## Motivation

I recently came across a fun clip from a 2014 movie called X + Y that features a clever mathematical proof of the eventual result of a simple card game. I was impressed by the proof and also by the fact that this clip had been viewed more than 40 million times! While the proof has caught the attention of many, I feel that it also represented a nice opportunity to show how computer science can make mathematics a little bit more tangible. Be sure to go all the way to the bottom to play with an interactive simulation I made for this game!

But before we get into that, let’s take a peek at the video.

To reiterate, the game is simple:

• you have a row of cards all face down
• a move consists of turning a face-down card up AND turning over the card immediately to the right (which might be face-up or face-down)

Claim: no matter what choice of turns, this sequence of turns must terminate.

The (rough) proof of the claim:

• If we let 1 represent a face-down card and 0 represent a face-up card, then the row of cards represents a positive binary integer.
• Regardless of the move, the resulting binary integer representation will always decrease.
• Therefore, since the number can’t go negative, the moves must stop.

We could flesh out this proof a little bit more, but that’s not my primary purpose with this post.

## Math vs Computer Science

In college, I studied math because I wanted to get a lot of practice solving problems like these. The road to a solution is often long and arduous, but once you figure it out, it’s a very satisfying. Besides, you can then move right on to the next problem.

When it comes to writing software, you might have to figure out the same problem, but even once you’ve finally figured it out, you’ll then have to spend a lot of time writing the code to actually use this solution.

Back in college, I thought the main problem-solving part was the most important part and the software portion was just an added bonus. In the time since then, however, I’ve come to learn that I was missing out on some of the good stuff by moving on too quickly to the next problem. With taking the time to write a piece of software for a particular problem, you get the opportunity to really see the problem coming to life as you steep in the problem for longer.

## Python Demo

Returning to this card-flipping problem, we’ve see that the student proves the claim with a few sentences. But what I’ve done here is write out a python script that runs through a set of moves and shows that it eventually does indeed terminate.

I did make one assumption: you are allowed to flip over the last card, but since there’s no card to the right to flip over, that’s simply the end of the move. If you don’t want to accept this assumption then I believe you must limit yourself not flipping over the last card. In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

I wrote a python function called `flip_til_you_cant_game(num_cards)` that represents playing this game where you choose your turns at random. Before I share the code, here’s a sample output for a game with 20 cards. Each arrow points to the card that was used for the move.

``````>>> flip_til_you_cant_game(20)
11111111111111111111 (base 10: 1048575)

11111110011111111111 (base 10: 1042431)
^
11111110010011111111 (base 10: 1041663)
^
11100110010011111111 (base 10: 943359)
^
11100110010011100111 (base 10: 943335)
^
11100110010010000111 (base 10: 943239)
^
10000110010010000111 (base 10: 550023)
^
10000110010010000001 (base 10: 550017)
^
10000110010001000001 (base 10: 549953)
^
10000000010001000001 (base 10: 525377)
^
01000000010001000001 (base 10: 263233)
^
01000000010001000000 (base 10: 263232)
^
01000000010000100000 (base 10: 263200)
^
01000000001000100000 (base 10: 262688)
^
01000000000100100000 (base 10: 262432)
^
00100000000100100000 (base 10: 131360)
^
00100000000100010000 (base 10: 131344)
^
00100000000010010000 (base 10: 131216)
^
00010000000010010000 (base 10: 65680)
^
00010000000001010000 (base 10: 65616)
^
00001000000001010000 (base 10: 32848)
^
00001000000001001000 (base 10: 32840)
^
00000100000001001000 (base 10: 16456)
^
00000100000001000100 (base 10: 16452)
^
00000100000001000010 (base 10: 16450)
^
00000100000000100010 (base 10: 16418)
^
00000010000000100010 (base 10: 8226)
^
00000010000000010010 (base 10: 8210)
^
00000010000000010001 (base 10: 8209)
^
00000010000000010000 (base 10: 8208)
^
00000001000000010000 (base 10: 4112)
^
00000001000000001000 (base 10: 4104)
^
00000001000000000100 (base 10: 4100)
^
00000000100000000100 (base 10: 2052)
^
00000000100000000010 (base 10: 2050)
^
00000000010000000010 (base 10: 1026)
^
00000000010000000001 (base 10: 1025)
^
00000000010000000000 (base 10: 1024)
^
00000000001000000000 (base 10: 512)
^
00000000000100000000 (base 10: 256)
^
00000000000010000000 (base 10: 128)
^
00000000000001000000 (base 10: 64)
^
00000000000000100000 (base 10: 32)
^
00000000000000010000 (base 10: 16)
^
00000000000000001000 (base 10: 8)
^
00000000000000000100 (base 10: 4)
^
00000000000000000010 (base 10: 2)
^
00000000000000000001 (base 10: 1)
^
00000000000000000000 (base 10: 0)
^
``````

Now, here’s the code for this function.

``````from typing import List
import random

def flip_til_you_cant_game(num_cards: int = 20):

cards = ["1"] * num_cards
facedown_i = list(range(num_cards))
spaces = [" "] * num_cards

def take_turn() -> int:
random_down_card_i = random.sample(facedown_i, 1).pop()  # choose random down card

# flip chosen card
cards[random_down_card_i] = "0"
facedown_i.remove(random_down_card_i)

# flip card to the right (if not last card)
if random_down_card_i < num_cards - 1:
right_card_i = random_down_card_i + 1
right_card = cards[right_card_i]
if right_card == "1":
cards[right_card_i] = "0"
facedown_i.remove(right_card_i)
else:
cards[right_card_i] = "1"
facedown_i.append(right_card_i)

return random_down_card_i

def visualize_turn(cards, chosen_i=None):
if chosen_i is not None:
spaces[chosen_i] = "^"

binary_str = "".join(cards)
print(f"{binary_str} (base 10: {int(binary_str, 2)})")
print("".join(spaces))

if chosen_i is not None:
spaces[chosen_i] = " "

visualize_turn(cards)
while facedown_i:
chosen_i = take_turn()
visualize_turn(cards, chosen_i)
``````

## Interactive Demo

Below you’ll find an interactive demo. Once you’ve solve this simple 8-card version, you can move on to choosing whatever number of cards you want.

Here is a link to a full-page view if you’d prefer.