Jordan Ellenberg discovered an amazing man when researching his debut novel, The Grasshopper King. His name was Marion Tinsley, and he was, in the author’s estimation, “the best at any competitive game of any human who ever lived.”
Big words, yes, but Tinsley earned them: For some 50 years, he was the world’s greatest checkers player. During his reign, the king of king-me’s lost only nine games.
“They’d make a [checkers] computer program, and he would beat it,” Ellenberg says, getting more and more animated. “They’d make another program, and he would beat it.”
But in the mid-’90s, Tinsley, at 75, finally met his match. The challenger’s name was Chinook, and this program was nasty.
“Basically, Tinsley and Chinook were completely matched,” he says. “They played to a draw, played to a draw, played to a draw. Like 10, 20 times in a row….Finally, a doctor came in and told Tinsley, ‘You can’t do this anymore. You’re gonna die if you keep playing.’ So Tinsley had to forfeit the match.
“Six months later, Tinsley was dead. And now Chinook is the world champion.”
“You can play Chinook online,” Ellenberg says, relaxing back into a booth at Dupont Circle’s Luna Grill. “I’m actually really bad at all games. To be good at those things, you have to have analytical skills, but you also have to really want it. I just don’t care enough.”
Maybe so. But if Ellenberg ever did care enough to concentrate on checkers, there’s a good chance the 31-year-old Princeton mathematics professor and Slate columnist could give Chinook one helluva game. Because although the story of the brilliant Tinsley is certainly an impressive one, the tales swirling around this Potomac, Md., native are downright Doogie Howser-ish.
Ellenberg taught himself to read at the age of 2. As a preteen, he helped his baby sitters with their math homework. As an eighth-grader, he took honors calculus classes at the University of Maryland. In 1989, while a senior at Potomac’s Winston Churchill High School, he beat out some 400,000 students to become U.S. Math Olympics champwhich garnered him a big, gaudy headline in the National Enquirer: “America’s Top Math Whiz Kid.” And, of course, he scored a perfect 1600 on his SATs.
In between undergraduate and doctorate degrees, Ellenberg earned a master’s from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. He studied with such literary lions as Stephen Dixon, Robert Stone, and John Barth, all of whom helped with The Grasshopper King, the sad, funny, and very smart tale of a college professor who deliberately stops speaking, the social-misfit student hired to baby-sit him, and the patient women these two troubled academics both love.
Initially, Ellenberg says, he was interested mainly in satirizing academia and exploring such highfalutin questions as “What is the proper place of historicism in English studies?” These days, though, he’s become a little less…well, nerdy. “I’m still interested in those things,” he says. “But I’m less interested in them than I am in the relationships.”
Before the tall, thin, bespectacled Ellenberg speaks, he often looks down and to the side, smirking and nodding, as if seeing answers invisible to the rest of us. It’s a charming tic, and, whether he knows he’s doing it or not, it also has a certain showoff quality. It’s as if he were a Vegas magician suddenly pulling the square root of 32,270 out of his hat. (Ellenberg’s fiancée, Tanya Schlam, 31, admits, “I sometimes use him as a calculator.”)
Ellenberg performs his particular move for an extra beat before answering a questionthat question, the one he’s been hearing his whole life: What’s it like to be so damn smart?
“I do think it’s kind of inherently interesting,” he says. “I sort of think, in some ways, I’m just as interested in itand know just as little about itas those who don’t experience it. I’m not sure I have any insight into it.”
Modesty aside, in some ways, Ellenberg had a fairly routine childhood. When he was at Churchill, he never skipped a grade. He routinely challenged his teachers, of course, sometimes to the point of getting booted out of class. But despite his rapid rate of learning, he and his parents (both of whom are statisticians) decided he would grow up at the same pace as his peers.
“Have you seen those kids who skip all the grades?” Ellenberg whispers, flashing a look of mock horror.
“Oh, I’m mostly joking,” he adds. “I knew a lot of kids growing up who thought high school was stupid and lame. I had an anti-oppositional stance. I liked high school. I had fun. I really did. I tutored some kids, made $20 an hour. Beats working at Burger King.”
Come on, the smartest kid in schoolmaybe the smartest kid in the friggin’ United Statesdidn’t catch heat for being a brainiac?
