Forbes: A beautiful theory

13th December, 2006

A revolution in the social sciences began in the 1920s, when the man Time magazine called “the best brain in the world” decided he would work out how to win at poker. John von Neumann’s quicksilver genius accelerated the development of the atomic bomb by a year, and he was one of the fathers of the computer. He also spawned dozens of stories about his prodigious mathematical ability: In one, he turned down funding for an early supercomputer designed to solve a mathematical problem–and instead came up with a solution using pencil and paper.

Von Neumann was only interested in poker because he saw it as a path toward developing a mathematics of life itself. He wanted a general theory–he called it “game theory”–that could be applied to diplomacy, war, love, evolution or business strategy. But he thought that there could be no better starting point than poker: “Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do. And that is what games are about in my theory.”

Read the rest at, as part of a survey on “Games”.

I found William Poundstone’s biography of Von Neumann, “Prisoner’s Dilemma“, helpful in writing this piece, but Forbes couldn’t make space for a link. Check the book out.

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