The 81-year-old Gardner seems more comfortable talking about others than about himself. Perhaps part of the reason is that he has no formal training in mathematics. In discussing his youth, he muses on religion and philosophy, topics to which we keep veering back. "When I grew up in Tulsa, it was called the oil capital of the word," he says. "Now it's known as the home of Oral Roberts. That's how far Tulsa has gone down the hill." He describes his father, a petroleum geologist, as a tolerant fellow who put up with his mother's Methodist devotion and Gardner's own early fanaticism. Influenced by a Sunday school teacher and a Seventh-Day Adventist, the young Gardner became convinced the second coming was near and that 666 was the number of the pope. "I grew up believing that the Bible was a revelation straight from God," he recounts. "It lasted about halfway through my years at the University of Chicago."
University life, however, slowly eroded his fundamentalist beliefs. "Certain authors have been a big influence on me," Gardner says and enumerates them. Besides Plato and Kant, there are G. K. Chesterton, William James, Charles S. Peirce, Miguel de Unamuno, Rudolf Carnap and H. G. Wells. From each, Gardner has culled a bit of wisdom. "From Chesterton I got a sense of mystery in the universe, why anything exists, " he expounds. "From Wells I took his tremendous interest in and respect for science." That's why he does not accept the virgin birth of Christ or a blood atonement for the sin of Adam and Eve, as he writes in the afterword of his semiautobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm. "I don't believe God interrupts natural laws or tinkers with the universe," he remarks. From James he derived his notion that belief in God is a matter of faith only. "I don't think there's any way to prove the existence of God logically."
Pondering existence for a living, however, was not his calling. "If you're a professional philosopher, there's no way to make any money except to teach. It has no use anywhere," Gardner offers. Instead he turned to writing, becoming assistant oil editor for the Tulsa Tribune and then returning to Chicago to assume a post in the university's press office. In 1941 he began a four-year stint on a destroyer escort (fittingly, the U.S.S. Pope ). After World War II, Gardner returned to Chicago, selling short stories to Esquire and taking more courses in philosophy under the GI bill.
Freelance writing is unstable, and Gardner found himself in New York City in the early 1950s, where he landed a regular job with the children's periodical Humpty Dumpty's Magazine, writing features and designing activities. "I did all the cutouts," he beams. But it was his lifelong interest in magic, still his main hobby, that led him to mathematical games. Every Saturday a group of conjurers would gather in a restaurant in lower Manhattan. "There would be 50 magicians or so, all doing magic tricks," Gardner reminisces. One of them intrigued him with a so-called hexaflexagon—a strip of paper folded into a hexagon, which turns inside out when two sides are pinched. Fascinated, Gardner drove to Princeton, where graduate students invented it. (A magician also played a pivotal role in another major step in Gardner's life: he introduced Gardner to his future wife, Charlotte.)
Having sold a piece on logic machines to Scientific American a few years prior (which, incidentally, included a cardboard cutout), he approached the magazine with an article on flexagons. "Gerry Piel called me in and asked, 'Is there enough material similar to this to make a regular column?' I said I thought there was, and he said to turn one in," Gardner recalls. It was a bit of a snow job: Gardner did not even own a mathematics book at the time. "I rushed around New York and bought as many books on recreational math as I could," he states. Gardner officially began his new career in the January 1957 issue; the rubric "Mathematical Games" was chosen by the magazine. "By coincidence, they're my initials," Gardner observes. "I always had a private interest in math without any formal training. I just sort of became a self-taught mathematician. If you look at those columns in chronological order, you will see they started out on a much more elementary level than the later columns."