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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