The Wild Wild West

Apr 12, 2010

RAY: This was submitted by Paul Mulek.

In a wild west town, a scoundrel was caught cheating at a card game at the Dirty Dog Saloon. A quick but honest trial was held and he was of course found guilty. In this town cheating at cards was a very serious offense punishable by death. The judge could simply have ordered the man to be shot but he knew the citizens of the town enjoyed games of chance so he came up with an unusual sentence.

Speaking to the condemned man, the judge proclaimed, 'At high noon tomorrow, you will be tied up to the flagpole in the middle of town. The marshall, an expert pistol marksman who never misses, will load two bullets into his six-shot revolver and spin the cylinder. He will then aim directly at your chest from 20 paces away and pull the trigger. If the chamber should happen to be empty, he will pull the trigger one more time. If after this, you are still alive, you will get on your horse and ride away, you lucky devil!'

The next day, high noon arrives. A crowd gathers on Main Street to witness the proceedings. The condemned man is tied to the flagpole. A lonely tumbleweed blows by. The parson recites a solemn prayer while the marshall loads two bullets into his trusty Colt 45 and spins the cylinder. The clock in the courthouse tower chimes 12 times. The crowd holds its breath. The marshall takes 20 paces, turns towards the prisoner, takes aim and click! The chamber is empty. The gun does not fire. At this point, the marshall says to the condemned man, 'You're a gambling man, so let's make this more interesting. Before I take my second shot, I'll give you a choice. Should I take aim and fire, or should I spin the cylinder one more time before pulling the trigger?'

The condemned man thinks about it and he says, 'Just go ahead and shoot.' Now is he being brave? Is he being stupid? Or does he know something that might improve his chances?

RAY: Here's the answer. The condemned man says, just go ahead and shoot. It turns out he saw something that told him his odds would be better if the cylinder did not spin again.

TOM: What did he see?

RAY: Well with two bullets in the cylinder and four empty chambers any spin of the cylinder would mean a four out of six or two out of three chance of his walking away. But what our condemned man saw was that the marshal had loaded the bullets into two adjacent chambers in the cylinder. So that the four empty chambers are all in a row.

TOM: Yeah.

RAY: Let's label the chambers one through six, right? You got six things. And let's say the bullets are in chambers one and two, when the marshal took the first shot that first spin must have landed on chambers, three, four, five or six right. If it landed on one or two he'd be what? He'd be gasping.

TOM: Dead.

RAY: He'd be dead. Now of those four chambers, three are followed by other empty chambers. Only one chamber, number six, is followed by a loaded chamber, which would be number one. So if the cylinder is not re-spun, the odds are three out of four that the next chamber will be empty. And his odds of walking away alive improve from two out of three, to three out of four. So do we have a winner?

TOM: Yes we do. Our winner this week is Will Stark from Santa Rosa, California. And for having his answer selected at random from among all the correct answers that we got Will's going to get a $26 gift certificate to the Shameless Commerce Division at

RAY: Congratulations Will!

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