The other I was cutting the hedge and the smell of cut box reminded me of my late grandad. He was a pretty cool guy and inspired me a lot to study maths and physics, as he was always busy solving some puzzle or other.

One of the games he taught us was “take the stick”. This is a two player game where a certain number of ticks are drawn on each row. Each player has to remove at least one or more ticks from a particular row. The last player to remove a stick loses. We used to play with five rows containing five, four, three, two and one stick respectively. I always has a stinking suspicion that the first player always wins if they play optimally, but could never prove it. I figured, now that I am all grown up I should give it a go. I should add the old man was a bit of a luddite, so I probably should not do it with a computer!

The technique that I will use to prove this, is similar to a minimax algorithm. In particular, I observe that there are a finite number of states in the game and that each of these can be converted into some of the other ones. This means that the game can be represented as a directed graph. For example, if we were playing “take the stick” with two rows, the first with two ticks, the second with one, the directed graph representing every possible game would be:

In this picture each box contains the disposition of sticks in a particular state of the game. Since the player to remove the last stick loses, the box with one tick is a losing state. In addition, any configuration of the game which can lead to a losing state, is itself a winning state. Recapping there are two types of states:

- Winning states can lead in the next moves to a losing state
- Anything that is not a winning state is a losing state. The state with a single tick is by default a losing state

For any game except for the 2-1 game, drawing out the entire graph by hand is difficult, too many states and too many arrows. I therefore invent a bit of notation. I am going to therefore invent a bit of notation: winning states are going to be drawn in a rectangular square and losing games are going to be drawing in a circular one. Each losing game will be labelled A,B,C etc. and each winning game will be labelled with the letter of one of the losing games that it is connected to. Furthermore I am going to cunningly order the states by ensuring that the possible successors of a state are always after it (*).

For the 3-2-1 game the graph now looks like this:

This shows that in the 3-2-1 game, the starting position is a losing position. Whatever the starting player does, the next player will be in a winning position. Clearly if the 3-2-1 game is a losing position, the 4-3-2-1 is a winning one. But what about 5-4-3-2-1 that we used to play so often? This is at the limit of being doable by hand as it has about 130 individual states. The following pictures show my graphic for this case:

So, clearly, the 5-4-3-2-1 game is a winning game. (A) winning strategy is to remove one of the ticks from the row of five, leaving the second player in the 4-4-3-2-1 position which is a losing one!

(*) This is ensured by sorting the rows of strings such that the longest one comes first and then ordering the states such that they are in lexical order.