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Prisoner's Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb

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A masterful work of science writing that’s "both a fascinating biography of von Neumann, the Hungarian exile whose mathematical theories were building blocks for the A-bomb and the digital computer, and a brilliant social history of game theory and its role in the Cold War and nuclear arms race" ( San Francisco Chronicle ). 

Should you watch public television without pledging?...Exceed the posted speed limit?...Hop a subway turnstile without paying? These questions illustrate the so-called "prisoner's dilemma", a social puzzle that we all face every day. Though the answers may seem simple, their profound implications make the prisoner's dilemma one of the great unifying concepts of science. Watching players bluff in a poker game inspired John von Neumann—father of the modern computer and one of the sharpest minds of the century—to construct game theory, a mathematical study of conflict and deception. Game theory was readily embraced at the RAND Corporation, the archetypical think tank charged with formulating military strategy for the atomic age, and in 1950 two RAND scientists made a momentous discovery.

Called the "prisoner's dilemma," it is a disturbing and mind-bending game where two or more people may betray the common good for individual gain. Introduced shortly after the Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb, the prisoner's dilemma quickly became a popular allegory of the nuclear arms race. Intellectuals such as von Neumann and Bertrand Russell joined military and political leaders in rallying to the "preventive war" movement, which advocated a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. Though the Truman administration rejected preventive war the United States entered into an arms race with the Soviets and game theory developed into a controversial tool of public policy—alternately accused of justifying arms races and touted as the only hope of preventing them.

Prisoner's Dilemma is the incisive story of a revolutionary idea that has been hailed as a landmark of twentieth-century thought.

294 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1992

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About the author

William Poundstone

52 books321 followers
William Poundstone is the author of more than ten non-fiction books, including 'Fortune's Formula', which was the Amazon Editors' Pick for #1 non-fiction book of 2005. Poundstone has written for The New York Times, Psychology Today, Esquire, Harpers, The Economist, and Harvard Business Review. He has appeared on the Today Show, The David Letterman Show and hundreds of radio talk-shows throughout the world. Poundstone studied physics at MIT and many of his ideas concern the social and financial impact of scientific ideas. His books have sold over half a million copies worldwide.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 147 reviews
Profile Image for Greg.
1,109 reviews1,843 followers
January 14, 2010

When is a math book not a math book? How about when it's a biography, or a history of the early Cold War years? Clocking in at 278 pages, this book is sort of three books in one. It's kind of a look at Game Theory. Sometimes it's a biography of John Von Neumann, and then at other times it's a primer about early Cold War paranoia and the beginning of the arms race.

All three are pretty interesting subjects, and they are intertwined in ways that are fairly obvious (or at least fairly obvious if one reads the dust jacket), but unlike real brand Oreo's with their carefully calculated ratio of filling to cookie, this book is more like a cheap store brand that is skimpy on the filling and all about the cookie. That's fine, but it's not really a good proportion.

Problem one. (Spoiler?) John Von Neumann dies. It's inevitable, we all die. Historically he's dead. As the writer though he didn't need to kill off the central narrative strand of the book about sixty pages before the end. Once Von Neumann died it was like the book came to a slow halt, everything else after it felt like filer, even if it wasn't, it just felt like an after-thought, or like something Minor Threat would condone filling your head with (sorry, had to go with the Minor Threat / Filer reference). What follows Von Neumann's death is some explanations of different games, and maybe some Cold War stuff, but I kind of lost interest at this point (although the games are fun to read about, lots of little tricks you can pull on greedy friends if one was so inclined.)

Problem two. I don't know much about math, and reading this book I don't know anything more about math. I kind of wanted to learn a little something about Game Theory here, but in a nice and easy to understand way that someone who got a D+ in his third quarter of high school algebra could understand. I got a tiny bit of math that someone who got A's in a couple of statistics classes in college could have easily figured out for himself, but nothing math-ish except for descriptions of the games in a narrative form. I don't know what I expected actually. I guess I was a little disheartened to find out I knew most of these games already, and more of the math behind them from watching a few seasons of Numb3rs, and could usually even remember which episode's Charlie would enlighten some member of the FBI about a particular game strategy and how it would help them capture a bad person.

