Fast forward

Vanessa Rousso tells us why mastering the intricacies of game theory will fast track you to success

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, game theory is the ‘study of the ways in which strategic interactions among rational players produce outcomes with respect to the preferences (or utilities) of those players’. The main purpose of this strategy series will be to define, explain and expand upon the prior sentence within the context of game theory’s application to poker.

I will be limiting my analysis to tournaments as they, by nature, reward the ‘survival of the fittest’. Believe it or not, the science of biology is intimately tied to game theory and was integral to the development of some of its most fundamental elements. If you think about it, this makes more than just philosophical sense: our bodies were designed to survive – evolving over time to adapt to changing environments in order to increase our likelihood of surviving.

The analogy to poker tournaments should be clear: tournaments provide an environment to which players must adapt and respond in an attempt to survive as long as possible. If we are able to extract and generalise our genetic roadmap for survival, we should be able to learn a few lessons about the nature of survival at the poker table.

Game theory – why bother?

Let me begin by demonstrating why a poker player might consider the serious study of game theory. My boyfriend, Chad Brown, has been playing poker professionally for fifteen years. I, on the other hand, have been playing for a mere three years. Nonetheless, our poker tournament success over the last year or so has been by and large comparable. I have worked hard to master the theory of poker so that my understanding and knowledge would catch up to what others have learned through years of play. Once again, it comes back to the survival of the fittest.

One way to become ‘fit’ is through trial and error. And experience will definitely afford you plenty of opportunities for trial, error, and eventual success. But the mistakes made along the way are costly, so why not extract the lessons that others have already paid for and seek to understand why these strategies are profitable? Then utilise the logic behind these proven successful strategies to develop and implement your own.

Analyze this

By way of analogy, let us examine how effective analysis can outperform experience on a genetic level. Given the challenge of developing the ‘ideal human’ for a given environment, a game theorist would look at how humans have developed over time to respond to various environments. He would then (in an ideal world) develop the ‘ideal human’ to survive based on how humans have responded to other environments in the past. Sure, natural selection would eventually get to the same ‘ideal human’ for a given environment. But the nature of evolution through experience is inefficient in its waste of time (and in our example, lives).

Alternatively, the game theorist is able to efficiently shortcut the entire system. In fact, over time, the game theorist will outperform natural selection due to the high relative cost of trial and error. In much the same way, game theory can – and has proven to – effectively propel a player to the sort of tournament success that would only otherwise be expected of the most experienced of players.

The prisoners dilemma

So, I will conclude this introduction to game theory by leaving you with the following famous scenario: The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The police have arrested two people whom they know have committed an armed robbery together. Unfortunately, they lack enough admissible evidence to get a jury to convict. They do, however, have enough evidence to send each prisoner away for two years for theft of the getaway car.

The chief inspector makes the following offer to each prisoner, held in isolation from the other: if you will confess to the robbery, implicating your partner, and she does not also confess, then you’ll go free and she’ll get ten years. If you both confess, you’ll each get five years. If neither of you confess, then you’ll each get two years for the auto theft. What is the best ‘play’ for each of the prisoners? Where does this leave them?

Can you figure out the optimal solution? Don’t be perturbed if you can’t… in the next article I will explain the analysis involved in solving this game. So, stay tuned and let the games begin.

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