This week’s Riddler Classic concerns a paradoxical coin-flipping game:

You have two fair coins, labeled A and B. When you flip coin A, you get 1 point if it comes up heads, but you lose 1 point if it comes up tails. Coin B is worth twice as much — when you flip coin B, you get 2 points if it comes up heads, but you lose 2 points if it comes up tails.

To play the game, you make a total of 100 flips. For each flip, you can choose either coin, and you know the outcomes of all the previous flips. In order to win, you must finish with a positive total score. In your eyes, finishing with 2 points is just as good as finishing with 200 points — any positive score is a win. (By the same token, finishing with 0 or −2 points is just as bad as finishing with −200 points.)

If you optimize your strategy, what percentage of games will you win? (Remember, one game consists of 100 coin flips.)

Extra credit: What if coin A isn’t fair (but coin B is still fair)? That is, if coin A comes up heads with probability p and you optimize your strategy, what percentage of games will you win?

Here is my solution:
[Show Solution]

Optimal HORSE

This week’s Riddler Classic is about how to optimally play HORSE — the playground shot-making game. Here is the problem.

Two players have taken to the basketball court for a friendly game of HORSE. The game is played according to its typical playground rules, but here’s how it works, if you’ve never had the pleasure: Alice goes first, taking a shot from wherever she’d like. If the shot goes in, Bob is obligated to try to make the exact same shot. If he misses, he gets the letter H and it’s Alice’s turn to shoot again from wherever she’d like. If he makes the first shot, he doesn’t get a letter but it’s again Alice’s turn to shoot from wherever she’d like. If Alice misses her first shot, she doesn’t get a letter but Bob gets to select any shot he’d like, in an effort to obligate Alice. Every missed obligated shot earns the player another letter in the sequence H-O-R-S-E, and the first player to spell HORSE loses.

Now, Alice and Bob are equally good shooters, and they are both perfectly aware of their skills. That is, they can each select fine-tuned shots such that they have any specific chance they’d like of going in. They could choose to take a 99 percent layup, for example, or a 50 percent midrange jumper, or a 2 percent half-court bomb.

If Alice and Bob are both perfect strategists, what type of shot should Alice take to begin the game?

What types of shots should each player take at each state of the game — a given set of letters and a given player’s turn?

Here is how I solved the problem:
[Show Solution]

and here is the solution:
[Show Solution]

Pool hall robots

This Riddler puzzle is about arranging pool balls using a robot!

You own a start-up, RoboRackers™, that makes robots that can rack pool balls. To operate the robot, you give it a template, such as the one shown below. (The template only recognizes the differences among stripes, solids and the eight ball. None of the other numbers matters.)

First, the robot randomly corrals all of the balls into the wooden triangle. From there, the robot can either swap the location of two balls or rotate the entire rack 120 degrees in either direction. The robot continues performing these operations until the balls’ formation matches the template, and it always uses the fewest number of operations possible to do so.

Using the template given above — a correct rack for a standard game of eight-ball — what is the maximum number of operations the robot would perform? What starting position would yield this? How about the average number of operations?

Extra credit: What is the maximum number of operations the robot would perform using any template? Which template and starting position would yield this?

Here is my solution:
[Show Solution]

The number line game

This Riddler puzzle is a game theory problem: how should each player play the game to maximize their own winnings?

Ariel, Beatrice and Cassandra — three brilliant game theorists — were bored at a game theory conference (shocking, we know) and devised the following game to pass the time. They drew a number line and placed \$1 on the 1, \$2 on the 2, \$3 on the 3 and so on to \$10 on the 10.

Each player has a personalized token. They take turns — Ariel first, Beatrice second and Cassandra third — placing their tokens on one of the money stacks (only one token is allowed per space). Once the tokens are all placed, each player gets to take every stack that her token is on or is closest to. If a stack is midway between two tokens, the players split that cash.

How will this game play out? How much is it worth to go first?

A grab bag of extra credits: What if the game were played not on a number line but on a clock, with values of \$1 to \$12? What if Desdemona, Eleanor and so on joined the original game? What if the tokens could be placed anywhere on the number line, not just the stacks?

Here are the details of how I approached the problem:
[Show Solution]

[Show Solution]

Pick a card!

This Riddler puzzle is about a card game where the goal is to find the largest card.

From a shuffled deck of 100 cards that are numbered 1 to 100, you are dealt 10 cards face down. You turn the cards over one by one. After each card, you must decide whether to end the game. If you end the game on the highest card in the hand you were dealt, you win; otherwise, you lose.

