If you have ever tried to create a program for solving Sudoku, you might have come across the **Exact Cover problem**. In this article, we will discuss what is the exact cover problem and an algorithm **“Algorithm X”** proposed by Donald Knuth to solve this problem.

Given a collection **S** of subsets of set **X**, an exact cover is the subset **S*** of S such that each element of X is contained is exactly one subset of S*. It should satisfy following two conditions –

- The Intersection of any two subsets in S* should be empty. That is, each element of X should be contained in at most one subset of S*
- Union of all subsets in S* is X. That means union should contain all the elements in set X. So we can say that S* covers X.

Example (standard representation) –

Let S = { A, B, C, D, E, F } and X = {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7} such that –

- A = {1, 4, 7}
- B = {1, 4}
- C = {4, 5, 7}
- D = {3, 5, 6}
- E = {2, 3, 6 7}
- F = {2, 7}

Then S* = {B, D, F} is an exact cover, because each element in X is contained exactly once in subsets {B, D, F} . If we union subsets then we will get all the elements of X –

[Tex]B \bigcup D \bigcup F = \{ 1,2,3,4,5,6,7\}[\Tex]

The Exact cover problem is a decision problem to determine if exact cover exists or not. It is considered to be NP-Complete problem.

The problem can be represented in the form of a matrix where the row represents the subsets of S and columns represent the element of X. The above problem can be represented as –

In the context of matrix representation, our exact cover is the selection of rows such that each column contains only single 1 among selected rows. So we can see below that each column have only single 1 among selected rows B, D, F.

**Algorithm X**

Donald Knuth proposed an **Algorithm X** which can find all the solutions to the exact cover problem. Algorithm X can be efficiently implemented by **“dancing links”** technique proposed by Donald Knuth called **DLX**.

Algorithm X is recursive, depth-first, backtracking algorithm. It is non-deterministic in nature, that means for the same input, it can exhibit different behaviors on a different run.

Following is the pseudo code for Algorithm X –

1. If the matrix A has no columns, the current partial solution is a valid solution; terminate successfully. 2. Otherwise, choose a column c (deterministically). 3. Choose a row r such that A[r] = 1 (nondeterministically). 4. Include row r in the partial solution. 5. For each column j such that A[r][j] = 1, for each row i such that A[i][j] = 1, delete row i from matrix A. delete column j from matrix A. 6. Repeat this algorithm recursively on the reduced matrix A.

Non-deterministic choice of r means, algorithm copy itself into sub algorithm. Each sub algorithm inherit original matrix A but reduces it with respect to chosen r (we will see this shortly in example)

The sub algorithm forms a search tree with the original problem at the root and each level k have sub algorithm correspond to the rows chosen in previous level (just like the n-queen search space).

If chosen column c is entirely zero then there are no sub algorithms and the process terminated unsuccessfully. Knuth suggests that we should choose the column with the minimum number of 1’s in it. **If no column left, then we know we have found our solution.**

**Example**

Consider the above example, we will apply Algorithm X on it to find the exact cover –

**Level – 0**

Step-1: Our matrix is not empty, it has columns then proceed

Step-2: The first column which has minimum number of 1’s in it is C-1 so we will select it

Step-3: Rows A and B have 1 at C-1 so they are selected.

So now the algorithm moves to first branch at level 1

**Level – 1 (Select row A)**

Step-4: Select row A and add it to partial solutions

Step-5: Row A has 1 in column 1, 4, 7

C-1 have 1 in row A and B, C-4 have 1 in A, B and C, C-7 have 1 in row A, C, E, and F.

So column 1, 4, 7 and rows A, B, C, E and F should be removed.

Step 1 – Matrix is not empty so proceed

Step 2 – The first column which has minimum number of 1’s is C-2

Since column C-2 have no 1’s in it, our search will terminate here unsuccessfully.

Now our algorithm will backtrack at level 0 and proceed with row B at second branch at level 1

**Level – 1(Select row B)**

Step – 4: Select row B and add it to partial solutions

Step – 5: Row B has 1 in column C-1 and C-4

C-1 have 1’s at row A and B. C-4 have 1’s in row A, B and C.

So C-1, C-2 and Row A, B, C will be removed from the matrix.

Now we repeat algorithm –

Step-1: Matrix is not empty, proceed

Step-2: C-5 has a minimum number of 1’s in it, so it is chosen.

Step-3: Row D has 1 at C-5, so it is chosen

Now algorithm moves to 1st branch at level 2 with matrix having row D, E and F

**Level-2(Select row D)**

Step-4: Row D is chosen and added to partial solution.

Step-5: C-3, C-5, C-6 have 1 at row D

At C-3 row D and E have 1, at C-5 row D have 1 and at C-6 row D, E have 1.

So these rows and columns should be deleted and we left with a matrix having only row F and column 2, 7.

Now we will repeat the algorithm –

Step-1: Matrix is not empty so proceed

Step-2: C-2 is the first column having a minimum number if 1’s in it. So it is chosen

Step-3: Row F have 1 at C-2 so it is chosen.

Now algorithm will move to the first branch at level 3.

**Level – 3(Select row F)**

Step-4: Row F is added to the partial solution

Step-5: C-2 and C-7 have 1 at row F.

C-2 have 1 at row F, C-7 have 1 at row F

So C2,C7 and row F should be removed. After removing we will left with an empty matrix so our search can terminate here successfully and we have our exact cover {B, D,F}

sub algorithm backtrack at level 2 and since there is no row left at level 3.

It further backtracks at level 1 . Since at level 1 there is no row left to our algorithm terminated.

In next article, we will discuss how to implement DLX efficiently to solve Exact Cover.

**References**

This article is contributed by **Atul Kumar**. If you like GeeksforGeeks and would like to contribute, you can also write an article using contribute.geeksforgeeks.org or mail your article to contribute@geeksforgeeks.org. See your article appearing on the GeeksforGeeks main page and help other Geeks.

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