This is a very brief follow-up to the previous post about the basketball game Knockout, and the advantage of starting the game at a particular position in line. Specifically, if we start the game with equally skilled players, each of whom makes their initial shot (usually from the free throw line) with some fixed probability , and any follow-on rebound shots with probability , then what is the probability of winning the game as a function of starting position?

Using the state transition diagram from last time, let be the probability that, with players remaining in the game currently in state , the player in position (starting from zero) wins. Then we can translate the state diagram into a corresponding system of equations using the following Mathematica code:

numPlayers = 2; eq = { P[1, 0, 1] == 1, Table[ { P[n, k, 1] == p P[n, Mod[k - 1, n], 1] + (1 - p) P[n, k, 2], P[n, k, 2] == p If[k == 0, 0, P[n - 1, Mod[k - 2, n - 1], 1]] + (1 - p) P[n, k, 3], P[n, k, 3] == q P[n, Mod[k - 1, n], 4] + (1 - q) P[n, k, 5], P[n, k, 4] == q P[n, Mod[k - 1, n], 1] + (1 - q) P[n, k, 2], P[n, k, 5] == q If[k == 0, 0, P[n - 1, Mod[k - 2, n - 1], 1]] + (1 - q) P[n, k, 3] }, {n, 2, numPlayers}, {k, 0, n - 1} ] } // Flatten;

Then we can determine the probabilities of winning for each position in line by solving for for .

Table[ P[numPlayers, k, 1], {k, 0, numPlayers - 1} ] /. Solve[eq, Cases[eq, _P, {2}]] // First;

Interestingly, in the game with just players, the probability of the first player winning is , independent of , as shown in the following figure. The second player’s advantage is minimized when the initial shot is easier.

With more than two players, the probabilities of winning depend on both and in a more complicated way. If we make the reasonable assumption that rebounds and put-backs are about the same difficulty, say , no matter from where the *initial* shot is taken, then we can show similar results for and , etc.

As mentioned last time, my intuition suggested that it’s always better to start farther back in line, but the above figures show that’s not necessarily the case, at least if the initial shot is sufficiently difficult– for example, if players start by shooting from the three-point line instead of the free throw line.