Golomb's inductive proof of a tromino theorem

Polyominos were invented by Solomon Golomb, then a 22 year-old student at Harvard, in 1954. A polyomino is a "rook"-connected set of equal squares. (In computer science the kind of connectedness where neighboring squares are required to share an edge is also known as the 4-connectedness. If two squares that share a vertex are also considered neighbors, we get the 8-connectedness.)

Trominos are polyominos that consist of three squares. There are two kinds of trominos: a 3×1 rectangle and an L-shaped piece. A property of the latter is the subject of the following theorem:


A unit square has been removed from a 2n×2n board. Prove that the rest of the board can be tiled with L-shaped trominos.

The applet below may help you grasp a proof that is quintessential mathematical induction. You may click inside the applet to "remove" a square or on the "One step" button, to see how, in applet's view, the proof may evolve. Exponent n could be changed with a spin control at the bottom of the applet.

This applet requires Sun's Java VM 2 which your browser may perceive as a popup. Which it is not. If you want to see the applet work, visit Sun's website at https://www.java.com/en/download/index.jsp, download and install Java VM and enjoy the applet.

What if applet does not run?


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The proof is by induction. For n = 1, the assertion is obvious. With a square removed from a 2×2 board, the remaining part is exactly an L-shaped tromino piece.

Assume the statement true for n = k-1 and let n = k. Draw the center lines of the 2k×2k board. The cut-off square lies in exactly one of the four thus obtained 2k-1×2k-1 boards. We may remove one square from each of the other three boards by placing a tromino at the center of the 2k×2k board. The result is a tromino and four 2k-1×2k-1 boards, each with a square removed - just a situation to apply the inductive hypothesis.

The proof is so simple, its first step was made into a proof without words.

Remark 1

You can test your understanding of Golomb's theorem by trying to tile the board manually.

Remark 2

We may base the last step of the proof on the fact that a tromino can be covered with 4 twice as small copies of itself which makes it a rep-4 tile (a rep-tile variety):

Thus a 2k×2k board could be looked at as combining one big piece (green) of tromino and a smaller, 2k-1×2k-1 board with a 1×1 square removed.


  1. B. Bollobás, The Art of Mathematics: Coffee Time in Memphis, Cambridge University Press, 2006, #40
  2. S. Golomb, Two Right Tromino Theorems, in The Changing Shape of Geometry, edited by C. Pritchard, Cambridge University Press, 2003
  3. R. Nelsen, Proofs Without Words II, MAA, 2000, p. 123

Related material

  • Covering A Chessboard With Domino
  • Dominoes on a Chessboard
  • Tiling a Chessboard with Dominoes
  • Vertical and Horizontal Dominoes on a Chessboard
  • Straight Tromino on a Chessboard
  • Tromino Puzzle: Interactive Illustration of Golomb's Theorem
  • Tromino as a Rep-tile
  • Tiling Rectangles with L-Trominoes
  • Squares and Straight Tetrominoes
  • Covering a Chessboard with a Hole with L-Trominoes
  • Tromino Puzzle: Deficient Squares
  • Tiling a Square with Tetrominoes Fault-Free
  • Tiling a Square with T-, L-, and a Square Tetrominoes
  • Tiling a Rectangle with L-tetrominoes
  • Tiling a 12x12 Square with Straight Trominoes
  • Bicubal Domino
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    Copyright © 1996-2018 Alexander Bogomolny