Problem three. This is like problem one. Douglas Hofstader and Richard Powers are masters at running three parallel narratives at once and pulling them in and out of each other as their books progress. If you're going to do three narrative threads it should be as neat and tidy as they do it. This book doesn't, and once again I'm disappointed because the three narrative thread structure is one that I love. To be teased with this structure and then see it unravel until only one lone thread is left without a satisfying 'brining it all together' makes me sad.

Problems aside the book was a nice read, but not exactly what I wanted the book to be. I'll just have to go back to watching more Numb3rs to learn my higher math concepts for the mathematically retarded.
Profile Image for Brett.
26 reviews4 followers
December 10, 2008
This book is three intertwined story lines, all separate, but related. The first is a short biography of John von Neumann, the founder of game theory. The second is a layman's explanation of game theory, with many examples of various games, their properties, and how they might be applied to real life. The third is a history of the middle of the 20th Century in relation to the atomic bomb, specifically the arms race between the USA and USSR that gave us the huge stockpile of hydrogen bombs and mutually assured destruction.

Poundstone does a good job of keeping the book fresh by switching between the various narratives, although occasionally the pieces don't fit together quite well. Dr. Neumann's life sometimes interrupts the bomb history only to be followed by the game theory discussion, leaving the reader holding a lot in his head. But in the end, I feel I have a much better understanding of what game theory is all about and why it is important. This is probably the best compliment any layman's science book can receive.
Profile Image for Hesam.
151 reviews18 followers
March 20, 2014
ترجمه ی کتاب یک فاجعه ی به تمام معناست...ویراستاری که هیچ ...ندارد
اگرچه رویکرد تاریخی نویسنده کتاب برای شرح و تفهیم نظریه ی بازیها به نظر جذاب و موفق به نظر می آید اما روند کتاب نشان از آنست که این رویکرد به پاشنه ی آشیل آن بدل شده است.کتاب برای شروع به دانستن نظریه ی بازیها اصلا مناسب نیست و آشنایی قبلی لازم به نظر میرسد و تنها برای گرفتن اطلاعات تاریخی و آشنایی با تعدادی از بازیها مطرح بد نیست
خوب بخش های جذاب کتاب(با در نظر نگرفتن ترجمه ی افتضاح و فرض اندکی اطلاعات پیشینی) یکی ، اتفاقات جنگ سرد بین آمریکا و شوروی است که به رویکردهایی چون تفکر "جنگ برای صلح" منتج شد آنهم از طرف اندیشمندانی چون راسل که بیشتر به چهره ی صلح طلب شناخته می شدند
هم چنین نقش دانشمندان و عالمان در خلق احمقانه ترین موقعیت هایی که می توانستند و می توانند بشریت را تا چندقدمی انقراض پیش برند...
از جمله جذابیت های مصادیق تاریخی ، اجتماعی و ... نظریه بازیها ، چالشهای اخلاقی حاصل است که البته مشخصا در این کتاب بدان پرداخته نشده است...
Profile Image for Remo.
2,287 reviews130 followers
August 30, 2021
Biografía de John Von Neumann, sin duda uno de los científicos más inteligentes que ha habido, atendiendo a los testimonios de todo aquel que le rodeara. Trabajó en un montón de cosas, desde la creación del ordenador hasta la bomba atómica, pasando por la matemática pura.
Lamentablemente, en este libro William Poundstone (que luego ha escrito cosas muy interesantes) no le pilla el punto a la narración y sentía por momentos que se atascaba todo. Tal vez sea porque el autor quería mezclar a la vez en el libro la biografía de Von Neumann con la teoría de juegos que él ayudó a desarrollar, con la bomba atómica (y la carrera armamentística, relacionada con la teoría de juegos). El resultado es un engrudo demasiado espeso por momentos. Hay trozos saltables, omisibles e incluso fusilables. Se puede hacer uno una idea del personaje leyendo a Feynman, que tenía un ego bastante saludable, y que mostraba aun así su profunda admiración por la mente del genio.
Muy entretenido a trozos y doloroso a otros. Tres estrellas.
Profile Image for Dan Downing.
1,235 reviews10 followers
March 30, 2020
