Poker is a game full of puzzles. In a way, each hand is a kind of mystery. If you knew precisely which cards your opponent held, you would arrive at a solution.
You know there are only so many hands your opponent could have. The detective work involves gathering available clues and evidence to help you toss out improbable hands and narrow down a range of possibles as you work to solve the mystery.
As you probably know, there are 169 different two-card hands in Texas hold’em. In fact there are 1,326 different combos if you count suits as distinct (which you don’t really need to do).
When it comes to the total number of possible five-card poker hands, from a 52-card deck there are no less than 2,598,960 combinations of hands.
Thankfully the game doesn’t require us to work through all those possibilities every time we play a hand. If that were true, most would decide poker was a mystery not worth solving.
Imagine we’re playing five-card draw. Imagine how hard the game would be if the only way you could win would be guess my exact five cards (suits and all)? Then what if you had to guess the exact order of those five cards — that is, the exact way I’m holding them.
Impossible! Right? Well, let me tell you about a similar mystery, and how a comedy writer from the UK solved it.
The puzzle comes in the form of a novel called Cain’s Jawbone. It’s a murder mystery first published in 1934 by Edward Powys Mathers under the pseudonym Torquemada.
Mathers was a poet and translator who also compiled many difficult crossword puzzles. In fact, Cain’s Jawbone first appeared as part of a larger book called The Torquemada Puzzle Book that included other puzzles, crosswords, acrostics, anagrams, and word problems.
The title refers to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel — or a version of it, anyway — in which the jawbone of an ass becomes the first ever murder weapon.
The introduction to Cain’s Jawbone explains how the printing of the “narrative of a series of tragic happenings during a period of less than six months in a recent year” managed to be “met with an accident.”
What happened? “The pages have been printed in an entirely haphazard and incorrect order.” Readers are thus challenged to put the story back into its correct order.
“Before they attempt to do this, they may care to be assured that there is an inevitable order, the one in which the pages were written.”
Making things more difficult is the fact that while there is a single, correct sequence for the pages, the narrative isn’t necessarily strictly chronological. As the author explains, “the narrator’s mind may flit occasionally backwards and forwards in the modern manner.” Think James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.
Also think Agatha Christie and other high-degree-of-difficulty mystery plots. In other words, this ain’t your average “locked room”-type murder mystery.
Cain’s Jawbone is exactly 100 pages long. Shortly after it was first published, the novel was printed again separately with the pages separated out as individual cards.
The publisher offered a prize of £15 to the first reader who could solve the puzzle and put the novel in its correct order. It took a year, but two readers did provide the correct answer and each won cash prizes.
Decades passed, and Cain’s Jawbone mostly faded into obscurity until last year when a publisher produced a new edition of the book. This time a £1,000 prize was offered, with the competition lasting one year.
From all the entries just one was correct, the one submitted by British comedian and actor John Finnimore.
As Finnimore recently explained to The Guardian, he had always been intrigued by the story of Cain’s Jawbone and thought it would be interesting to try to solve the puzzle. But after looking at it initially, he knew he’d never have time to tackle it.
“I swiftly concluded that it was way out of my league,” said Finnimore. “The only way I’d even have a shot at it was if I were for some bizarre reason trapped in my own home for months on end, with nowhere to go and no one to see.”
“Unfortunately, the universe heard me,” he said.
During these months of the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many to stay at home and isolate, Finnimore used the time to work on Cain’s Jawbone. He says it took him about four months to solve it.
Many obscure local references dating back to the time the book was written makes figuring out the correct order even more challenging today.
“How anyone solved it before the internet, I cannot begin to imagine,” said Finnimore.
The new publisher of Cain’s Jawbone has an appropriate name — Unbound — as the pages come separately in a box. While the £1,000 prize is no longer up for grabs, they will still accept entries and let you know if you got it correct.
There have been a number of articles reporting Finnimore’s triumph appearing over the last couple of weeks. Most of them state that when it comes to figuring out the correct order of the 100 pages of Cain’s Jawbone, there are 32 million possible combinations.
I’m not sure how that total was calculated. In truth, there are many, many more ways to order the 100 different pages — something like 9.333 × 10^157 possible combinations. That’s a nine followed by 157 more numbers (!).
The difference is both enormous and not that important, though. As in poker, the idea is to start narrowing down possible combinations, making the puzzle manageable. Then zero in further as more clues emerge, more connections can be made, and a solution starts to present itself.
Think you’re up to the challenge? Learn more about Cain’s Jawbone at the Unbound site, and perhaps get your own copy. We’ll check in on you in a few months.