Playing with Colin Wright’s card puzzle

Aperiodical is hosting an “internet math off” right now and lots of interesting math ideas are being shared:

The Big Internet Math Off

The shared by Colin Wright caught my attention yesterday and I wanted to share it with the boys today:

The page for the Edmund Harriss v. Colin Wright Math Off

The idea is easy to play with on your own -> deal out a standard deck of cards (arranged in any order you like) into 13 piles of 4 cards. By picking any card you like (but exactly one card) from each of the 4 piles, can you get a complete 13-card sequence Ace, 2, 3, . . . , Queen, King?

Here’s how I introduced Wright’s puzzle. I started the way he started – when you deal the 13 piles, is it likely that the top card in each pile will form the Ace through King sequence:

Now we moved on to the main problem – can you choose 1 card from each of the 13 piles to get the Ace through King sequence?

As always, it is fascinating to hear how kids think through advanced mathematical ideas. By the end of the discussion here both kids thought that you’d always be able to rearrange the cards to get the right sequence.

Now I had the boys try to find the sequence. Their approach was essentially the so-called “greedy algorithm”. And it worked just fine.

To wrap up, we shuffled the cards again and tried the puzzle a second time. This time it was significantly more difficult to find the Ace through King sequences, but they got there eventually.

They had a few ideas about why their procedure worked, but they both thought that it would be pretty hard to prove that it worked all the time.

I’m always happy to learn about advanced math ideas that are relatively easy to share with kids. Wright’s card puzzle is one that I hope many people see and play around with – it is an amazing idea for kids (and everyone!) to see.

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One thought on “Playing with Colin Wright’s card puzzle

  1. …BUT the really fun, illuminating part (I think) is the 2nd bit of Colin’s challenge to then REPEAT the effort with 3 and 2-card piles (having removed from play the prior top cards).

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