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3.4: The compareTo Method

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    As we saw in Section 11.7, it’s helpful to create an equals method to test whether two objects are equivalent.

    public boolean equals(Card that) {
        return this.rank == that.rank
            && this.suit == that.suit;

    It would also be nice to have a method for comparing cards, so we can tell if one is higher or lower than another. For primitive types, we can use the comparison operators – <, >, etc. – to compare values. But these operators don’t work for object types.

    For Strings, Java provides a compareTo method, as we saw in Section 9.6. Like the equals method, we can write our own version of compareTo for the classes that we define.

    Some types are “totally ordered”, which means that you can compare any two values and tell which is bigger. Integers and strings are totally ordered.

    Other types are “unordered”, which means that there is no meaningful way to say that one element is bigger than another. In Java, the boolean type is unordered; if you try to compare true < false, you get a compiler error.

    The set of playing cards is “partially ordered”, which means that sometimes we can compare cards and sometimes not. For example, we know that the 3 of Clubs is higher than the 2 of Clubs, and the 3 of Diamonds is higher than the 3 of Clubs. But which is better, the 3 of Clubs or the 2 of Diamonds? One has a higher rank, but the other has a higher suit.

    To make cards comparable, we have to decide which is more important: rank or suit. The choice is arbitrary, and it might be different for different games. But when you buy a new deck of cards, it comes sorted with all the Clubs together, followed by all the Diamonds, and so on. So for now, let’s say that suit is more important.

    With that decided, we can write compareTo as follows:

    public int compareTo(Card that) {
        if (this.suit < that.suit) {
            return -1;
        if (this.suit > that.suit) {
            return 1;
        if (this.rank < that.rank) {
            return -1;
        if (this.rank > that.rank) {
            return 1;
        return 0;

    compareTo returns 1 if this wins, -1 if that wins, and 0 if they are equivalent. It compares suits first. If the suits are the same, it compares ranks. If the ranks are also the same, it returns 0.

    This page titled 3.4: The compareTo Method is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Allen B. Downey (Green Tea Press) .

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