Hats and Time

Here is a classical puzzle I often give to my students.

Puzzle. The sultan has three red hats and two blue ones. He wants to test his three wizards, who know his hat collection. He asks them to close their eyes and puts a hat on each of their heads. After the wizards open their eyes, they see each other’s hats, but not their own. The sultan asks each of them to guess the color of their own hat, without communicating with each other. In this particular test, the sultan only puts red hats on the wizards’ heads. Sometime after the wizards open their eyes, one of them guesses his hat’s color. How did he guess?

Here is how my students explain the solution. If a wizard sees two blue hats, he immediately knows that his hat must be red. That means, if no one immediately announces their hat’s color, at least two of them are wearing red hats. In this case, if a wizard sees one red hat, he knows that his hat must also be red. So such a wizard can guess the color of his hat. If after some more time, no one announces their hat color, all the hats worn must be red.

After the students solve the problem, I run an evil experiment on them. I show the students my two blue and three red hats and ask three volunteers to close their eyes. Then, I put two red hats and one blue hat on their heads, and the blue hat goes on the fastest thinker in the group. I did this experiment many times. Half the time, the fastest thinker overestimates how fast the other students think and guesses, mistakenly, that s/he is wearing the red hat. Gotcha!

After the experiment, we discuss what is really going on in this puzzle. This is how I start my class on common knowledge.


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