I always wonder about them.
You know, them, the math people. I always wonder what the difference is between those of us who learned enough math to demonstrate competence, did so, and then set out to forget all about it, and those who fell in love with math somewhere along the way. Whenever I discover I’m in the presence of the latter type of soul, I start pumping him or her for information on how this strange thing happened. Inevitably, they get this funny sort of a glint in their eyes and say, “It’s just…this puzzle.”
A puzzle is a game. Games are for playing. Everybody loves a game.
Enter The Moscow Puzzles. It’s not a textbook. It doesn’t have a grade or age written on the spine. It’s a book of “Mathematical Recreations” for people who love the puzzle of it all. Or, as in our case, people who are learning to love the puzzle.
It's also important to point out, I think, that neither is this one of those books that promises to "make math fun!". That math is already fun is an unspoken assumption, and no time is wasted on bringing anybody who doesn't understand this up to speed. If you didn't have this basic understanding, you wouldn't be bothering to read a book like this. Which has the effect of making you act as though you think math is thrilling and entertaining even if you don't, really, which is kind of delightful. You want to be in the in club. Those making-math-fun books always seem to bear the stink of trickery.
Remember the wolf, the chicken, and the corn? That the farmer has to take across the river without them all eating each other up? That's here, along with a whole range of other puzzles. Many of them have a distinctly mid-century Soviet flair, as when "Communist boys and girls" are decorating a hydroelectric powerhouse newly built by "Komsomol youth" and need to know how to place the flags at even intervals around the roof. If you look closely at the diagrams where coins are used as counters, you'll find that they've used kopecks (if, you know, you can read Cyrillic) so you'll need to round up all the kopecks you've got lying around the house if you're going to replicate the coin puzzles. The trains leave from Moscow and Leningrad, everyone is named Misha and Kostya and Boris.
And, well, we're completely enthralled. Every day we solve a few puzzles, never knowing whether the ones we get today will be funny and simple-“Three matches are on a table. Without adding another, make 4 out of 3. You are not allowed to break the matches,"-or frustratingly difficult. Once we’ve beaten them, the children wait for Daddy to get home so they can try them out on him. Groans and rolled eyes always ensue, because he’s one of those funny-glint people and can usually figure out in minutes what took us half an hour of head-shaking and nearly giving up. "Don't you want to actually move the toothpicks?" they'll ask him incredulously, impressed that he can do it all in his head. "Nope," he says, and smiles, and drives them all crazy.
It is, as Peter Gray says, play in the realm of mathematics. Who would have thought such a thing was possible? I mean, besides them.