Enter the maze

The invisible dice mystery

two red dice

The Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks used dice with various shapes and markings; some even believed they could be used to predict the future. Using just a few invisible dice, which you can easily make at home, you can amaze your friends with a transparent feat of magical prediction.

The presentation

You can’t really predict the future with dice, but you can do some clever magic tricks with them. For this trick first you need some invisible dice, they are easy to make, it’s all in the imagination. You take your empty hand and state to your friend that it contains two invisible dice. Of course it doesn’t, but that’s where the performance come in. You set up the story of ancient ways to predict the future. You can have lots of fun as you hand the 'dice' over and get your friend to do some test rolls to check the dice aren’t loaded. On the test rolls ask them what numbers the dice are showing (remember a dice can only show numbers 1 through 6), this gets them used to things. Then on the final throw, tell them to decide what numbers are showing, but not to tell you! You are going to play a game where you use these numbers to create a large ‘mystical’ number.

To start, they choose one of the dice and move it closer to them, remembering the number on this die. You may want to have them whisper the numbers to another friend in case they forget, as that sort of ruins the trick ending!

Next you take two more ‘invisible dice’ from your pocket; these will be your dice. You roll them a bit, giving random answers and then finally say that they have come up as a 5 and a 5. Push one of the 5s next to the dice your friend selected, and tell them to secretly add these numbers together, i.e. their number plus 5. Then push your second 5 over and suggest, to make it even harder, to multiply their current number by 5+5 (i.e. 10 – that’s a nice easy multiplication to do) and remember that new number. Then finally turn attention to your friend’s remaining unused die, and get them to add that last number to give a grand total. Ask them now to tell you that grand total. Almost instantly you can predict exactly the unspoken numbers on each of their two invisible dice. If they ask how it you did it, say it was easy – they left the dice in plain sight on the table. You just needed to look at them.

The computing behind

This trick works by hiding some simple algebra in the presentation. You have no idea what two numbers your friend has chosen, but let’s call the number on the die they select A and the other number B. If we call the running total X then as the trick progresses the following happens: to begin with X=0, but then we add 5 to their secret number A, so X= A+5. We then get the volunteer to multiply this total by 5+5 (i.e. 10) so now X=10*(A+5). Then we finally add the second secret number B to give X=10(A+5)+B. If we expand this out, X= 10A+50+B. We know that A and B will be in the range 1-6 so this means that when your friend announces the grand total all you need to do is subtract 50 from that number. The number left (10*A+B) means that the value in the 10s column is the number A and the units column is B, and we can announce these out loud. For example if A=2 and B=4, we have the grand total as 10(2+5)+4 = 74, and 74 – 50= is 24, so A is 2, and B is 4.

In what are called procedural computer languages this idea of having a running total that changes as we go through well-defined steps in a computer program is a key element. The running total X is called a variable, to start in the trick, as in a program, we need to initialise this variable, that is we need to know what it is right at the start, in this case X=0. At each stage of the trick (program) we do something to change the ‘state’ of this variable X, ie there are rules to decide what it changes to and when, like adding 5 to the first secret number changes X from 0 to X=(A+5). A here isn’t a variable because your friend knows exactly what it is, A is 2 in the example above, and it won’t change at any time during the trick so it’s called a constant (even if we as the magician don’t know what that constant is). When the final value of the variable X is announced, we can use the algebra of the trick to recover the two constants A and B.

Other ways to do the trick

Of course there are other ways you could perform the trick using different ways to combine the numbers, as long as you end up with A being multiplied by 10 and B just being added. But you want to hide that fact as much as possible. For example you could use three ‘invisible dice’ yourself showing 5, 2 and 5 and go for 5*(A*2+5) + B if you feel confident your friend can quickly multiply by 5. Then you just need to subtract 25 from their grand total (10A+25+B), and you have their numbers. The secret here is to play with the presentation to get one that suits you and your audience, while not putting too much of a mental strain on you or your friend to have to do difficult maths in their head as they calculate the state changes of that ever-growing variable X.