Shareway to Seven

An adaptation of an interesting distribution puzzle from Joseph Degrazia’s Math is Fun (1954):

After a successful year of plunder on the high seas, a pirate ship returns to its island base. The pirate chief, who enjoys practical jokes and has a mathematical bent, hands out heavy bags of gold coins to his seven lieutenants. But when the seven lieutenants open the bags, they discover that each of them has received a different number of coins.

They ask the captain why they don’t have equal shares. The pirate chief laughs and tells them to re-distribute the coins according to the following rule: “At each stage, the lieutenant with most coins must give each of his comrades as many coins as that comrade already possesses.”

The lieutenants follow the rule and each one in turn becomes the lieutenant with most coins. When the seventh distribution is over, all seven of them have 128 coins, the coins are fairly distributed, and the rule no longer applies.

The puzzle is this: How did the pirate captain originally allocate the coins to his lieutenants?


If you start at the beginning and work forward, you’ll have to solve a fiendishly complicated set of simultaneous equations. If you start at the end and work backwards, the puzzle will resolve itself almost like magic.

The puzzle is actually about powers of 2, because 128 = 2^7 and when each of six lieutenants receives as many coins as he already has, he doubles his number of coins. Accordingly, before the seventh and final distribution, six of the lieutenants must have had 64 coins and the seventh must have had 128 + 6 * 64 coins = 512 coins.

At the stage before that, five of the lieutenants must have had 32 coins (so that they will have 64 coins after the sixth distribution), one must have had 256 coins (so that he will have 512 coins after the sixth distribution), and one must have had 64 + 5 * 32 + 256 coins = 480 coins. And so on. This is what the solution looks like:

128, 128, 128, 128, 128, 128, 128
512, 64, 64, 64, 64, 64, 64
256, 480, 32, 32, 32, 32, 32
128, 240, 464, 16, 16, 16, 16
64, 120, 232, 456, 8, 8, 8
32, 60, 116, 228, 452, 4, 4
16, 30, 58, 114, 226, 450, 2
8, 15, 29, 57, 113, 225, 449

So the pirate captain must have originally allocated the coins like this: 8, 15, 29, 57, 113, 225, 449 (note how 8 * 2 – 1 = 15, 15 * 2 – 1 = 29, 29 * 2 – 1 = 57…).

The puzzle can be adapted to other powers. Suppose the rule runs like this: “At each stage, the lieutenant with most coins must give each of his comrades twice as many coins as that comrade already possesses.” If the pirate captain has six lieutenants, after each distribution each of five will have n + 2n = three times the number of coins that he previously possessed. The six lieutenants each end up with 729 coins = 3^6 coins and the solution looks like this:

13, 37, 109, 325, 973, 2917
39, 111, 327, 975, 2919, 3
117, 333, 981, 2925, 9, 9
351, 999, 2943, 27, 27, 27
1053, 2997, 81, 81, 81, 81
3159, 243, 243, 243, 243, 243
729, 729, 729, 729, 729, 729

For powers of 4, the rule runs like this: “At each stage, the lieutenant with most coins must give each of his comrades three times as many coins as that comrade already possesses.” With five lieutenants, each of them ends up with 1024 coins = 4^5 coins and the solution looks like this:

16, 61, 241, 961, 3841
64, 244, 964, 3844, 4
256, 976, 3856, 16, 16
1024, 3904, 64, 64, 64
4096, 256, 256, 256, 256
1024, 1024, 1024, 1024, 1024

For powers of 5, the rule runs like this: “At each stage, the lieutenant with most coins must give each of his comrades four times as many coins as that comrade already possesses.” With four lieutenants, each of them ends up with 625 coins = 5^4 coins and the solution looks like this:

17, 81, 401, 2001
85, 405, 2005, 5
425, 2025, 25, 25
2125, 125, 125, 125
625, 625, 625, 625

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