When one wants to write about something which will sustain only a quarter of a book's worth of print, one can be clever in a number of ways. I've no clue if Mr. Poundstone resorted to such padding techniques or if he merely threw together an olio of interesting stuff using John von Neumann as a jumping-off point.
For my money, I rounded up this volume in search of more information about Dr. Neumann. Norman Macrae's biography and the material in Richard Rhodes' magisterial works on the Atomic and Hydrogen bombs left me with questions or perhaps time had erased some bits. In any event, off I went and bought the present volume.
Poundstone examines game theory and matters relating to nuclear weapons, the Cuban Missle Crises, and a fairly large helping of von Neumann stories. Throw in a chapter on The Rand Corporation and some expanded material on various dilemma games, and you have an interesting and worthy book.
Reading it today as opposed to its publication era in the early 90s adds a bit of spice as some issues have been settled and a few still loom. 1992 is so far in the past that the term 'googol' is used without a blush. The charms of the internet and cell phones are never mentioned. Yet von Neumann's fingerprints are all over the technologies underlying these things. And so much more.
Profile Image for Warren Mcpherson.
193 reviews29 followers
July 12, 2020
This book combines a narrative of the life on John Von Neumann with an exploration of a couple of his ideas that have had a great impact on society.
John Von Neumann had a deep understanding of many of the most advanced ideas of his time. He also made critical contributions to many projects that were mostly shaped by other people. This makes a description of his life and ideas a formidable challenge.
I have run across his contributions to computer science and was familiar with the extremely high regard contemporaries had for him so I was quite curious to know more about the man.
Most of the book is spent explaining a selection of ideas that have had broad social impact like game theory and the development of the nuclear bomb. The core concepts of game theory are familiar to most people. The discussion fills in some background and explains some nuance. The discussion of systemic analysis of simple games with parameterized rules foreshadows cellular automata.
Knowledgable readers will gain an understanding of how some critical ideas are connected and have developed. But the book makes no assumptions and all readers will gain insight into one of the most incredible people of the twentieth century.
Profile Image for Tim.
372 reviews32 followers
April 13, 2014
If you saw the movie version of A Beautiful Mind and thought that its corny description of Nash equilibria left something to be desired, then this popular treatment of game theory is an excellent next step. The book devotes some space to a biography of John von Neumann and a rushed history of post-WW2 nuclear politics, but the real highlights are the author's crisp and readable explanations of the major concepts of game theory -- chief among them the Minimax Theorem, the Prisoner's Dilemma, Tit-for-Tat, and the Dollar Auction. The book wisely confines itself to a narrow corner of the broad and diverse field of behavioral economics, which lets it go deeper with each idea. But it's hard not to feel intrigued by the unexplored paths branching off from game theory. I guess for that there are other books to read.
Profile Image for Doug.
255 reviews5 followers
March 31, 2009
Interesting, though it suffers a bit from trying to be three books at once -- a biography of John von Neumann, a primer on game theory, and a history of the first decade of the Cold War. There are a lot of nifty ideas and fun anecdotes within, but it's not too successful in tying the various strands together.
Profile Image for Lara Thompson.
687 reviews24 followers
December 25, 2019
Non zero sum games, rationality, real humans and the cold war. A fantastic history of the cold war through the lens of developing game theory. From pre 1950 up to the war in Iraq in ~1990.
4 reviews
January 9, 2022
I was looking an introduction to game theory, and ended up on this. I enjoyed reading this a lot, but be noted that this is also a history book that contains:

