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Prisoner's Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb Paperback – January 1, 1993
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From Publishers Weekly
Poundstone's three-dimensional outline of game theory mathematics sketches the life of its inventor, John von Neumann, and his role in Cold War policy-making. Photos.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
This very readable book is partly a biography of John von Neumann, partly a nontechnical history of the branch of mathematics known as game theory, and partly a description of some of the paradoxical findings that arise from that theory. Von Neumann was a brilliant mathematician who was the major figure in the Manhattan Project and later an active public figure. Thus, those portions of the book that deal with his life are interesting and informative. Those sections that deal with game theory use no mathematics beyond simple arithmetic and are thus fascinating, thought provoking, and easily accessible to the layperson. For all biography and science collections.
- Harold D. Shane, Baruch Coll., CUNY
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Math need not be a passion for this book to be understood and enjoyed. The various games that are explained and, "played", for the reader actually utilize little in the way of math. Game Theory in practice is about the number of participants, the choices they have, how the games should rationally be played, and how there are played when people replace theory. The results of these games are applicable to daily life, whether it explains how a network will decide the placement of their commercials, why a person will stand in a line of unknown length, or pay more than the true value of an item (like a dollar bill). Peoples behavior often crosses from the irrational to the absurd, and many of these games will point out courses of action almost all readers will have taken at one time or another, when the rational decision was the opposite of what they chose to do.
The book is also a good primer for further reading on Bertrand Russell, John Nash the subject of the movie, "A Beautiful Mind", and John von Neumann, who many considered the most brilliant man alive during his career, and many other great scientists of the 20th Century. There is also review of the development of both the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and the very surprising groups of people that either supported their development and use, and those that were diametrically opposed. There is also some discussion on how Game Theory was and is used to make decisions on a global scale, and also where Game Theory falls short of some of its initial promise.
You will most likely enjoy following "The Prisoner's Dilemma, The Stag Hunt, The Dollar Auction, and So Long Sucker", the last of which often was alleged to have spouses leave the scene of the game is separate cabs. Any one who is inquisitive will enjoy the book, and may be motivated to pursue a variety of its topics further.
You see, it's one big story that consists of several sub-stories. In part it's a biography (intellectual and otherwise) of John von Neumann, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century. It's also a popular exposition of game theory and some of the decision-theoretic puzzles that arise in it (most obviously the one of the book's title). And it's _also_ a history of the Cold War, at least on its strategic side.
You pretty much have to be William Poundstone to weave all this together into a coherent and readable narrative. Fortunately, William Poundstone _is_ William Poundstone, and he pulls it off with panache.
There's something here for everybody. My favorite parts are the chapters on the various game-theoretic dilemmas (including a _very_ nice exposition of Robert Axelrod's _The Evolution of Cooperation_ that correctly captures what Axelrod did and did not show in his famous computer tournaments). But the biography of von Neumann is fascinating too; great mathematicians tend to be odd and interesting characters, and von Neumann was one of the greatest. And all the Cold War-era history is riveting in its own right, even apart from its relationship to von Neumann (who may have been at least one of the real-life models for Dr. Strangelove).
Poundstone is a fine writer with a real gift for this sort of thing. If even one of the strands in this tale sounds engaging to you, you can rest assured that Poundstone will manage to keep you engaged in the other two as well.
Look for his other books too. I especially recommend _Labyrinths of Reason_.
As fascinating as all this was (and he tells the story well), I was most interested in the final third of the book which discusses games other than the prisoner's dilemma: chicken, the volunteer's dilemma, deadlock, stag hunt, the largest-number game, and especially the dollar auction. The games are described not just in terms of numerical payouts, but in situations that can be imagined in real life. And Poundstone also mentions game theory in relation to evolution, and tit for tat strategies in iterated prisoner's dilemmas.
This is a book for the general reader. You need not be a mathematician to understand the contents. Indeed, it is a pretty simple book, and you will only learn basic aspects of game theory if you haven't encountered it before. What you can expect is a story about von Neumann and the cold war and the interesting paradoxes that such situations create.