The first round of the British Mathematical Olympiad was sat yesterday. The questions can be found here and video solutions here. My comments on the first four questions are in the previous post.

Overall, I didn’t think any of the questions on this paper were unusually difficult by the standard of BMO1, but I found everything slightly more time-consuming than typical. I thought Question 5 was a great problem, and I tried lots of things unsuccessfully, first, and so wanted to discuss it in slightly more technical language. For Question 6 I made a decisive mistake, which I’ll explain, and which cost a lot of time. But in general, my point is that the back end of the paper was a little fiddlier than normal, and required longer written solutions, and perhaps many students might have had less time than expected to attack them anyway after details earlier in the paper.

**Question Five**

As I said before, I thought this question was quite challenging. Not because the solution is particularly exotic or complicated, but because there were so many possible things that might have worked. In my opinion it would not have been out of place at the start of an IMO paper, because it’s perfectly possible to have enough good ideas that eliminating the ones that don’t work takes an hour, or hours. Even though it slightly spoils the flow of the solution, I’m particularly trying to emphasise the tangents that didn’t work, mostly for reassurance to anyone who spent a long time struggling.

I was thinking about this question in terms of a 2Nx2N board, where N is even, and for the given question equal to 100. I spent a while thinking that the bound was 8N-4, corresponding to taking the middle two rows and the middle two columns, but *not* the 2×2 square which is their intersection. If you think of a comb as a ‘handle’ of 1xN cells, with an extra N/2 alternating cells (say, ‘teeth’) bolted on, then it’s clear this construction works because there’s never space to fit in a handle, let alone the teeth.

I couldn’t prove that this was optimal though. A standard way to prove a given bound K was optimal would be to produce a tiling on the board with K combs, where every cell is included in exactly one comb. But this is clearly not possible in this situation, since the number of cells in a comb (which is 150) does not divide the total number of cells on the board.

Indeed, the general observation that if you take a comb and a copy of the comb rotated by 180, the teeth of the second comb can mesh perfectly with the teeth of the first comb to generate a 3xN unit. I wasted a moderate amount of time pursuing this route.

[Note, it will be obvious in a minute why I’m writing ‘shaded’ instead of ‘coloured’.]

But in motivating the construction, I was merely trying to shade cells so that they intersected every possible 1xN handle, and maybe I could prove that it was optimal for this. In fact, I can’t prove it’s optimal because it isn’t optimal – indeed it’s clear that a handle through one of the middle rows intersects plenty of shaded cells, not just one. However, with this smaller problem in mind, it didn’t take long to come up with an alternative proposal, namely splitting the board into equal quarters, and shading the diagonals of each quarter, as shown.

It seems clear that you can’t fit in a 1xN handle, and any sensible tiling with 1xN handles contains exactly one shaded cell, so this shading (with 4N shaded cells) is optimal. But is it optimal for a comb itself?

Consider a shading which works, so that all combs include a shaded cell. It’s clear that a comb is contained within a 2xN block, and in such a 2xN block, there are four possible combs, as shown.

You need to cover all these combs with some shading somewhere. But if you put the shaded cell on a tooth of comb A, then you haven’t covered comb B. And if you put the shaded cell on the handle of comb A, then you haven’t covered one of comb C and comb D. You can phrase this via a colouring argument too. If you use four colours with period 2×2, as shown

then any comb involves exactly three colours, and so one of them misses out the colour of the shaded cell. (I hope it’s clear what I mean, even with the confusing distinction between ‘shaded’ and ‘coloured’ cells.)

Certainly we have shown that any 2xN block must include at least two shaded cells. And that’s pretty much it. We have a tiling with 2N copies of a 2xN block, and with at least two shaded cells in each, that adds to at least 4N shaded cells overall.

Looking back on the method, we can identify another way to waste time. Tiling a board, eg a chessboard with dominos is a classic motif, which often relies on clever colouring. So it’s perhaps lucky that I didn’t spot this colouring observation earlier. Because the argument described really does use the *local* properties of how the combs denoted A-D overlap. An attempt at a global argument might start as follows: we can identify 2N combs which don’t use colour 1, and tile this subset of the grid with them, so we need to shade at least 2N cells from colours {2,3,4}. Similarly for sets of colours {1,3,4}, {1,2,4}, and {1,2,3}. But if we reduce the problem to this, then using roughly 2N/3 of each colour fits this global requirement, leading to a bound of 8N/3, which isn’t strong enough. [1]

**Question Six**

A word of warning. Sometimes it’s useful to generalise in problems. In Q5, I was thinking in terms of N, and the only property of N I used was that it’s even. In Q4, we ignored 2017 and came back to it at the end, using only the fact that it’s odd. By contrast, in Q2, the values did turn out to be important for matching the proof bounds with a construction.

You have to guess whether 300 is important or not here. Let’s see.

