Chopsticks Game – A Combinatorial Challenge


So I don’t know if anyone else is familiar with this game, but I just remember playing it with friends in middle school and it occurred to me the other day that it would be an interesting game to analyze combinatorially, and perhaps write a game playing algorithm for. This game can be found in more detail here:

Players: 2+.

Rules of Play: Players each begin with two “piles” of points, and each pile has 1 point to begin with. We used fingers to represent this, one finger on each hand.

On each turn, a player can choose to do one of two things:

  1. Send points from one of the player’s pile to one of the opponents piles. So if Player 1 wanted to send 1 point to Player 2’s left pile, then Player 2 would have 2 points in the left pile and Player 1 would still have 1 point in his left pile. Player 1 does not lose points, they are simply “cloned” over to the opponents pile.
  2. If the player has an even number of points in one pile and zero points in the other pile, the player may elect to split his points evenly between the two piles. This consumes the player’s turn. Example: if Player 1 has (0     4) then he can use his turn to split his points, giving him (2     2).

If a player gets exactly 5 points in either pile, that pile loses all of its points and reverts to 0. However, if points applied goes over 5 (such as adding 2 points to a 4 point pile), then the remainder of points are added. (meaning that 4 + 2 = 1). The opponent simply gets points mod 5.

If a player gets to 0 points in both their piles, then they lose. The last person that has points remaining wins.
Okay, so let’s break this down. Here’s an example game for those of you that are more visually oriented (follow the turns by reading left to right, moves are marked with red arrows):

Okay, so let’s point out a few things about this game.

  • On turn 4, player 2 adds 3 points to player 1’s 2 points, making 5. The rules state that any pile with exactly 5 points reverts to zero.
  • On turn 7, player 2 adds 3 points to 3 points. 3+3=6 as we all know, but 6 \equiv 1 \mod 5, so player 1 now has one point in his pile.
  • On turn 13, player 2 decides to split his points, turning his one pile of 4 into two piles of 2. This consumes his turn.
  • On turn 15, player 2 adds 2 points to player 1’s 3, thus reverting his pile to zero. Player 1 now has no more points to play with, so player 2 wins.

We can think about this game as a combinatorial problem. What are the optimal positions to play? How would one program a computer to play this game? I plan to create an interactive web game where players can try this for themselves.


2 comments on “Chopsticks Game – A Combinatorial Challenge

  1. Rag'd says:

    I don’t understand turn 5 to turn 6. The player can steal points ?

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