What Math Lessons Can We Learn from the Game of Nim?

Have you played the game of Nim before? Do you know what lessons we can pull from the game? Watch me play the game with two of my daughters Jules and Lucie.

You can see right when the game gets to 4 left that each girl knows they lost! You can see it on their faces and even Lucie explains it to us by giving us all the options. Jules even wonders out loud “How did you do that” She knows there’s some trick here.

So, let’s see how I’m the World Champion at this game.

This game is a variation on the game of Nim

“Nim is a mathematical game of strategy in which two players take turns removing objects from distinct heaps. On each turn, a player must remove at least one object, and may remove any number of objects provided they all come from the same heap. The goal of the game is to avoid being the player who must remove the last object.” 

I also play this game with my students. The interesting thing about this game is that there is a winning strategy. And in our variation of the game if the player to go FIRST knows the winning strategy then they are guaranteed to win. So even though it looks like I’m the World Champion it just comes down to math.

Let’s explain,

Jules and Lucie know they have lost the game when they are left with 4 to choose. So as a player if you can leave 4 objects for your opponent to choose from you have won the game!! So now the game becomes who can leave 4 for their opponent to choose from. How can you always get to a position where you leave 4 for your opponent? Think about it for a moment. What number should I leave my opponent to choose from so that no matter what they do I can then leave them with 4 to choose from?

Right..l Should leave them with 8 to choose from! And then where’s my next winning position? 12 then 16 then 20. Multiples of 4!

So right from the start since there was 21 objects in the pile I can get to 20 on my first move by going first! And win the game every time.

In my class I usually put some cash down on the table to enhance the experience. “Anyone who beats me at the game will get the cash!”

Every time I play this game I’m reminded of my math education as a student. You see, in the game of Nim if you know the winning strategy you win every time. You know the path to follow. You see how it works. If you don’t know the strategy you are playing the game almost as if you are blind. You’re not sure how your choices will affect the final moves near the end. You are hoping the moves will pay off down the line.

As a student most of my math educational experience was like the experience of the player in the game of Nim that doesn’t know the strategy. I followed the teacher (who does know the “strategy”) blindly. I wasn’t sure of how my “moves” would pay off in the end. I just followed the rules hoping for good outcome.

I was such a good rule follower that sometimes it awarded me some success. In the fourth grade I remember earning one of those big puffy, stick off the page stickers for being a master multiplier. Yay go me!!


But when it came to being pushed to show my understanding the wheels fell off. Here is a 4th grade test on multiplying (when I look it over now it looks like I must have fixed this up after getting it back). Math for me was like a series of tricks that I could memorize and then try to perform.


Thinking back to playing the game with my daughters you can hear Jules, the first girl in the video ask right at the end “How did you do that?” She was thinking this is all a trick! The game was like a magic trick. How many of our students see their math education as a series of tricks? Lots of them I bet.

We don’t want kids thinking math is just a series of tricks to memorize. If they do think the math they are learning is a trick then it’s our duty to uncover the trick. Show them how it works. Like in the game of Nim students should know why the first player has the winning strategy.

This is what I want from my math lessons. Let’s continue to fuel sense making in our students instead of showing them just tricks. So, in your next class play the game of Nim with them. Blow their socks off and win 3 times in a row…..but don’t leave it as a trick. Uncover the math and strategy behind it together!

A great read is Nix The Tricks by Tina Cardone https://nixthetricks.com/

You can read more about how to fuel sense making for students from Kyle Pearce as he describes a task around Donuts.  https://tapintoteenminds.com/3act-math/donut-delight/

and also here from me showing a task about the defrost function on my microwave http://mrorr-isageek.com/fuel-sense-making-black-box-defrost/