Friday - - Mind Games -

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.

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