Popular Science

What the heck is game theory? We explain.

- by ROB VERGER

THREE SLICES OF FRESH APPLE PIE SIT ON THE kitchen counter, and you and a trio of buddies are drooling over them. What do you do? Try to grab a piece right away, and you risk a tussle with a pal who makes the same move. Hesitate, and you might get nothing. Maybe it’s smarter to reach for the smallest sliver first? Then again, if you give up the last slice to a friend, they might remember your sacrifice and be kinder to you in the future.

That mental math is a delicious example of game theory: the study of how competitor­s strategize based on what they could do to win and what they guess their rivals might do. Experts in the field use calculus and other advanced math to model best tactics for each “player.” While an analyst might use it to break down actual contests—say, to determine if a pitcher should throw a curveball when there’s a runner waiting to steal home—the field helps to navigate any form of conflict. Economists turn to game theory to design fairer auctions, and policy wonks tap it to dissect nuclear weapons talks. Or, when the stakes are much lower, it can help people get the pie they want.

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