Math Circle Session 8: The Circle Game & Puzzles

Today was the 8th session of our math circle for primary school children. We only had four of the original six children today, for a variety of reasons, but it seemed to work well.

We first ran through a puzzle we set the kids to think about over the last week. The idea of the puzzle, taken from Martin Gardner’s book, is as follows. Take a piece of paper shown below. Imagine this is a map, that you have to fold up (I find folding up maps really hard!)

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 17.10.16You have to fold only along the lines shown, and must form a folded “map” with the 1 on top, facing up. The next number down after the 1 must be the 2, after the 2 must be the 3, and so on until the 8 lies on the bottom.

Some kids had tried this at home, some had not (as a policy, we never make “homework” compulsory) but none had found the solution, so we covered this today.

We then moved onto the main part of the session, “The Circle Game”, adapted from Rozhkovskaya’s book. The kids were each given a worksheet consisting of 16 points equally spaced around a circle, and asked to play a game in pairs. The rules of the game are as follows:

  • take it in turns
  • on each turn, connect one point to another point with a straight line; any pair of points can be chosen, but no line drawn can cross another line already drawn

The last player to be able to draw a line is the winner.

The kids enthusiastically played this game, trying to outsmart each other. However, at the end of play, we had three games in which the first player to move had always won (though the points selected were different). I also asked the kids to count the number of moves made, which was found to be 29 in each game. The question was posed: “why does the first player always win?”

One child quickly pointed out that if the number of moves is an odd number, it must always be the first player who wins. Another child suggested that we should try 17 points around the circle as then “it would be an even number of moves and Player 2 would win”. I suggested that instead of making the game more complicated, we simplify it to the smallest possible number of points on the circle, which the children identified as two points.

Children very quickly found that two points would always result in one move, three points in three moves, and four points in five moves. At this point the child who suggested that 17 points would result in a win for Player 2 withdrew his opinion, and all children were convinced that the number of moves would always be odd and therefore Player 1 would always win.

We then looked at generalising the number of moves required for n points. Children very quickly noticed that the number of moves increased by two for each new point added. Due to the significant difference in ages in the group, I wasn’t sure how comfortable children would be with an algebraic generalisation of the result, but it turns out that even the youngest was comfortable with the formula moves = 2 \times points - 3, which they got to via my suggestion that if the numbers were going up by two each time, try looking at the relationship between moves and 2 \times points.

I was surprised by how quickly we had reached this point in the session, so I rounded off the exploration by demonstrating an inductive proof of this formula in graphical form on the whiteboard (see, for example, Theorem 1.8 at

One child was keen to play this game with his dad, and it was suggested that the “youngest goes first” rule should be applied, possibly after agreeing a prize for winning!

With the remaining spare time for the session, we set the following puzzle – also from Gardner’s book – to begin during the session and to continue to think about over the week. Consider the grid below.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 17.35.27The puzzle is to fill each empty cell with a single digit, so that the bottom row forms a number between 0 and 10^{10}-1. The challenge is that the digit under the heading zero must equal the total number of zero digits in this number, the digit under the 1 must equal the total number of 1 digits in this number, and so on. I thought it might be hard for the kids to understand the puzzle, but actually they understood it quite easily. They were amazed when I told them that the answer is unique: there is only one of the 10 billion possible numbers that works! It was interesting to observe the different reactions to this: some kids decided they’d never be able to find the solution, and therefore decided not to put much effort into the task. Others decided this was a challenge, and kept plugging away. One child was determined to take it home so that his dad would help.

Overall, I think this session went very well.

Update: I received an email tonight from the school headteacher with the solution to this number puzzle. I love that he’s so into it!

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