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Puzzler's Tribute by David Wolfe & Tom Rodgers

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2002)


Fans of the prolific polymath, Martin Gardner, are legion, and every other year over the past decade a small group of them has gathered in Atlanta at the Gathering for Gardner (or G4G, in what has come to be the parlance) to pay tribute to their titular leader. Having written about subjects including magic, mathematics, puzzles, games, magic, Alice in Wonderland, and a wide range of irrational matters and unscientific claims with an unerringly rational and scientific mind, Mr. Gardner has served to inspire an eclectic crowd that reflects as diverse an array of fun-loving intellects as one could possibly imagine. The lectures comprise a non-stop array of subjects, from topiary mazes to computer-engineered origami; like the weather in England, if you don't like one just wait a few minutes, the next one is bound to surprise you with a subject you never knew about, and delight you with the prospect of learning from a likely master. There are plenty of magic shows for the official entertainment (last time I attended I performed in both platform and close-up shows, and lectured as well), and that's because there is always a healthy representation from the magic world in attendance. The real fun is over dinner and in between, swapping questions and answers with all these marvelous folks who share an inclination toward insatiable curiosity; the fifth conference will have already taken place, in April, by the time this review sees print.

Every year the participants also bring papers, puzzles, and all other manner of goods and goodies to exchange, so it was a logical leap to collect and publish such materials as a tribute to Mr. Gardner. The first tribute book is avail-able on the website, www.g4g4.com, and the second collection was published in 1999 as The Mathemagician and Pied Puzzler. This newest volume is as wide ranging and eccentric as the rest, with no less than 64 entries divided into seven sections. Included are tributes to two highly regarded and now sadly departed members of the G4G crowd that will be familiar to many magicians, namely Mel Stover and Harry Eng; both Max Maven's piece about Mr. Stover and Mark Serteducati's offering about Mr. Eng originally appeared here in the pages of Genii. Magician Ron Wohl also offers an entry in memory of Mr. Stover, and even Mr. Gardner writes about him as well. Tributes are also included to the late David Khmer, an expert in the mathematics of box-packing problems.

There are sections of puzzles, multiple sections of mathematical subjects—including a piece about the actual math of a magic square by "mathemagician" Art Benjamin. These guys have a knack for intriguing titles: I was immediately drawn, for example, to "How Flies Fly: The Curvature and Torsion of Space Curves" by Rudy Rucker, and "The Beer Bottles Problem" by N.G. de Bruijn—although I confess that the very first piece I read was the explanation of how the late Mr. Eng managed to get a genuinely solid metal coin into a glass bottle in which the diameter of the mouth was smaller than the coin. (I'm not telling.)

The magic-related section includes 13 entries, from contributors including magi Meir Yedid, Gordon Bean, Ray Hyman, Bob Friedhoffer, and others. One of the highlights for me was an article by Bill Kalush entitled "Sleight of Hand with Playing Cards Prior to Scot's Discoverie." Previously Mr. Kalush presented a related talk at the Collectors conference, and he also contributed "Arithmetical Divination from Charlemagne's Court to Leonardo da Vinci" to the G4G. Identified in the byline information as a "passionate researcher," he has been poring over primary sources in search of early conjuring history, and there is a wealth of it contained in these heavily footnoted pages plus five additional pages of extended excerpts quoted from footnoted material (much of which is translated from the original French and German).

The piece includes discussion of "The earliest discovered record of deception with playing cards [which] dates to 1408 France ... ," and the "first book devoted primarily to conjuring," written "in Milan before the dose of the fifteenth century (by) Luca Pacioli ... with the help of a young artist"—named Leonardo da Vinci. Mr. Kalush tantalizingly comments in passing that "it can be conclusively shown [da Vinci] had an independent interest in conjuring methods, but I must leave that topic for another time." The author also identifies the earliest known (also 16th century) references to false dealing, including mentions of bottom dealing, second dealing, and even "middle" dealing, although one doubts this was literal in the sense of the "Center Deal." Further early (16th century) references to crooked gambling methods include mentions of concealed mirrors (i.e., "shiners"), and a description of what is unmistakably a "holdout," a device previously believed to be a late 18th or even early 19th century innovation. Although the author's final conclusions will seem over-reaching to some—"It is likely that the vast majority of the repertoire of modern card conjurors was already being used prior to the publication of Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft"—the piece will be pored over with fascination by many interested in this particular "puzzle." (And we eagerly await the forthcoming work of Vanni Bossi, mentioned here in more than one footnote.)

By now you probably know if you're the type this book is aimed at, and I certainly recommend it wholeheartedly if you have the slightest interest in any of these general fields or particular subjects. The production is pretty straightforward, although there is a nice little color photograph section (including four tiny pictures of Eng Impossible Bottles—I would have liked them each the site of a page!). The print is small and dense and, well, there's plenty of it. Long live Martin Gardner!

Puzzler's Tribute • David Wolfe & Tom Rodgers • 6" x 9" laminated color hardcover • Illustrated, including six-page color section • 420 pages • 2002