Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog » Blog Archive » Poisoned Wine


Here is another exciting puzzle posted on Facebook by Konstantin Knop.

Puzzle. Eight glasses of wine are placed in a circle on a round table. Three sages are invited to take the following challenge. In the presence of the first sage, five glasses are filled with good wine and the other three with poisoned wine, indistinguishable from the good wine. After drinking the poisoned wine, the person will die a terrible tormented death. Each sage has to drink one full glass. The first sage is not allowed to give any hints to the other sages, but they can see which glass he chooses before making their own selection. The three sages can agree on their strategy beforehand. What is the strategy to keep them all alive?
An extra question. Does a strategy exist if fewer than eight glasses are placed around the table?

Let’s start with two trivial variations. If there is only one sage, s/he knows which glass to drink. Now, suppose there is only one poisoned glass and any number of sages. If the total number of good glasses is not less than the number of sages, the solution is obvious. The first sage drinks the glass clockwise from the poisoned one, and the other sages continue clockwise.

The next slightly less trivial case involves two sages and two poisoned glasses. If the total number of glasses is at least five, the sages are safe. The reason: there are at least two good glasses in a row. So the sages can agree that the first one drinks a good glass followed clockwise by another good glass. If the total number of glasses is less than 5, there is no reliable strategy, as the reader can check.

The above idea works if the number of sages is S, the number of poisoned glasses is P, and the total number of glasses is T, where T is greater than SP. Then, the strategy is the same since there is a guaranteed continuous stretch of S good glasses.

On the other hand, one can argue that for S and P more than 1, and T = S + P, it is impossible to find a strategy.

Our original problem corresponds to the case S = P = 3, and T = 8. Presumably, the strategy doesn’t exist if S = P = 3, and T < 8. If the 8-glasses problem is difficult, here is a much easier version, corresponding to the case S = 2, P = 3, and T = 6.

An Easier Puzzle. Six glasses of wine are placed in a circle on a round table. Two sages are invited to take the following challenge. In the presence of the first sage, three glasses are filled with good wine and the other three with poisoned wine, indistinguishable from the good wine. After drinking the poisoned wine, the person will die a terrible tormented death. Each sage has to drink one full glass. The first sage is not allowed to give any hints to the other sages, but they can see which glass he chooses before making their own selection. The two sages can agree on their strategy beforehand. What is the strategy to keep them all alive?

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