- a lot of history of the mathematicians who have been researching game theory: who they were, how did they end up studying this topic
- history of nuclear weapon development + the cold war politics

if those mentioned above are your jam, you are in for a treat. If you are looking something that explains only the game theory itself, look for something else
Profile Image for Sam.
166 reviews4 followers
February 12, 2021
Very readable. Von Neumann sounds like like a fuddy-duddy, and all the praise of his intelligence, like hubris, however this biography of his life, and account of the development of Game theory and the Bomb, is jam packed with salutary concepts and crystal anecdotes. Until now I've never really grasped game theory. I still think I don't really understand it - it is much more abstract than I expected, and this biography is up-front with the criticisms that emerged over the decades about the flaws in the 'mathematical' nature of game theory. Mathematicians love a problem with a right and a wrong answer. Unfortunately, some of the foundational assumptions remain sociologically subjective. This does not detract from a fascinating conceptual apparatus developed and used to manage and analyse the decades long crisis of the cold war and nuclear weapons development and proliferation.
Profile Image for Steven Ott.
55 reviews3 followers
March 1, 2021
Fascinating look at the development of Prisoner's Dilemma and game theory. I particularly enjoyed the developers' interesting attempt to apply game theory to real life situations. Turns out real life is not just two dimensional. "Game theory is a kaleidoscope that can only reflect the value systems of those who apply it."
Profile Image for Steven.
Author 2 books91 followers
May 27, 2017
Read this a bunch of times. If you find game theory fascinating it's the kind of book you can pick up and start reading and then find a hour or more has gone by.
Profile Image for Itxaso Aizpurua .
44 reviews1 follower
February 23, 2021
I revered von Neumann and thougut game theory was important. I read this book and found out how flawed both are. Very interesting.
Profile Image for datanodes.
8 reviews
December 30, 2022
A small but fact-filled biography of a physicist, the Cold war, and the man-made systems attempting to perfect human interaction. Highly recommended for old and new history/science buffs.
Profile Image for Alberto Cid.
8 reviews3 followers
March 25, 2022
Un libro muy bueno que trata sobre todo acerca de Teoría de Juegos pero narrado como un relato interesante que une el desarrollo cronológico con aspectos biográficos y personales de Von Neumann, hilado con conceptos matemáticos, algoritmos, comportamiento económico, estrategia militar, juegos de mesa, dilemas, anécdotas, biología… y todo envuelto en un contexto histórico, y situaciones reales para pensar.
Una joya de libro.
Profile Image for فرهاد ذکاوت.
Author 8 books47 followers
February 7, 2017
کتاب معمای زندانی از آن دسته کتابهای عمومی منتهی در حوزۀ تاریخ علم و همزمان جنگ سرد است. موضوعی که من هم به آن علاقه دارم. این کتاب را میتوانم عامه پسند تاریخی بنامم. عنوانی شبیه کتابهای علمی عامه پسند. برای کسانی که حرفه ای تر منابع را بررسی میکنند و یا جزییات بسیاری از جنگ سرد میخواهند بدانند صرفاً یک کتاب برای عصرانه های منزل یا دفتری ست که جوصله کار دیگری ندارید.

ترجمۀ کتاب اما، همانطور که در جلسۀ کاری با مدیر مسئول نشر داشتم، و به ایشان هم در مورد وضعیت تعدادی از کتابهایشان گفتم، به هیج وجه خوب نیست. کسی هم دستی بر متن پُرایراد و سر هم بندی شده و پر اشتباه و گاها حملات ناقص نکشیده. این خساست ناشرینی که به صورت فردی کتاب منتشر میکنند تحت عنوان انتشارات خودشان، و نداشتن ویراستارهای حرفه ای گرفتاری حوزه نشر در ایران است. بنابراین از متن فارسی انتظار یک متن یکدست و حتی درستی نداشته باشید. منتهی برای شروع آشنایی با تاریخ علم در جنگ سرد شاید یکی از منابع نه چندان عمیق و دقیق باشد که میتوانم به علاقه مندان توصیه کنم. اگر دسترسی به کتابهای اصلی داریدريال در مورد جنگ سرد کتابهای بسیار بهتر و جالبتری را میتوانید بخوانید و اگر همین کتااب را برای شروع انتخاب کردید، اولیوت با متن انگلیسی باشد و نه فارسی.
Profile Image for Joseph.
288 reviews24 followers
December 12, 2008
the beginning and the end of the book are good. it talks abt game theory and its application in different scenarios

the middle part is less interesting unless of course you like history.

but i must say this book provides a good overview on game theory, especially to someone new on the subject

key takeaways from the book:

(1) provides scientific explanation on why ppl would be motivated to defect (rather than cooperate) given the chance to go behind someone's back. And why economically speaking, it's always better to cooperate in the long run in a prisoner's dilemma

(2) that the optimal solution (equilibrium) to game theory is following the principle of tit-for-tat (corrected 13 Dec) ( do unto others what others do to you)
Profile Image for Teegee.
126 reviews
May 8, 2021
I never get tired of reading anecdotes of John von Neumann's mind. After two hours of RAND scientists pleading von Neumann to design a more powerful computer in order to solve a problem they deemed too complex for their current computer, von Neumann said "Gentlemen, you don't need a new computer. I have just solved the problem." Legendary.