I have a natural first question to ask myself about the setup, but some notation is useful. Let be the ordering of the cards. We require that is an integer for every . Maybe the values of these integers will be important, so hold that thought, but for now, replace with the divisibility statement that .

I don’t think it’s worth playing with small examples until I have a better idea whether the answer is 5 or 295. So the natural first question is: “what does it mean to have such that you can’t pick a suitable ?”

It means that there is no integer k in such that , which for now we write as

Consider the congruence class of modulo n. There are either or integers under consideration in this congruence class. If no such k exists, then all of the relevant integers in this congruence class must appear amongst . At this stage, we’re trying to get a feel for when this could happen, so lower bounds on n are most relevant. Therefore, if we get stuck when trying to find , we have

(*)

which is summarised more succinctly as

(**)

[Note, with this sort of bounding argument, I find it helpful to add intermediate steps like (*) in rough. The chance of getting the wrong direction, or the wrong choice of is quite high here. Of course, you don’t need to include the middle step in a final write-up.]

We can check that (**) is false when and true when . Indeed, both versions of (*) are true when .

So we know the minimum failure length is at least 17. But is there a failing sequence of length 17? At a meta-level, it feels like there should be. That was a very natural bounding argument for 17 (which recall corresponds to ), and it’s easy to believe that might be part of an official solution. If we achieve equality throughout the argument, that’s most of the way to a construction as well. It won’t be so easy to turn this argument into a construction for because there won’t be equality anywhere.

We have to hope there is a construction for . What follows is a description of a process to derive (or fail to derive) such a construction. In a solution, one would not need to give this backstory.

Anyway, in such a construction, let describe the congruence class modulo 18 which is exhausted by . I’m going to hope that because then the calculations will be easier since everything’s a multiple of 18. We haven’t yet used the fact that for a problem, we need . We definitely have to use that. There are 16 multiples of 18 (ie relevant integers in the congruence class), so exactly one of the terms so far, say , is not a multiple of 18. But then

which can’t happen. With a bit of experimentation, we find a similar problem making a construction using the other congruence classes with 16 elements, namely .

So we have to tackle a different class. If then our sequence must be

in some order. In fact, let’s add extra notation, so our sequence is

where is a permutation of {0,…,16}. And so we require

(%)

for . But clearly we can lop off that , and could ignore the 18. Can we find a permutation such that

*This was where I wasted a long time*. I played around with lots of examples and kept getting stuck. Building it up one term at a time, I would typically get stuck around k=9,10. And I had some observations that in all the attempted constructions, the values of were around 8 and 9 too when I got stuck.

I became convinced this subproblem wasn’t possible, and decided that would be enough to show that n=18 wasn’t a possible failure length. I was trying to show the subproblem via a parity argument (how must the s alternate odd/even to ensure all the even partial sums are even) but this wasn’t a problem. Then I came up with a valid argument. We must have

which means must be 128 = 15×8 + 8, ie . But then we also have , which forces $latex\lambda_{16}=8$ also. Which isn’t possible.

If this then hadn’t wasted enough time, I then tried to come up with a construction for n=19, for which there are lots more variables, and took a lot more time, and seemed to be suffering from similar problems, just in a more complicated way. So I became convinced I must have made a mistake, because I was forced down routes that were way too complicated for a 3.5 hour exam. Then I found it…

*What did I do wrong?* I’ll just say directly. I threw away the 18 after (%). This made the statement stronger. (And in fact false.) Suppose instead I’d thrown away a factor of 9 (or no factors at all, but it’s the residual 2 that’s important). Then I would be trying to solve

And *now* if you experiment, you will notice that taking seems to work fine. And of course, we can confirm this, using the triangle number formula for the second time in the paper!

This had wasted a lot of time, but once that thought is present, we’re done, because we can go straight back and exhibit the sequence

Then the sum so far is congruent to -1 modulo 18, but we have exhausted all the available integers which would allow the sum of the first 18 terms to be a multiple of 18. This confirms that the answer to the question as stated is 17.

At the start, I said that we should be cautious about generalising. In the end, this was wise advice. We definitely used the fact that 18 was even in the stage I over-reduced the first time. We also used the fact that there was at least one value of with an ‘extra’ member of the congruence class. So I’m pretty sure this proof wouldn’t have worked with 288 = 16×18 cards.

**Footnotes**

[1] – If shading were a *weighted* (or *continuous* or whatever you prefer) property, ie that each cell has a quantity of shading given by a non-negative real number, and we merely demand that the total shading per comb is at least one, then the bound 8N/3 is in fact correct for the total shading. We could look at a 2xN block, and give 1/3 shading to one cell of each colour in the block. Alternatively, we could be very straightforward and apply 2/3N shading to every cell in the grid. The fact that shading has to be (in this language) zero or one, imposes meaningful extra constraints which involve the shape of the comb.