You Don’t Play A Game You Can’t Win

When my brother and I were young, we were both successful chess players at our elementary school. As a 5th grader, I ended up getting third place in the chess tournament (behind a brother and sister) and had my name put on a plaque that was for some time hung on the wall, the one place I left my name as a student there. My brother ended up taking 4th place (and just missed out on having a spot on the plaque) not too long after that as he progressed through school. Unsurprisingly, the two of us played chess against each other as children, but he got frustrated with the agonizingly slow and brutal war of attrition that I would play, and the frequent defeats that would result, and eventually he stopped wanting to play me altogether. This is unsurprising, as one does not generally play a game where one does not feel one has a reasonable chance of winning.

A great many scams are based on fooling people into thinking that they have a reasonable chance of winning when in reality they do not. While the lottery is not a particularly bad investment if you have enough people together (80 to 100 random sets of a number in a pool is sufficient for reasonable odds), it is a terrible investment for a single person, in at least two ways. For one, the odds of victory are so small that one is largely wasting money by trying, and even if one wins, the lack of discipline that is gathered by winning lotteries without experience in earning and managing money (whether in athletic drafts or winning the Powerball lottery or something similar to that) tends to bode ill for long-term success. Likewise, if one is playing at a local pool hall (as I was fond of doing as a child in a pool hall in Sutersville owned by a quadriplegic church friend of my father’s, even though I’ve never been a particularly good pool player), one has to be very careful not to get snookered by pool sharks throwing a few games to lure one into competition before delivering the inevitable showcase of their skills, to the loss of one’s pride and a substantial amount of money.

As a military historian, and a resident of what is (at the time of writing) the greatest empire in the world at present, the United States, I am aware that it is not only people but also nations that operate under this rule that one does not play a game one cannot win. One of the reasons that the United States as an empire, whether in its Indian wars or in its competition against overmatched opponents like Iraqi and Afghan or Viet Cong guerrillas, has fought against a lot of opponents in asymmetrical warfare is that few nations are foolish enough to seek to engage the United States in a straight-up conventional war. While there may be political reasons why some enemies (like Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War and the opening stages of the Second Gulf War) have decided to do so, such efforts have usually not paid off, and the resulting defeat of conventional forces has led those enemies whose will to resist has not been broken to seek to play a game that they can win rather than play a game where they cannot.

Military historians engage in debates over “ways of war” that might seem highly arcane to people who are not students of this field. Some historians, like Victor Davis Hansen, posit that there is a mythical Western Way of War that involves citizen soldiers fighting in ways that seek decisive battle and that involve the use of many infantry soldiers. Others, like one of my old college professors, John Grenier, point out that the first “American” way of war was a brutal style of conflict that features the use of devastating raids and warfare against civilians in order to bring wily and unconventional opponents to peace in order to preserve their societies from destruction in the face of the destruction of crops and cities. The brutality of Sherman against the rebels of Georgia and South Carolina, or the massive destruction of Vietnamese land by Agent Orange, or the firebombing of German and Japanese cities (the latter of which were also hit by nuclear weapons) in World War II were not in fact aberrations from the normal way of war for Americans, but rather part of a standard American way of bringing cultures and societies that persist in hostility against our forces to their knees. To be sure, Americans are a compassionate people, but we also fight very brutally. I know both qualities to be true of myself personally in conflicts, and I see the same nature in our military operations as well throughout our history, from the very beginnings of our history as a people separate from the Western European nations that North Americans predominately come from.

If we are involved in competition with others [1], part of our understanding of at least the bounded rationality of the people that we are competing against must involve a recognition of how others are going to wish to change the rules of the game to their advantage or our disadvantage, or how we can seek to minimize our disadvantages and take advantage of our strengths by changing the games that we are playing. When we are aware of our own strengths and weaknesses as well as the strengths and weaknesses of our rivals, competitors, or enemies, we can act in ways that serve our best interests and also be aware of how others will do the same for their own best interests. We cannot simply assume that other people will continue to play a game by the rules that we have set for our own benefit, but have to accept the necessity of showing enough flexibility to win by a variety of ways, so as not to leave ourselves overly vulnerable to others. This is far easier said than done, but gaining accurate knowledge of the unwillingness of people to continually lose, as well as ways in which we and others might win allows us to shift our endeavors accordingly. This is especially true if we are playing games that are not zero-sum and that allow for the victory of multiple parties, where our success may very well depend on playing the sort of game that will allow for others to win as well.

[1] This is applicable in many fields of human endeavor:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Military History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to You Don’t Play A Game You Can’t Win

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