John Scarne (1903-1985) was a brilliant magician, a genuine genius at sleight-of-hand. He was also, alas, a shameless self-promoter. In cards and dice manipulation he was peerless, but in his attempt to position himself as the world's greatest board game designer he fell far shorter on the cosmic scale.

Author Blake Eskin wrote about Scarne and his hubris in the Washington Post Sunday magazine recently (15 July 2001, "A World of Games", pps. 18-22, 26-28). About 35 years earlier, I had an encounter of my own with John Scarne that corroborates Eskin's judgments. In the mid-1960s I somehow heard of a game that Scarne had created and was selling. Probably it was mentioned in a Martin Gardner Scientific American "Mathematical Games" column, or maybe an advertisement for it appeared in Chess Life & Review; I forget.

I ordered the game, which was modestly named "Scarney" by its developer. It was fun, in an abstract set-theoretic sense: two players took turns placing tokens down on a 4x4 board, and then took turns removing tokens and scoring points. The pieces came in four colors and were each marked with from one to four spots.

Pretty mathematical, in other words ... but after studying Scarney and playing a few test matches with my brother, it was clear to me that its designer was no mathematician. The rules were badly flawed: the second player could win trivially every time, just by playing in a symmetric pattern opposite to the first player's moves. Ugly-o!

I wrote to John Scarne, told him about the error, and suggested a small modification that would break the symmetry without otherwise marring the game. Scarne wrote back --- but instead of graciously acknowledging his mistake, he claimed in his letter to have already found the problem and to have independently chosen the same fix that I proposed. Coincidence? Or an attempted face-saving cover-up when a young teen-ager spotted a big boo-boo in a game that somebody hoped would make his name a household word?

Sure, everybody's insecure, at least most of the time. Sure, almost everybody dreams of fame, and maybe fortune. The tough job is to be uncorruptably honest with oneself ... hard-headedly realistic about one's abilities and achievements --- and then go on from there to find joy in doing one's best, without regard for mass recognition or lack thereof. It's part of growing up....

Wednesday, July 18, 2001 at 00:12:54 (EDT) = 2001-07-18

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(correlates: InTheGoodOldDays, GreatPicnic, NegativeHelp, ...)