The prisoner's dilemma is frustratingly vexing. I can only draw a few conclusions:

1) If we each were willing to be made a fool, none would be foolish at all.
2) Individual interests too easily topple the collective good.
3) The only "solution" to the prisoner's dilemma is to avoid prisoner's dilemmas.

tit for tat feels reasonable, but someone's gotta stop tatting

Profile Image for Ramin.
14 reviews1 follower
May 1, 2008
فرض كنيد در اتاقي به صندلي بسته شده ايد و دكمه اي در روبروي شما قرار دارد در اتاقي ديگر فرزند شما قرار گرفته و وضعيتي مشابه با شما دارد درصورت فشار دادن دكمه فرد فشاردهنده كشته ميشود و فرد ديگر آزاد مي گردد و اين را اضافه كنيد كه شما و فرزندتان يك ساعت ببيشتر وقت نداريد وبعد از يك ساعت هر دو كشته ميشويد در اين صورت واكنش شما چيست؟
شايد به خود بگوييد كه احتمال بروز اين موقعيتها در زندگي براي من نزديك به صفر است ولي به نظر من قرار نيست آدم حتما به جايي بسته شده باشد و راه نجاتش دكمه باشد اين موقعيت ممكن است براي ما در قالبي ديگر پيش آيد .در اين كتاب ما با شيوه بهترين انتخاب براي حل اين مسائل روبرو ميشويم و مسائلي از اين دست در ابعاد مختلف مانند سياست و جامعه مورد بررسي قرار ميگيرد .
Profile Image for JaredPar.
63 reviews1 follower
February 16, 2021
This book just didn't turn out to be what I wanted it to be. There is a good bit of info here about the history of game theory and how it evolved over the years. But there are also large digressions into topics that just aren't related.

I get that much of the Cold War stand offs are reducible to elements of Game Theory, and that reduction is interesting to observe. But the book spent entirely too much time discussing the Cold War and many elements that just weren't directly pertinent to the conversation.

It's the type of book that you could edit away 1/3 of and not miss anything important.
Profile Image for Ushan.
801 reviews67 followers
December 28, 2010
At once a biography of John von Neumann (which of course could not touch on all his scientific achievements, since this would have required a far greater sophistication than the author could assume), a popular introduction to game theory, including a detailed discussion of prisoner's dilemma, the game of chicken and Rousseau's stag hunt, and the story of early Cold War nuclear diplomacy (involving such prominent figures as Francis Matthews, Secretary of the Navy in the Truman administration who called for a preventive nuclear war against the Soviet Union).
Profile Image for Jessica.
126 reviews1 follower
November 9, 2017
Fantastic and extremely accessible intro game theory. Although I found the portions on von Neumann’s personal history less interesting, it was helpful to know the world in which game theory evolved. Many games are covered in the book beyond the prisoner’s dilemma (stag hunt, the dollar auction, tit for tat, etc), all followed by discussions on how they relate to military, economics, advertising, and even biology. One of the top two books I’ve read this year.
Profile Image for Jessica.
13 reviews9 followers
July 28, 2010
Great book filled with fun facts that really color Neumann's life and the history of the Cold War from a game theory point of view.
Profile Image for Daniel.
9 reviews
April 16, 2020
Game Theory, John von Neumann, RAND corporation, cold war, prisoner’s dilemma, chicken dilemma, a melange of nerdy stuff that I really enjoyed.
32 reviews1 follower
August 28, 2020
A great book, which mixes game theory with analogies to nuclear arms race and other real-life situation. It allow to really understand why there is no simple rational solution to most conflicts.
Profile Image for Barrett.
135 reviews
January 20, 2019
This book provides a fine glimpse on the conceptual facet, and a grand perspective on the pragmatic facet, of game theory. What it has is a next-to-zero amount of mathematics, but tons of historical facts and real-life examples. The life and events occurring therein of John von Neumann was described in great details.
Overall, I think this book is a great source of information for laymen or folks that enjoy pop-science, especially for those who think that game theory is fun and that its applications are must-learn. On the other hand, if you are doing research on game theory, then it's best to read this book as a preliminary for the math-heavy hardcore of the field; this book will surely be helpful.
Profile Image for Belen.
10 reviews
March 29, 2022
I read the first few pages a few years ago and was hooked immediately. Decided to read the book based on that alone. I was met with a completely different book, that I'd probably not have read if I knew what it was truly about.
It took me a long time to finish it. It was interesting, but repetitive at times.
I'll most likely never read it again and I'd only recommend it to a very special kind of person.
I read it during the start of war in Ukraine, which I think was a nice (mind the word in this context), interesting time to read a book like this. A lot of similarities between the book and reality.
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