Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Game theory: schooled by my sixth grader.

Back in 2011, I attempted to learn the basics of game theory. I had a great book to help me along the way, The Art of Strategy, but I still found myself admiring the skills more than learning them. Early on in the book, the authors use a Survivor episode as a great example of winning strategies. In short, this particular Survivor challenge, two teams pitted against each other could take one, two, or three flags from a collection of 21 flags. The team that collected the very last flag would win. For the most part, both of these Survivor teams guessed their way forward. But it turns out that if you know the right strategy, whoever starts first can win this game.*

How? By making your opponent face four flags. That way, no matter if they choose one, two, or three, you win. Which begs the question: How do you get them to four? By forcing them to eight. Which you do by forcing them to twelve. And so on.

I understood the idea, but you still wouldn't want me on your Survivor team. I'd point out that there's a surefire way to win, but then wouldn't remember exactly how to do it.

So meet Wallace, my 11-year-old son. Around the dinner table the other day, he was trying to cajole Simon, my nine-year-old, into playing a number game. Simon likes games, so he was game. I'm trying to finish up my out-of-the-can-and-bag pasta, so I'm not really paying attention. But then I realize that he's playing a variation on the Survivor flag game.

And he's totally playing Simon. Wallace knows he'll be victorious, no matter what. He not only understands this game theory strategy, but is completely at home with it. It's deliriously cool to have a sixth-grader son who's smarter than you, but disorienting. No matter. It's good to have a strategy mentor in the house.

*Wallace pointed out that if the starting number in this game is a multiple of four, the team that goes second is the one positioned to win.

No comments:

Post a Comment