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

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  1,709 ratings  ·  132 reviews
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. Watc ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published January 1st 1993 by Anchor (first published 1992)
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Average rating 3.91  · 
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Jan 13, 2010 rated it liked it

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 on
Nov 21, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: work
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 mu ...more
My next book, continuing my quest to misunderstand nuclear physics. Word of the day mamihlapinatapai. Meaning "looking at each other hoping that either will offer to do something that both parties desire but are unwilling to do." ...more
May 12, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, history
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- ...more
Mar 23, 2009 rated it it was ok
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. ...more
Lara Thompson
Dec 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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.
Warren Mcpherson
Jul 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 r
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 ...more
Steven Ott
Mar 01, 2021 rated it really liked it
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." ...more
May 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Feb 22, 2021 rated it liked it
I revered von Neumann and thougut game theory was important. I read this book and found out how flawed both are. Very interesting.
Dan Downing
Mar 29, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 06, 2008 rated it really liked it
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'
Dec 27, 2010 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Nov 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 27, 2010 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Aug 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jan 20, 2019 rated it liked it
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 applicati
May 07, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: 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.
Feb 15, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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 conv
Jun 24, 2020 rated it liked it
Solid 3.5. Like the title says - a mix of Neumann's biography, story of the bomb through the WW2 and a primer on game theory. Introduces game theory in an extremely interesting manner, and maintains interest throughout without seeming like a textbook. Thoroughly enjoyed the history of RAND corporation and its attempts in using game theory for strategy. However it gets a bit slow through parts of the biography. Highly recommend it for anyone wanting to get the skinny on game theory. ...more
Aaron Nielsen
Jul 06, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is a fantastic read that primarily covers three topics: the life of 20th century mathematical genius, John von Neumann, the development of game theory (with the help of von Neumann), and the issue of nuclear proliferation (featuring both von Neumann and game theory). All three topics are presented in interesting and easy to understand language. Even the topics in game theory didn’t use too much math. Highly recommended.
Gary Bake
Jul 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A really good history of the legend that is John von Neumann, game theory and the cold war.
It covers a lot of how game theory progressed and the applications to the on going changes with US/Russian relations.
If I could knock half a point off because of the slow last chapter I would, but I can't. Still a totally worthwhile read though.

I'm still waiting on a proper full Von Neumann biography. If anybody knows one, give me a shout!
Kevin Gross
Jan 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Quite a good book on the basics and history of game theory. The book also provides a biography of John von Neumann, albeit largely limited to his roots in Hungary and his contributions to game theory, not mentioning much about his other endeavors. Very readable and well paced, dragging only a bit in its extended ruminations on Prisoner's Dilemma and other games. ...more
Daniel Kane
Apr 21, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics, history
This was an excellent history book on the development of Game Theory and John von Neumann's involvement in it. As the Cold War progresses, our understanding of Game Theory is paired with relevant historical events. An absolutely wonderful introduction to the field, and requires no math, as it is mostly a history/biography. ...more
May 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Great book. It attempts to "package" a particularly interesting branch of mathematics (game theory) around the life-story of its creator - John von Neumann. Unfortunately, the final chapters are clearly weaker than the rest of the book. ...more
Sep 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: ub
Bit of a mixed bag; on three related subjects (nucleair arms race, game theory, and Von Neumann). I liked the game theory part best, but would probably prefer a book only on that topic

See my Twitter thread
Nov 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Neat history of Game Theory, Neumann and the “Rationality” of the Cold War. Definitely enjoyed reading this book - 275 pages about. Lots of game theory ideas and how they were born, but not overly complex- I could read this when tired before bed
I picked this up in Long Beach when I was living there from Oct 1991-Mar 1992. Very good.
Brian D. Mann
Jun 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Much more a history

The book is a history of von Niewman and how game theory was used than a book about what game theory is and can be used.
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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 t ...more

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