What is the strategy that optimizes your chances of winning? How does the strategy change as the sizes of the deck and the hand are changed?

Here is my solution:
[Show Solution]

Baking the optimal cake

This Riddler puzzle asks about finding the maximum-volume shape subject to constraints.

A mathematician who has a birthday coming up asks his students to make him a cake. He is very particular and asks his students to make him a three-layer cake that fits under a hollow glass cone he has on his desk. He requires that the cake fill up the maximum amount of volume under the cone as possible and that the layers of the cake have straight vertical sides. What are the thicknesses of the three layers of the cake in terms of the height of the glass cone? What percentage of the cone’s volume does the cake fill?

Here is my solution.
[Show Solution]

Here, I go into more detail about bounding the optimal cake volume as the number of layers becomes large.
[Show Solution]

Should the grizzly eat the salmon?

This Riddler puzzle concerns a random process and sequential decision-making.

A grizzly bear stands in the shallows of a river during salmon spawning season. Precisely once every hour, a fish swims within its reach. The bear can either catch the fish and eat it, or let it swim past to safety. This grizzly is, as many grizzlies are, persnickety. It’ll only eat fish that are at least as big as every fish it ate before.

Each fish weighs some amount, randomly and uniformly distributed between 0 and 1 kilogram. (Each fish’s weight is independent of the others, and the skilled bear can tell how much each weighs just by looking at it.) The bear wants to maximize its intake of salmon, as measured in kilograms. Suppose the bear’s fishing expedition is two hours long. Under what circumstances should it eat the first fish within its reach? What if the expedition is three hours long?

Here is my solution:
[Show Solution]

Random walk with endpoints

The Riddler post for today is about a bar game where you flip a coin and move forward or backward depending on the result. Here is the problem:

Consider a hot new bar game. It’s played with a coin, between you and a friend, on a number line stretching from negative infinity to positive infinity. (It’s a very, very long bar.) You are assigned a winning number, the negative integer -X, and your friend is assigned his own winning number, a positive integer, +Y. A marker is placed at zero on the number line. Then the coin is repeatedly flipped. Every time the coin lands heads, the marker is moved one integer in a positive direction. Every time the coin lands tails, the marker moves one integer in a negative direction. You win if the coin reaches -X first, while your friend wins if the coin reaches +Y first. (Winner keeps the coin.)

How long can you expect to sit, flipping a coin, at the bar? Put another way, what is the expected number of coin flips in a complete game?

Here is my solution:
[Show Solution]

and here is a much slicker solution, courtesy of Daniel Ross:
[Show Solution]

The blue-eyed islanders

Today’s Riddler problem is another classic. The current incarnation of the puzzle is about error-prone mathematicians, while the classic version is about blue-eyed islanders.

A university has 10 mathematicians, each one so proud that, if she learns that she made a mistake in a paper, no matter how long ago the mistake was made, she resigns the next Friday. To avoid resignations, when one of them detects a mistake in the work of another, she tells everyone else but doesn’t inform the mistake-maker. All of them have made mistakes, so each one thinks only she is perfect. One Wednesday, a super-mathematician, whom all respect and believe, comes to visit. She looks at all the papers and says: “Someone here has made a mistake.”

What happens then? Why?

Here is the solution:
[Show Solution]

The puzzle of the pirate booty

Today’s puzzle was posed on the Riddler blog, but it’s actually a classic among problem-solving enthusiasts, and is commonly known as the pirate game. Here is the formulation used in the Riddler:

Ten Perfectly Rational Pirate Logicians (PRPLs) find 10 (indivisible) gold pieces and wish to distribute the booty among themselves.

The pirates each have a unique rank, from the captain on down. The captain puts forth the first plan to divide up the gold, whereupon the pirates (including the captain) vote. If at least half the pirates vote for the plan, it is enacted, and the gold is distributed accordingly. If the plan gets fewer than half the votes, however, the captain is killed, the second-in-command is promoted, and the process starts over. (They’re mutinous, these PRPLs.)

Pirates always vote by the following rules, with the earliest rule taking precedence in a conflict:

1. Self-preservation: A pirate values his life above all else.
2. Greed: A pirate seeks as much gold as possible.
3. Bloodthirst: Failing a threat to his life or bounty, a pirate always votes to kill.

Under this system, how do the PRPLs divide up their gold?

Extra credit: Solve the generalized problem where there are P pirates and G gold pieces.

Here is the solution to the main problem:
[Show Solution]

And here is a solution to the general case:
[Show Solution]

If this sort of problem interests you, I recommend taking a crack at the riddle of the blue-eyed islanders, or the unfaithful husbands. More information here as well.