I am a fan of the mathematical card game “24s”, in which four cards are turned over simultaneously, and all the players search for ways to make the number 24 by combining the four numbers shown with any mathematical operators they like (I have always played with addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, powers, roots, and logarithms, but the list can be made longer or shorter depending on the preferences and mathematical skill of the players). The number on every card must be used, and no card can be used more than once. Face cards are pulled from the deck before playing and aces == 1. Suits don’t matter for the game; the deck is being used only as a random number generator.

The game is addictively fun, combining elements of math, pattern recognition, and memory. I learned the game in high school, and used to play with expedition-mates when climbing high mountains, to test for loss of mental acuity at altitude. Recently, I’ve been teaching my daughter how to play. She does pretty well!

Solutions are possible for most hands (about 83% of hands, for the normal rule set, by my computation), and in most solvable cases, more than one solution is possible. In case of a tie, cards can be distributed back to the players, or victory can be given to the newest player, or to the person who came up with the most solutions, or the most interesting solution.

Take for example the hand 2,3,10,10.

Two solutions are possible. The “easy” one is

But the more impressive one, remembered decades later who saw it played, is

I mention this game because I recently realized that the game is solvable, and that so long as you restrict yourself to binary operators, it is possible to determine absolutely which hands can be turned into 24 and which can’t, and how many solutions are possible for each hand, and what those solutions are.

I’ll discuss my method in future posts.