Nautilus

A Formula That Shows How to Cheat & Triumph at Tournaments

Gryffindor and Slytherin are about to play their annual badminton match. The best players from each house are supposed to face off on court one, the second best on court two, and so on.

Slytherin’s coach knows that Gryffindor will put their players on the right courts, in order of their skill, because Gryffindors are honest. It’s up to him to teach them the error of their ways. After all, honesty is nothing but a wasted opportunity to cheat.

By strategically putting his players in a different order, can he increase the number of games his team is expected to win? If so, what is the best order to put Slytherin’s players in?

A college friend of mine named Howard Stern (yes, his real name; no, not that Howard Stern) came up with this puzzle in 1980, when he was a graduate student at M.I.T. He worked on it awhile but didn’t completely solve it. Ever since then, he has asked mathematicians about it whenever he got the chance, and never found one who knew the answer. Finally, in 2012, he emailed the question to me. (The

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