Friday, April 23, 2010

Chess, Math, and Taxes

The flag of the Israeli tax authority (Image credit: CRW Flags Inc.)

A translation from Amnon Dankner's article, today (23/4/2010), p. 26 of Maariv's (a large Israeli daily) weekend supplement, about how was forced to pass the matriculation exam in mathematics:
Nothing worked, until he [Danker's father] noted that, since there's a connection between chess and mathematics, perhaps he should look in the back room of the "Orient" coffee house. This was the place where our city's chess players would sit and play and shout and insult each other, and of all of them, Leon Tefilinski caught his eye. A rough man, with a red nose and thick glasses, a gravel-like voice, smoking cigarettes and with an eternal wool shawl around his neck.

My father noted two qualities. First: the man was a natural pedagogue. Every time his opponent made some monumental mistake, Tefilinski would strike him in the arm, shouting 'gurnisht! Schmuck!' and explain to him how he went wrong. Second: when he would wait for his opponent to move -- which sometimes took a while -- he would read Zbivannia Mathematica -- mathematical riddles.
Dankner's father employed him as his son's math teacher, and he succeeded in what no other teacher did -- scare him to death with tales of how he killed Germans in Stalingrad, and how doing the same to him if he makes mistakes would not be difficult (Dankner obviously didn't take this threat literally, but fearing the teacher doesn't necessarily come from literal acceptance of the teacher's threats.)

But this was not the end of the story. When Dankner's father died three years later, he was asked to pay a large amount of property tax. To his surprise, he met Tefilinski in the tax office by chance:
To tell the truth, at the moment, needing a comforting hand, Mr. Tefilinski was not the first, or for that matter the last, man I would choose to meet. But he insisted, looked at the papers in my hand and looked at them... He went into a small room and came out with a small ruler. He went into the [taxman's] office without knocking... went to the table of the fearsome manager of property tax in Jerusalem... shouting 'you did it all wrong here, yob tvou mat! ... 'stupid Russian peasants do better math than you!' ... erasing the numbers from the form, writing other numbers, and telling [the manager] to sign.
Which he did; since, as it turns out, Teflinksi was the living soul, the human computer of the property tax office in Jerusalem.

Dankner concludes that employing Teflinski as a math teacher
[W]as the best investment the Dankner family ever made. It was a good, indeed excellent thing, to study mathematics, Q.E.D.
And they say chess players aren't practical!

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