Grigori Perelman, the Russian mathematician famous for solving the notorious Poincare conjecture, shocked the world of mathematics in 2006 by declining to accept the Fields Medal – the most prestigious award in the mathematical community. He also withdrew from the mathematical community, leaving to move in with his mother in Sankt Petersburg. Rumors have been since circulating about his possible occupation – does he still work on mathematical problems? Perhaps he’s trying to tackle Navier-Stokes equations, another one of the notorious Millenium Problems? Or maybe he has ceased to do mathematics completely? The truth turns out to be much more sinister and bizarre than anyone could have expected.
Our Russian correspondent, who prefers to remain anonymous, has recently described his unusual meeting with Perelman in a seedy Petersburg gambling house. “I frequent such shady, semi-underground gambling joints from time to time”, he writes. “One of them was a place for playing Japanese mahjong. Imagine a dark basement room, with only a lightbulb hanging ominously from the ceiling, air dense from cigarette smoke. Four people seated at a mahjong table, playing in almost compete silence, save for calling other players’ tiles. One of the people seating at the table looked familiar. Certainly I had seen his photo before in the press – unkempt beard and cold, intense eyes. Then it struck me – it was Grisha Perelman sitting at the table, playing mahjong!”
Japanese mahjong (also called Riichi) is a four player game, often described as “Asian poker”. Players draw and discard tiles, competing to assemble hands worth various number of points, while also allowed to “steal” other players’ discards. In Japan, the game is often perceived as gambling and yakuza-related, but it has also spawned multiple works of fiction, most notably mahjong-themed manga and anime. One of them, Akagi, has a distinctive dark and intense atmoshpere, filled with psychology and dramatic mind-games. Our correpondent relates that this is exactly the type of mood he saw on Perelman’s face that day. “A genius’ gaze, fixed somewhere well beyond the tiles, as if trying to crack the mysteries of fortune. You felt a sense of foreboding, a flicker of insanity inside a brilliant mind. And at the same time, that shabby underground room, cheap, desperate gambling – almost like from one of Dostoyevsky’s novels”.
Local mahjong pros recall seeing a peculiar man coming each day to some sleazy bar and sitting there for hours, practicing a cheating technique called “wall stacking”. Stacking the wall means putting tiles in specific places and then surreptitiously switching them with tiles in your hand. It requires several hours of practice a day to achieve mastery, and one can imagine Perelman training this with the same obsessive concentration as he showed when working on extremely challenging mathematical problems. “To maintain this level of gameplay, one has to possess a crystal clear mind”, says one of the pros we interviewed. “This professor guy, he’s new but can already run circles around most of the seasoned players. We play insanely high stakes and he would not even blink.”
“This is hardly believable”, says Ingrid Daubechies, the president of International Mathematical Union. “I would never expect a mathematician of Perelman’s format to turn to some obscure form of gambling and spend his hours learning how to cheat.” Another mathematician, however, points out that Perelman’s work in differential topology concerned an object called the “Ricci flow”, which bears striking similarity to “Riichi”. And also in mahjong one often speaks of the “flow of the game”. So maybe there is a natural evolution in his interests after all?
Perelman could easily make a living from playing high-stakes mahjong. However, he is known for rejecting all the money he wins, either throwing it away or giving it to beggars. We have no right to judge whether the path Perelman has taken is right or wrong. We wish him best luck, and many yakumans. [yakuman – an extremely rare type of hand worth the maximal number of points]