# Probability: A flaw in logic? The emperor's proposition with marbles and two urns

I've tried searching for this question but couldn't find it on stackexchange. This is a common type of interview question; I ran into it doing brain teasers on a probability puzzles app, and if you fine people agree with my logic, I will inform the app developer that his/her answers are incorrect.

The problem is essentially this:

You are sentenced to death for thievery. The King is magnanimous and decides to put your fate in the hands of chance. You are given $100$ white marbles and 100 black marbles, and $2$ urns. The king will choose an urn at random and pull out a single marble at random; if the marble is white, you live, if its black, you die. If you place the marbles in the best way possible, what is your probability of survival?

I started with the base case: $100$ white marbles in one urn, $100$ black marbles in the other. This comes down to a $50$-$50$ chance of survival. I then worked my way to deciding that placing $1$ white marble in one urn and $99$ white marbles + $100$ black marbles in the other urn would be the "best way possible", which yields the following:

$$P(\text{Survival}) = \frac{1}{2}(1+\frac{99}{199}) \approx .749$$

Selecting $1$ of $2$ urns at random gives $\frac{1}{2}$, the urn containing $1$ marble gives $1$, and the other that contains $99$ white marbles and $100$ black marbles gives $\frac{99}{199}$ because there are $99$ possible white marbles to select out of $199$ total marbles.

The app claims that the correct answer is $\frac{1}{2}(1+\frac{99}{200}) \approx .748$

I see where the $200$ comes from, but I do not think it is right to say that there are $200$ marbles in the other urn. Who is correct?

• As others have stated, you are correct that the solution your propose leads to a $149/199\approx .749$ probability. However, this does not prove that this solution is optimal, i.e. better than any other configurations with $i$ white and $j$ black marbles in the first urn ($0\leq(i,j)\leq100$) --- a total of $101^2$ possibilities. Intuition (?) is that the solution is indeed optimal, as does exploration with numerical software (or even spreadsheet). There may be another way to prove optimality... – A.G. Nov 20 '16 at 19:25
• @A.G. what? Algebra and differentiation can prove it. No need for exploration with numerical software. – smci Nov 20 '16 at 21:38
• It occurs to me that the selection process is not necessarily "purely random." How large are the urns? How many marbles can exist side-by-side on the "bottom layer" before new marbles start forming a second layer? If the urns were small enough, I would dump all black marbles in one, and then dump 99 white marbles on top of the blacks to form a "thick protective layer." On the theory that if the King picks that urn, he'll probably be lazy, and grab one near the top, instead of digging very deep. If I put the last white in Urn #2, there's a 50-50 chance that he picks that urn, and I win. – Lorendiac Nov 20 '16 at 23:24
• Everyone is wrong. The correct solution is not to put any of the black marbles in either urn. – Derek Elkins left SE Nov 21 '16 at 0:31
• @Lorendiac the problem should probably specify that the king instructs you to put each marble in one of the urns. – stewbasic Nov 21 '16 at 5:35

To be even more precise with the proof one can use the law of total probability to define the probability of survival as follows $$P(S)=P(U_1)P(S|U_1)+P(U_2)P(S|U_2)$$ where $U_1,U_2$ - events of the respective urn being picked by the king and $S$ - the event of survival.

The above translates into $$P(S) = q\frac{n_w}{n_w + n_b} + (1 - q)\frac{n - n_w}{2n - n_w - n_b},$$ where $q=\frac{1}{2}$ - the probability of the king picking the first urn; $n_w, n_b = 0,\ldots,n$ - number of white and black marbles in the first urn respectively and $n = 100$ - total number of marbles of each colour.

Maximizing for $n_w$ and $n_b$ gives $$\max_{n_w,n_b}P(S)|_{n=100}=\frac{149}{199}\approx0.7487$$ for either $n_w=1,n_b=0$ or $n_w=n-1,n_b=n$ since the problem is symmetrical.

3D plot of $P(S)|_{n=100}$ with the maxima in the top left and top right corners Interestingly $$\lim_{n\to\infty}\max_{n_w,n_b}P(S)=\frac{3}{4}$$

If you want a proof that your solution is optimal, consider the following:

Clearly, if you put an equal number of black balls and white balls in each urn, the probability of survival is $\frac{1}{2}$.

Thus, in the optimal solution, one of the urns will have more white balls, and the other will have more black balls. The urn with more white balls can't give you a chance of survival of more than $1$, and the urn with more black balls can't give you a chance of survival of more than $99/199$.

It is obviously a mistake because the $\frac {99}{200}$ would imply there are 101 black marbles.

You are right.

The app is wrong and you are correct. Good work.

• I believe it does. OP asked if s/he was correct and gave a good explanation of his/her logic. – Ross Millikan Nov 20 '16 at 17:27