The Game of Plates and Olives

  • Teena Carroll
  • David Galvin


The game of plates and olives, introduced by Nicolaescu, begins with an empty table. At each step either an empty plate is put down, an olive is put down on a plate, an olive is removed, an empty plate is removed, or the olives on two plates that both have olives on them are combined on one of the two plates, with the other plate removed. Plates are indistinguishable from one another, as are olives, and there is an inexhaustible supply of each. 

The game derives from the consideration of Morse functions on the $2$-sphere. Specifically, the number of topological equivalence classes of excellent Morse functions on the $2$-sphere that have order $n$ (that is, that have $2n+2$ critical points) is the same as the number of ways of returning to an empty table for the first time after exactly $2n+2$ steps. We call this number $M_n$.

Nicolaescu gave the lower bound $M_n \geq (2n-1)!! = (2/e)^{n+o(n)}n^n$ and speculated that $\log M_n \sim n\log n$. In this note we confirm this speculation, showing that $M_n \leq (4/e)^{n+o(n)}n^n$.

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