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Boris Kordemsky*


by Will Shortz and Serhiy Grabarchuk

Boris Kordemsky

Boris Kordemsky**
Boris Kordemsky (1907-1999), a Russian teacher and popularizer of recreational mathematics, is probably the best-selling author of nonword puzzle books in the history of the world. Just one of his books, Matematicheskaya Smekalka (or, Mathematical Quick-Wits), sold more than a million copies in the Soviet Union/Russia alone, and it has been translated into many languages. By exciting millions of people in mathematical problems over five decades, he influenced generations of solvers both at home and abroad.

By profession Kordemsky taught math in Moscow at high schools, a university, and a military academy. For many years he wrote for Mathematics in School magazine, in which his column “Entertaining Page” was very popular (and useful) among both teachers and students. His math and puzzle columns also appeared in Science and Life, Quantum, and Young Technician.

It’s for his book Mathematical Quick-Wits, however, that Kordemsky is most famous. It first appeared in 1954 (not 1956, as is sometimes stated), just after the post-Stalin thaw in the Soviet Union, in an edition of 150,000 copies, which quickly sold out. A second edition in 1955 sold a similar number, as did a third edition in 1956. Altogether more than 10 editions have appeared in Russia to date, most recently in 2000. The book has been translated into Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, German, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, all the Baltic languages, English (under the title The Moscow Puzzles, edited by Martin Gardner, first published in 1972), and others.

Mathematical Quick-Wits is a giant (500+ pages) collection of math puzzles of many kinds -- magic squares, cryptarithms, dissections and other geometrical challenges, puzzles with dice and dominoes, matchstick problems, algebraic problems, and assorted brainteasers. Gardner called it “marvelously varied.” Knowledgable solvers recognized some of the puzzles as the original inventions of the American Sam Loyd, the British Henry E. Dudeney, the Belgian Maurice Kraitchik, and others. But undoubtedly a significant number of the puzzles were new.

While the book was hugely entertaining, its purpose was mainly didactic. In the introduction Kordemsky said: “All materials in this book are devoted to the educational aim -- to spur creative thinking, to further perfection of mathematical knowledge ....”

Besides the above, Kordemsky was the author of one other great work of puzzles -- Matematicheskiye Zavlekalki (or, Mathematical Charmers), published posthumously in 2000. It is a sort of prequel to his 1954 book, in that its puzzles are easier, and, apparently, more of them are original. Below are four puzzles by Boris Kordemsky, selected from his various puzzle books, that we found particularly charming.
Boris Kordemsky and manipulative puzzles.

Boris Kordemsky with a table full of manipulative puzzles.
Roses by Boris Kordemsky

Roses by Boris Kordemsky.


Divide the square grid into four equal (and congruent) parts so that each part contains exactly one each of the letters R, O, S, and E.
Spider's Maze by Boris Kordemsky

Spider's Maze by Boris Kordemsky.

Spider's Maze

A spider sits at the bottom (point S) of its web, while a fly sits at the top (F). How many different ways can the spider reach the fly by moving along the web’s lines -- but only in the directions indicated by the arrows?
The Wooden Beam by Boris Kordemsky

The Wooden Beam by Boris Kordemsky.

The Wooden Beam

A wooden beam, which is perfectly rectangular -- with edges 8, 8, and 27 centimeters, respectively -- is to be sawed into 4 parts out of which a cube can be made. How can this be done? As the old saying goes, one should draw first and saw later.
With Bracket's Help by Boris Kordemsky
With Bracket's Help by Boris Kordemsky.

With Bracket's Help

Each colon represents a division sign. Add enough brackets to each equation to make it correct.


Boris Kordemsky solving manipulative puzzles.

Boris Kordemsky solving manipulative puzzles.
To be continued.
*) First this article, entitled Famous Puzzlemakers: Boris Kordemsky, was published in The World Puzzle Newsletter, (the official publication of the World Puzzle Federation), Amsterdam, The Netherlands, volume 9, 2004, pages 24, 25.
**) All photographs in the article by the courtesy of Anatoly Kalinin.
Last Updated: October 14, 2008
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