One hundred people play the following game. Their names are written on pieces of paper and put into 100 labeled boxes at random. Each box is labeled with a number from 1 to 100 and one name has been placed inside each box. The boxes are placed on a table in a separate room. The players go into the room one by one and each has to open 99 boxes one after another. After each player finishes and leaves the room, the boxes are closed again. The players are not allowed to communicate with each other in any way, although they have been given one day before the event to discuss their strategies. They only win if every one of the one hundred players avoids opening the box with his or her own name. What is the optimal strategy?
Let me first discuss a simpler version of the game. Each player has to open exactly one box and they win if each one of them finds their name. After each player finishes and leaves the room, the boxes are closed again and the room is re-set.
If all of them decide to open box number 42, they are guaranteed to lose. They can try to open random boxes, then they win with probability (1/100)100. Can they use a joint strategy that is better than random?
Yes, they can. Clearly, two people shouldn’t open the same box. So on the day before, if each agrees to open a box with a different assigned number, their probability to win is one over 100!. I leave it to my readers to prove that this is the best strategy.
What is the difference between this problem and the original problem? Isn’t choosing the last box the same as choosing the first? Aha! When they open 99 boxes they see the names, so they can use this information as part of their strategy.
I hope that this new version is so intriguing that you will start solving this puzzle right away.Share: