Dissecting a Code Golf Challenge

Vladimir Keleshev • 2014-03-23

You probably know, code golf is a “sport” of writing a program which solves a task with as little number of characters of source code as possible.

At the local Python meetup, Brian Lauridsen presented a code golf challenge. The challenge is called grid computing and was available at codegolf.com, which at the moment of writing is down. Here is the approximate description of the challenge:

Write a program that expects a 10-by-10 matrix from standard input. The program should compute sum of each row and each column and print the highest of these numbers to standard output.

An example input:

01 34 46 31 55 21 16 88 87 87
32 40 82 40 43 96 08 82 41 86
30 16 24 18 04 54 65 96 38 48
32 00 99 90 24 75 89 41 04 01
11 80 31 83 08 93 37 96 27 64
09 81 28 41 48 23 68 55 86 72
64 61 14 55 33 39 40 18 57 59
49 34 50 81 85 12 22 54 80 76
18 45 50 26 81 95 25 14 46 75
22 52 37 50 37 40 16 71 52 17

Expected output:


The challenge is very tempting by its simplicity. However, according to codegolf.com, the best solution in Python was written in only 73 characters. At the meetup we got it down to 78 characters, but not less. So the weekend after the meetup I immersed into this challenge to get it down to 73. And here are the results.

Spoiler alert: this page contains the 73 character solution.

Solving the puzzle

Let’s see what a naïve solution can look like in Python:

import sys

# Parse matrix.
matrix = []
for line in sys.stdin.read().splitlines():
    row = []
    for digits in line.split(' '):
        number = int(digits)

# Row sums.
all_sums = []
for row in matrix:

# Column sums.
for i in range(10):
    column = []
    for row in matrix:


Total: 446 characters.

I hope you are displeased by this code as much as I am. Let’s gradually improve it.

File-like objects have a .readlines() method, so we could call it instead of .read().splitlines(). However, you might know that file-like objects support the iterator protocol, so you can iterate over them directly:

for line in sys.stdin:

Also you might know that calling .split() on a string will split over any whitespace, so no need to call .split(' ').

Next, using list-comprehensions instead of for loops tightens up the code considerably:

import sys

matrix = [[int(digits) for digits in line.split()]
          for line in sys.stdin]

row_sums = [sum(row) for row in matrix]

column_sums = [sum([row[i] for row in matrix])
               for i in range(10)]

print(max(row_sums + column_sums))

Total: 256 characters.

Some people will already claim that this is too tight and unreadable, but I think it is still sensible.

Next, using map instead of list comprehensions will save us some characters. We can use:

However, there is some duplication between row_sums and column_sums. We could pull out summation, and apply it in the last step instead:

import sys

matrix = [map(int, line.split())
          for line in sys.stdin]

rows = [row for row in matrix]

columns = [[row[i] for row in matrix]
           for i in range(10)]

print(max(map(sum, rows + columns)))

Total: 197 characters.

Party trick

Now, the above code is silly, because rows is the same as matrix, and columns is the same matrix, but transposed. We could use a library like numpy to transpose a matrix, but using libraries is against the rules of code golf. Otherwise you could just write libraries that solve a challenge in one function call.

But you might know this “party trick”, that zip(*matrix) transposes a matrix. If you didn’t know about this, stop and think about it for a minute.

import sys

matrix = [map(int, line.split())
          for line in sys.stdin]

print(max(map(sum, matrix + zip(*matrix))))

Total: 113 characters.

Now let’s go all-dirty on this and remove all unnecessary whitespace, and make every variable a single letter.

import sys
m=[map(int,l.split())for l in sys.stdin]

Total: 83 characters.

Now, we are much closer to our goal of 73 characters.

Knowing your pythons

One way to save 5 characters would be to use a built-in function called input, which reads a single line from standard input. However, this is when we realize that the codegolf.com checks the solutions using Python 2.5. That forces us to use raw_input instead, saving a single character instead of 5.

On the other hand, Python 2 allows to drop parenthesis of print call, so we save another character:

m=[map(int,raw_input().split())for _ in range(10)]
print max(map(sum,m+zip(*m)))

Total: 81 characters.

Obscured iteration

Using raw_input forced us to use range(10) instead of iterating over lines. How can we mitigate this?! Another way to iterate 10 times would be to iterate over a collection of length 10. We can get this collection by multiplying a list with a single item by 10:

m=[map(int,raw_input().split())for _ in[0]*10]
print max(map(sum,m+zip(*m)))

Total: 77 characters.


However, we still haven’t used one important code golf trick. If you do a hexdump of our program, you can see that we have a trailing newline, which is usually added by the editor. You might also discover that your editor is using \r\n instead of \n.

$ hexdump -c grid_challenge.py | cut -c '9-'
m  =  [  m  a  p  (  i  n  t  ,  r  a  w  _  i
n  p  u  t  (  )  .  s  p  l  i  t  (  )  )  f
o  r     _     i  n  [  0  ]  *  1  0  ] \n  p
r  i  n  t     m  a  x  (  m  a  p  (  s  u m
,  m  +  z  i  p  (  *  m  )  )  ) \n

Yep, we have a trailing \n. Let’s write a script that removes it from our programs, and now we are down to…

Total: 76 characters.

Leaked variable

And here the really hard part starts. I have spent many hours trying to reduce this number. And it got really nasty.

One little known misfeature of Python 2 is that it leaks variable bindings from comprehensions (as well as except clauses). This was fixed in Python 3. Here’s some code to illustrate the issue:

$ python3
>>> [x for x in range(10)]
[0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]
>>> x
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
NameError: name 'x' is not defined
$ python2
>>> [x for x in range(10)]
[0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]
>>> x

You see, x—“leaked” from inside the list comprehension and was available in the outer scope with its last assigned value.

How can we use this?! Well, right now we are not using the list comprehension variable at all. But instead we could put it to some use… We are calling map twice. It would be so handy if we could put it into a variable, without paying the cost of an explicit assignment…

m=[_(int,raw_input().split())for _ in[map]*10]
print max(_(sum,m+zip(*m)))

Total: 74 characters.

Here we created a list of 10 map functions, which allowed us to assign map to the undescore (_) variable and save 3 characters in total. But we are still behind the world’s best 73 character solution.

The last drop

One less obscure feature of raw_input is that it takes an optional argument called prompt, which gets printed as a prompt before it reads a line from standard input. Let’s see if we gain anything by assigning raw_input to the undescore (_), instead of map, and then…

m=[map(int,_().split())for _ in[raw_input]*10]

Total: 73 characters.

Yes! By using raw_input instead of print we saved the last character and reached the world record for this challenge.

I bet you have learned something new about Python today.


  title="Dissecting a Code Golf Challenge",
  author="Vladimir Keleshev",