastings-on-Hudson in 1979. He called it a day he would never forget, adding that “Martin Gardner has played a greater role in my intellectual development than anyone else.” Gardner and many others (including Friedel) founded the skeptical C.S.I.C.O.P. (Committee for Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), which mutated into the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry, the publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer.
Martin Gardner died in 2010 at age 95, razor sharp until the end. His infectious spirit lives on and shows no sign of abating.
G4G Celebration of Mind party
to celebrate the legacy of Martin Gardner – on or around
Friday, October 21, 2011
In Columbia, South Carolina, we have started an annual tradition of having a chess master give an exhibition on Martin Gardner's birthday (Oct 21) opening each game with 1.h4. We do this as a tribute to Gardner's April 1975 "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American. Among other miracles, this column announced that an MIT chess-playing computer called MacHic, designed with the help of ex-world chess champion Mikhail Botvinnik, had recently established "with a high degree of probability" that 1.h4 wins for White, a discovery that had brought lead researcher Richard Pinkleaf “ under enormous pressure from world chess leaders to destroy MacHic and suppress all records of its analysis” and that was to be the focus, according to a reliable source, of an upcoming meeting between Henry Kissinger and Leonid Brezhnev. Gardner further noted:
Bobby Fischer reportedly said that he had developed an impregnable defense against 1.P-KR4 at the age of 11. He has offered to play it against MacHic, provided that arrangements can be made for the computer to play silently and provided that he (Fischer) is guaranteed a win-or-lose payment of $25 million.
To date, our local chess master has won every game with 1.h4. But we are lucky in our choice of master, Charles Walter, a South Carolina chess legend despite the fact that he started late and then essentially gave up serious pursuit of the game by age 20. In 1971 while competing in the National High School Championship, he brashly put on an impromptu three-board blindfold exhibition for the New York City boys. He won a succession of games until someone sat down with whom he could not deal. When Charles finally yelped, "Who is this guy anyway?" and pulled off his blindfold, he discovered that he had been playing Bobby Fischer!
Our exhibition is part of the Martin Gardner Celebration of Mind. Perhaps other people would enjoy enacting similar chess events on Oct 21. Chess players whose relish for the provocative extends beyond the 64 squares might enjoy organizing or attending instantiations of the global celebration more reflective of the broad range of Gardnerian enthusiasms. The website www.g4g-com.org has complete information.
Note that you can invert the "Gathering for Gardner" logo above without changing anything. Click on it to download and try it out in your picture browser.
About the author:
Danny Purvis has lived many years in the haunted city of Columbia, South Carolina. He is a close colleague of Roman Khorkov, world champion of the obsessive game of sprouts, a game that is said to crush brains like fresh coconuts.