Wait, Wait, Tell Me…

When 10-year-old Gary Gruber sat down to take an IQ test in 1950 he bombed. Five decades later he has a vague memory of the test, but a vivid recollection of what his teacher told his mother: “Your son has an IQ of 90—below normal.” Devastated, young Gruber nevertheless suspected there was more wrong with the test than with his brainpower. “My father [a high school teacher] got hold of the same test I took,” he recalls. “I analyzed why the questions were being asked and how one could solve them.” In the yet-to-be-produced after-school special on Gruber’s life, this is where we insert the shot of the sun shining through parted clouds—his “aha moment.” The motivated preteen realized that instead of rushing to find a quick answer, if he took his time and used a little critical thinking he would always solve the problem. He began to create strategies for formulating different types of questions.

As a high schooler Gruber was again a concern to his teachers—not for his low test scores, but for the suggestions he relentlessly scribbled in the margins for ways they might improve test questions. Many years later, his system-bucking style led him to a discussion with the creators of the SAT. After researching test scores, he discovered that when the word “always” was inserted into a math problem, minority students in the San Francisco School District scored significantly higher, and he suggested continuing the practice to encourage the correct answers.

Dr. Shirley Thornton, now on the Sausalito school board, was the principal of Balboa High School in San Francisco at the time and remembers her impression of Gruber: eccentric and brilliant. “Using Gary Gruber’s test-taking strategies made an unbelievable difference in my students’ test scores,” she adds. “He would come to the school and do workshops with the teachers on how to take tests. I was always amazed more teachers (and schools) didn’t use his methods. Using Gary’s test taking strategies, my students showed an average increase of 125 points on the SAT.”

Fifty years after the aforementioned IQ test, this Mill Valley resident’s life résumé includes a stint as professor of physics and astronomy at Hofstra University in New York and as chief editor in physics and mathematics for Cambridge University Press, as well as authorship of more than 30 books on test preparation and mind-bending equations. Gruber also creates puzzles and brainteasers for national magazines and newspapers. “Coming up with new problems gives me a good and satisfying feeling,” he says. “By developing problems and solving them I not only enjoy the challenge, but feel I am constantly keeping my mind in shape. And the thing that is most gratifying is that I am giving others the same challenge, excitement and mental development.”

A Simple Gruber Quiz

1. Two U.S. coins add up to 30 cents. If one of them is not a nickel, what are the two coins?
2. You are competing in a linear race and overtake the runner in second place. In which position
are you now? 
a) first  b) second  c) third  d) fourth e) cannot be determined
3. Is it possible for a man in Marin County to marry his widow’s sister?


1. A quarter and a nickel ( be careful of what the wording says: One is not a nickel, but the other is) 
2. You overtook the second runner and took his place. Therefore you are now in second.
3. Watch the wording: A widow has lost her husband. His widow would be his present wife, but he is dead so that’s impossible. If the wording said “a widow’s sister,” then it would be possible since he would not be her dead husband.

Mimi Towle

Mimi Towle has been the editor of Marin Magazine for over a decade. She lived with her family in Sycamore Park and Strawberry and thoroughly enjoyed raising two daughters in the mayhem of Marin’s youth sports; soccer, swim, volleyball, ballet, hip hop, gymnastics and many many hours spent at Miwok Stables. Her community involvements include volunteering at her daughter’s schools, coaching soccer and volleyball (glorified snack mom), being on the board of both Richardson Bay Audubon Center. Currently residing on a floating home in Sausalito, she enjoys all water activity, including learning how to steer a 6-person canoe for the Tamalpais Outrigger Canoe Club. Born and raised in Hawaii, her fondness for the islands has on occasion made its way into the pages of the magazine.