One of the more versatile writers of the last century was Martin Gardner, a polymath who wrote extensively on just about any subject – recreational mathematics, science in general, philosophy, magic tricks, and treatises on famous works of literature – his The Annotated Alice is considered something of a masterpiece.
Oddities of the English language and word games figured significantly in his work too. Gardner took particular delight in finding an association between mathematics or numbers, and words and word games – one was a fundamental science of the universe, and the other a culturally defined subset. He often cited the famous equation eleven + two = twelve + one as a “prime” example, because one side of the equation was a perfect anagram of the other, in addition to making mathematical sense.
He also demonstrated a neat trick using an ordinary deck of playing cards. Here’s how: pick up the deck of 52 cards, and discard three as you spell A-C-E, then three more for T-W-O, and continue (five for T-H-R-E-E, four for F-O-U-R , all the way through to Jack, Queen, etc). You’ll find that the final G of K-I-N-G corresponds exactly to the final, that is, the 52nd card of the deck!
We’re all familiar with the paper-and-pencil game tic-tactoe, or noughts and crosses, in which two players, X and O, take turns marking the spaces in a 3×3 grid. The player who succeeds in placing three respective marks in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal row wins. Gardner described a linguistic version in which players draw tiles from a stockpile of nine different letters that have the potential to spell eight three-letter words (three across, three down, and two diagonally); the first to make any one of these is the winner.
The combinatorial nature of wordplay is underscored by the recent use of computers for solving word problems. An entire dictionary goes on a pen drive, you can play against (and be beaten by) a computer at Scrabble, you can construct word squares, find anagrams, and maybe one day even solve crossword puzzles.