Trying to remember a short story that I think was written by Eric Frank Russell. The protagonist lands on an alien world and they decide to execute him. They view themselves as civilized, and allow the to-be executed to play one game of their choice before death. Win or lose, they are still put to death, but particularly skillful players can use it as a means of extending their lives. The government also broadcasts it, because people love to watch folks quite literally playing for their lives.

But there were rules (I remember these, there might have been one or two more):

  1. It had to be a real game, played somewhere by people, not just something you made up

  2. There had to be a way to win and lose, a definite ending.

The Terran knew it was a matter of time until he was found and rescued. So he introduces the aliens to a version of the game Tiddlywinks. It's something like- you have three rods, with a series of hoops of different sizes on two of them. You have to transfer all of the hoops to other rods in such a way that they go in order from largest to smallest. The aliens have never heard of it but went along with it. It seemed a mindless children's game, something that could be wrapped up quickly. If anything, they were disappointed, because they were expecting something new and unusual from an Alien.

After a few days, they realize that something is wrong, do the calculations, and realize that the game will take literally billions of years to complete. They confront the protagonist about this and he explains that there are indeed monks back home who play the game, believing that once the game has completed, the universe will end.

Infuriated, the aliens change the rules so that the game has to be one recognized on their own planet, but the old rules still apply to the Terran. So every day for a couple of years he has to continue to play Tiddlywinks. Eventually he is rescued, having kept his sanity after opponent after opponent has lost theirs.

The story ends with his rescuer inviting him to relax, saying they have tiddlywinks aboard if he wants.

  • Yes, it is 64 discs sizes from small to large the largest being at the bottom. And there are three pegs. You must transfer the discs from one column to the other two one at a time without placing a larger one over a smaller one. You must end up with all of the discs on one of the three pegs with them small to large from top to bottom.
    – user64501
    Apr 9, 2016 at 15:56
  • As a story, was it better than The 9 Billion Names of God?
    – davidbak
    Apr 27, 2016 at 19:12
  • Can't compare the two- Clark's story was quiet while Russel's was poking fun at ridiculous beurocracy. It's like comparing a horror to a comedy. I enjoy both stories but I tend to more consistently enjoy Russell.
    – Broklynite
    Apr 27, 2016 at 20:00
  • 1
    Towers of Hanoi is not a version of Tiddlywinks -- but the Terran might have convinced the aliens it was...
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jan 25, 2023 at 18:36

1 Answer 1


This is Now Inhale by Eric Frank Russell. Quoting from here:

Wayne Taylor is a Terran interstellar scout who has crash-landed on a heretofore unknown alien planet. The aliens are sufficiently annoyed to classify Taylor as a spy, but civilized enough to have formal procedures for ending his unwelcome visit.

The aliens possess an enshrined tradition that everyone to be terminated is entitled to a final game — a palliative to the afterlife not unlike our custom of a last meal.

As Taylor learns, the challenge is to make that final game last as long as possible. Of course it is absolutely unlikely that any commonly-known game could be played long enough for rescuers from Terra to reach him. He's allowed to choose either an alien or Terran game. The game he comes up with he calls, in deadpan earnestness, Arky-malarkey.

Russell describes here a real and playable game. The Towers of Hanoi game (or Tower of Hanoi, or Tower of Brahma) is based on an ancient Hindu legend, expressed as a modern game by Edouard Lucas in 1883. It is simple in concept, basically transferring a stack of disks one at a time from one peg or stack to another peg or stack. There are three stacks, and no disk can be placed atop a smaller disk. Depending on the number of disks, this can take quite a while.

I found this simply by Googling Eric Frank Russell and Tower of Hanoi.

  • 1
    That's the one- never heard of it referred to as Tower of Hanoi tho, that's a new one on me. Thanks a bunch!
    – Broklynite
    Sep 17, 2015 at 9:32
  • 16
    @Broklynite Tiddlywinks is a different game; Tower of Hanoi is the right name for the game with hoops on 3 rods. In fact there's a simple method for completing it, but the time it takes is exponential in the number of hoops.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 17, 2015 at 9:34
  • 1
    I remembered him describing it as Tiddlywinks. Either it's bad memory on my part, or I read one of the localizations of Russell's work. Look at how many versions there were of his story with Eustice.
    – Broklynite
    Sep 17, 2015 at 9:36
  • 5
    As a 1-player game/puzzle the time to completion is exponential in the number of hoops, assuming optimal play. It is not playable as a 2-player game; the guy who wants to protract it can make it last forever, e.g. by simply reversing the other guy's moves. By the way, as far as I know that "ancient Hindu legend" was invented by Lucas himself. Just another fake legend, like the one about the inventor of chess being rewarded with grains of wheat on a chessboard.
    – user14111
    Sep 17, 2015 at 9:55
  • 1
    I wonder if the author chose 64 disks, so that the number of moves matches the famous rice corns on a chess board. 32 disks would have sufficed to draw the game out to a century or so. Sep 17, 2015 at 17:21

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