Everybody likes a good Zero-Sum Game. Whether you’re watching or playing a sport, you like the tension. You like the effort it takes to win. You like a performance that beats a rival. If the Zero-Sum Game is a war, you like defeating an enemy.
A big part of what makes Zero-Sum Games interesting is the risk of losing. Without the risk of losing, the Zero-Sum Game loses its tension. There’s less effort. Performances rarely reach greatness.
But we also like Positive-Sum Games. We like when both sides win. We like when people get along. We like when everyone benefits from an interaction.
We like Positive-Sum Games. And we like Zero-Sum Games. But they’re very different types of games. And we want both at the same time.
The solution: Embed Zero-Sum Games within Positive-Sum Games.
One of the first civilizations to figure out how to embed Zero-Sum Games in Positive-Sum Games was the Greeks. They created the Olympic Games.
The games were an upgrade from wars because no one died. The losers’ loss was minimized to shame. You did the Zero-Sum Games of races and javelin throws and wrestling and survived. Which is the first step in embedding the Zero-Sum Game in a Positive-Sum Game: Make sure no one dies in the Zero-Sum Game.
Then, there’s the Positive-Sum Game on top of it. Because people like watching the Zero-Sum Game of athletics, benefits are generated by the spectators. The organizers can afford to buy things like gold medals to give to the winners. They can even afford to buy things like silver and bronze medals for some of the losers.
It’s why today, professional athletes get paid, even when they lose. Because the Zero-Sum Game of basketball or football or baseball or rugby is embedded in a Positive-Sum Game between the spectators and the organizers/owners. At the end of the day, everybody wins from playing a Zero-Sum Game in sports as long as it’s embedded in a Positive-Sum Game.
If the Zero-Sum Game is poker, it gets a little trickier. It gets tricky because players can actually lose. They can walk away with less than they came with. Which happens to most people when they play at a casino.
One way is to embed the Zero-Sum Game of poker in a Positive-Sum Game is to televise the poker games. That creates advertising revenue, which can be given to some players. If the players are famous, they can play for free. They don’t lose by playing the Zero-Sum Game.
But that’s just for famous players. A new site called Run It Once is trying to do it for recreational players. And Phil Galfond, who is heading it up is using the language of Zero-Sum Games to explain it.
He says, “Poker is, by definition, a zero sum game. Or, as my good friend Tommy Angelo cleverly calls it, once rake [what the casino takes from each hand] is taken, ‘Zero sum minus some.’”
Galfond wants to be more “player friendly.” He’s consciously trying to embed the Zero-Sum Game of poker in a Positive-Sum Game. He’s trying to make sure players enjoy the game, even when they lose.
He says, “Playing professionally in a zero sum game can feel weird to some people. In order to profit, someone else has to lose. Operating a zero sum game is similar. But if people play poker for reasons other than earning money, which we know to be true, is operating a poker room really zero sum?”
Galfond is trying to embed the Zero-Sum Game of poker in a Positive-Sum Game. A Positive-Sum Game where everybody wins, even though there’s a Zero-Sum Game at the core of it. One of his ideas is: “The addition of Shot Clocks to big buy-in live tournaments. Without them, players can maximize their edge by taking a really long time to think through each decision. This makes the overall experience of playing in the tournament worse, but it’s within the rules so it’s going to happen, and the experience in those tournaments suffer as a result.”
He's got lots of other ideas to create more of a Positive-Sum Game out of the Zero-Sum Game of poker.
The Greeks did it. Professional sports leagues have done it. Can poker do it, too?
Can they figure out a way to embed a Zero-Sum Game in a Positive-Sum Game?