“Everyone adopts an affectation in high school,” Ellenberg counters. “So I think mine was to like high school. Being smart became one of the social identities you can have that’s allowed. One kid’s trying to be the best stoner, one kid’s trying to be the best cheerleader, and then there are kids trying to be the smartest. There was an agreed-upon tolerance for all these things.”
So in between a crushing loss on It’s Academic (the Churchill team lost in the 1989 finals to Georgetown Day) and a sweeping victory at the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (Ellenberg’s project was on the relationship among the numbers 2, 3, and 5), Ellenberg balanced his smarty-pants skills with a boys-will-be-boys passion for sports, comics, and Stephen King.
“I remember reading Carrie under my desk,” he says. “I couldn’t quit reading it….I started really seriously thinking about writing when I was in high school.”
It would be a few years before Ellenberg would switch from numbers to letters, though. After Churchill, he went on to study math at Harvard, where he also learned to use his brain power for extracurricular activities on the streets of Cambridge, Mass. “We used to do square roots to get into bars,” he laughs. “My friends would say, ‘Look, we’re not drunk! Our friend can still compute square roots in his head! We’re not too drunk to be allowed in your bar to drink even more.’”
He returned to Harvard to get his doctorate in mathematics, but not before scratching that literary itch at Hopkins. “I missed math the whole time I was there,” he admits. “That was how I knew what I should do for my career. But I wanted to do this first. It was kind of a lark.”
“I experienced writing The Grasshopper King as a set of problems I wanted to solve,” Ellenberg says. “Seeing problems is a sort of mathematical way to see the world.”
National Book Award-winner Stone was an unlikely accomplice in helping him see fiction in numerical terms. “He told me, ‘You can never really have four people in a room. There’s always got to be just two people in a room.’ I mean, four people can be physically in the room, but at any moment, you have to decide which two people are in this scene. That had a tremendous organizing effect for me. Every moment, I would think, Which two people is the book about now?”
A joke-riddled blend of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut, the satirical story takes place on the fictional campus of Chandler State University, a small, sad college situated in an unspecified patch of desert in the western United States.
“In some sense, the location has a lot to do with the fact that I haven’t lived any place but around a college campus since I was 18 years old,” Ellenberg says, otherwise brushing off any autobiographical links.
Chandler State is known for its dusty Gravinics Departmenta bunch of scatterbrained obscure-language professors studying “the literature of the Gravine, a tiny valley-nation in the Soviet Carpathians.” The school’s main authority on Gravinics is the eccentric Stanley Higgs, whose passionbesides, of course, checkersis a truly awful Gravinian poet named Henderson.
Of the poet, Ellenberg writes: “Henderson, in his hatred for the reader, for the female sex, for his adopted Germanyreally, for everyonehad arrived at a sort of perfection of which ordinary and good poets could not be capable. His work was cleansed entirely of affect, wit, and sense.”
When Higgs stops talking, his silent treatment sends the university into a tailspin. Soon enough, Samuel Grapearbor, the last remaining Gravinics student, is hired to monitor the mute Higgs. The two men, well-versed in Gravinics but pretty much clueless otherwise, are forced to reconsider their attachment to a dead language.
Along with both the silly gags and the sly skewering of “the business of learning,” Ellenberg adds an ultimately heartbreaking relationship between Grapearbor and his girlfriend, Julia, who fears that Sam is well on his way to becoming as lost as Higgs. It was this part of the story that the author found himself retooling after his publishers kept saying noand after he finally said yes to the professorship at Princeton.
“I didn’t look at the book between 1996 and last year,” he says. “I was a little worried that I would take it out and think, I hate this! Who could have written this? Or, How could I possibly modify something that was written by another person? But neither of those things happened.”
He credits his six-year relationship with Schlam with helping him tweak the novel’s central romance. “I already knew a lot about sentences when I was 23,” Ellenberg says. “I guess you could say I know a lot more about psychology now.”
Ellenberg is thrilled with the positive reviews The Grasshopper King has gotten so far, as well as with the laugh-out-loud reactions it earned during his recent reading tour. But any writer-seminar dreams of best-sellerdom no longer seem that important.
“Math is what I do,” he says. “One reason I can read reviews and it’s not so emotionally wrenching is that my real life is that I’m a mathematician. If someone ever reviewed one of my [mathematics] articles and said, ‘This guy doesn’t have a deep feeling for this branch of mathematics’now, that would hurt my feelings.” CP