The Diabolical Art of Bar Bets

We discuss all sorts of time-honored puzzles and brain teasers here on the blog, but it’s not often that those discussions wander into the arena known as bar bets.

Simply put, bar bets are contests between two parties wherein money or free drinks are wagered on one’s ability to accomplish a given task. Sometimes, that task is answering a bit of trivia, or engaging in a feat of strength.

But more often than not, bar bets are brain teasers designed to separate a fool from his money.

And if you approach them like brain teasers, you have a better chance of holding onto your hard-earned dough.

You see, many of these bar bets are designed more like carnival games than fair wagers; there’s usually a trick involved, and your opponent is wagering on you playing by the rules, rather than out-thinking the game itself.

Example: the wager seems simple. There is a drink placed completely beneath a hat. You must drink the drink without touching the hat.

It seems impossible, but that’s where you must get creative. You can crouch down near the hat and make a slurping noise, and then declare that you’ve succeeded in drinking the drink. Your curious opponent is forced to lift the hat to check, and at that moment, grab the drink, down it, and you’ve won.

You adhered to the letter of the wager, but not the spirit. But that’s the name of the game.

Be careful, because some bar bets are based solely on wordplay.

Example: Tell your opponent to get a coin out of their pocket and set it under a drink coaster, ensuring that you don’t see it. The wager? That you’ll be able to tell them the date.

As you wave your hand over the coaster, as if doing a magic trick, simply announce today’s date. After all, you weren’t specific. You just said you’d tell them the date, not necessarily the date on the coin.

A similar one involves wagering that you can stay underwater for any particular length of time. Once you make the wager, simply hold a glass of water over your head for that amount of time.

A little cheap? Sure. But hey, a bar bet is a bet. And the devil is in the details.

Some bar bets, though, come down to technique. You present a seemingly impossible task, and then accomplish it in a clever way.

For example, my favorite bar bet: You have a glass (a wine glass, a shot glass, whatever), with a coaster (or business card) on top of it. Atop the coaster is a cigarette, standing on end. And atop the cigarette is a coin.

The wager? Put the coin into the glass without touching the glass, coaster, cigarette, or coin.

There’s no wordplay, no trickery, and no deceit here. This one is all about gravity.

You see, the coaster and the cigarette are light, while the coin is not. If you crouch down below the glass and blow upward, you’ll be able to push aside the coaster and cigarette, leaving the coin to fall straight down into the now-open glass.

Easy. Once you know how it’s done, that is.

What’s your favorite puzzly wager, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Do you have a favorite bar bet, trick, or crafty challenge up your sleeve that leaves others befuddled?

Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.

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A puzzle in your pocket

Brain teasers come in all shapes and sizes, but there’s one particular brand of brain teaser that fits in your pocket. Today we’re talking about matchstick puzzles (or toothpick puzzles).

Matches as we know them (relying on friction to ignite, rather than dipping or crushing) were invented in 1826 by English chemist John Walker, and in the decades that followed, numerous improvements were made, especially in terms of safety and ease of use. Matchsticks soon grew ubiquitous and match companies started putting little puzzles on their boxes.

And the matchstick puzzle was born.

(I have no historical documentation to back me up on this, but I suspect that bar bets also played a role in the rise of matchstick puzzles, because the sort of cleverness and trickery that goes into solving some of these puzzles would be perfectly at home in the repertoire of someone looking to con a few free drinks out of fellow tipplers.)

So, for the uninitiated, what are matchstick puzzles?

These are rearrangement or transformation puzzles, where you’re given a certain shape (laid out in matchsticks, toothpicks, straws, pencils, or anything else of equal length), and you have to move the items into another shape or configuration. Sometimes, it’s simply about placing the matchsticks economically, but other times, you have to get crafty and think outside the box to complete your task.

For instance, here’s the first matchstick puzzle I ever remember seeing:

[This image, and the one below, courtesy of Matchstick Puzzles on Blogspot.]

You have two triangles formed from six matchsticks. Move one matchstick to make four triangles.

Now, you could easily use all of these matchsticks to make four triangles, but that would involve moving more than one of them. So clearly there’s something else at work here if you only need to move one to solve the puzzle.

That something, in this case, is a little visual trickery.

As you can see, you turn one triangle into a numeral four, making the matchsticks literally read out “4 triangle.” Sneaky sneaky.

There are literally hundreds of these puzzles if you go hunting for them. (I found a treasure trove of them here.)

A curious variation, though, applies the same rules to mathematical formulas laid out in matchstick form.

Here’s one that’s been making the rounds on Facebook recently:

Now, the big difference between these mathematical ones and the shape ones mentioned above, as far as I’ve found, is that the math ones are far more alternate prone.

For instance, this equation puzzle has at least four solutions that I’ve found:

  • You can move one match to make the 6 a 0, so that 0+4=4.
  • You can move one match from the 6 to the second 4 to make the 6 a 5 and the 4 a 9, so that 5+4=9.
  • You can move one match from the plus sign to the 6 to make the plus sign a minus sign and the 6 an 8, so that 8-4=4.
  • You can move one match from the plus sign to the equal sign to make the plus sign a minus sign and the equal sign a doesn’t-equal sign, so that 6-4 does not equal 4.

As you can see, with matchstick puzzles,  the possibilities are endless and the building blocks — whether matches, toothpicks, Q-Tips, or straws — are easily accessible.

I’ll leave you one more to ponder, this time provided by the folks at IO9:

Using six matchsticks of equal length, create four identical, equilateral triangles. There’s no need for snapping, burning, or otherwise altering the matchsticks.

Good luck!

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Wanna bet?

One of my most frequent blog post topics is how puzzles and puzzle skills relate to the modern world. I love seeking out new ways to apply what puzzles teach us to everyday life, and there are few puzzle-centric activities more gratifying than using your puzzly skills to pull a fast one on your friends.

Oh yes, I’m talking about bar bets.

We’ve spotlighted Richard Wiseman’s Quirkology videos twice before, and he’s produced another gem, featuring 10 tricks and brain-teasers with which to baffle and challenge your friends.

(Of course, if you keep bamboozling them out of money, they probably won’t want to hang out with you anymore, so use these tricks sparingly.)

Enjoy this latest batch of crafty cons and puzzly shenanigans.