Think About It: The Bottle Imp

Our guiding purpose at Eureka is to encourage thinking as a form of play, and what better place to bring a novel thought to all our supporters than on the blog? Logic puzzles and board games abound in the store, but for those who know the rapture of reason, the comfort of contemplation and the simple solace of speculation, sometimes it’s enough not to solve the puzzle or win the game, but just to think about it.

Today we’re thinking about demonic glassware. In 1891, Robert Louis Stevenson, author of such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, wrote a perplexing short story entitled “The Bottle Imp,” set in the Hawaiian Islands and featuring, as you might imagine, an imp imprisoned in a bottle.

Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Bottle Imp"

While the story features much of Stevenson’s trademark swashbuckling adventure, at its heart is a peculiar mathematical puzzle. The premise is this: many hundreds of years ago, the Devil sold the bottle imp to the legendary king Prester John for a fantastic sum. The imp will grant its owner any wish his heart desires, but if the owner dies still in possession of the imp, his soul is forfeit. One would therefore hope to acquire the imp, make a few wishes, and quickly pass it on – but there’s a catch. The imp cannot be given away; it must be sold to someone who fully understands the terms, and can only be sold at a loss, for less than the present owner paid.

At the time Stevenson’s story begins, the price of the bottle has declined to eighty dollars, and it dwindles rapidly to a matter of pennies. The question, then, is just how cheaply can the bottle imp be sold? One might imagine that it could be sold for one cent – but who would buy it at one cent, knowing that he could never sell it off?

Very well then – it can be sold for two cents. But who would buy it at two cents, knowing that no one would buy it at one cent? And if no one would buy it at two cents, who would take it at three cents? And if no buyer can be found at three cents, how can one hope to sell it for four? Five? Ten? Twenty? What, in short, is the lowest price at which one can buy the bottle imp and still expect to find a buyer – when that buyer must take it at an even lower price?

Think about it.

And while you’re thinking about it, consider this as well: Z-Man Games last year released a card game based on “The Bottle Imp.” A lively, fast-paced trick-taking game similar to Hearts, Bridge or Euchre, The Bottle Imp features a unique twist: cards under the current price of the bottle imp card trump higher cards, but require the winner to pick up the bottle imp, worth significant negative points at the end of the hand. Easy to learn, quick to play and demanding both daredevil gameplay and wary long-term strategy, The Bottle Imp is an excellent portable game perfect for family trips or casual game nights.

Z-Man Games' The Bottle Imp

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