First the ideal gas law, now game theory…who knew OpenCourseWare could be such a rich resource for understanding the confounding world of sports?
As Justin Wolfers explains in yesterday’s New York Times, the end-of-game goal-line pass called by Seattle head coach Pete Carroll was actually quite rational.
It’s the biggest moment in your N.F.L. coaching career: 26 seconds remain in the Super Bowl, your team is 4 points behind, you have the ball just one yard short of the end zone, it’s second down, and your team has arguably the N.F.L.’s best running back. What’s your call? Run or pass?
Here’s what I would do: Call a game theorist, someone who specializes in the branch of economics that analyzes strategic interactions. Game theory is the tool used to understand how global superpowers respond to each other, how large companies compete with each other and how grandmasters play chess. It also describes the strategic tussle between Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, and Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, who found themselves facing difficult decisions in the final seconds of Sunday’s Super Bowl.
The key insight of game theory for an N.F.L. coach is that when you think about what choice you should make, you need to also consider the response from the opposing coach, understanding that he is also thinking strategically. This line of thinking suggests that you should not necessarily call a run play, even if you’re blessed with a great running back. Likewise, it’s not clear that you should definitely pass. Rather, your choice should be somewhat random — a choice that game theorists call a “mixed strategy.”
With applications spanning economics to politics to management to sociology to, yes, even games, MIT teaches a lot of game theory. OCW has over 20 courses on the topic, all free online for your Monday morning quarterbacking pleasure.
Where to start? 14.11 Insights from Game Theory into Social Behavior is an engaging and unconventional introduction. No prior knowledge of game theory, economics, or mathematics is required, and you’ll learn (among other things) why the Mona Lisa is so popular. A more conventional introduction is 14.12 Economic Applications of Game Theory, an undergraduate-level survey grounded in the mathematics. From there you can branch out into specific applications and more sophisticated explorations of this fascinating field.