Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Game Theory
by Daniel Frisch
Posted February 16th, 2021

I love playing games, which means what it should and is not simply a euphemism for being manipulative.  I grew up playing board and card games, everything from checkers, chess and Mastermind, to gin (rummy) and pinochle, and even the Japanese game of Go.  By far, my favorite games were word games like Jotto, Boggle and Scrabble.  When playing Jotto, a game in which opponents try to guess each other’s hidden words, I’d play without paper, mentally picturing the letter combinations and possibilities.  For a number of years, I was the reigning family Boggle champion, which is frequently recounted at holiday get togethers.  Today, both at home and office, we all play the daily New York Times Spelling Bee, a game whose goal is to make as many words as possible from a flower-looking diagram featuring six letters surrounding a central letter.  Each of us tries to score enough points by finding words, especially the one or more pangrams which incorporate each of the seven letters, and to achieve “Genius” status. On extremely rare occasions, working individually or together, we succeed at finding every possible word and a cute bee icon appears on our phone indicating that we are “Queen Bee” for a day.  It is a fair observation that I gravitate to people who like to play games.

One of the many lucky breaks from childhood was having parents and a specific aunt who nurtured my game-playing passions. My scientist father and I usually battled over the chess or Go boards, both being strategy games where the of luck of the draw or a roll of the dice cannot influence an outcome.  In theory and practice, the better more experienced and more focused player most always claims victory, and I suffered many defeats.  My Aunt Alyce, on the other hand, favored backgammon and card games.  She even had decks of cards imprinted with “Make Checks Payable to Alyce Lesser.”  I never asked what games she played for money, likely it was gin or bridge or both, but it was clear to me that games were to be taken seriously, and score was to be kept.

I brought a backgammon board with me to college, and often played with dormitory friends, the same way I imagine my mother played bridge with her classmates a generation and a half before.  I vividly recall playing during my first semester at school with a particular hallmate, probably for a dime a point.  We played many evenings and invariably I would win, a few dollars here, a few dollars there.  When it came time to settle up, I was ahead by a few hundred dollars, which was an extraordinary and inappropriate sum for first-year college students in 1987.  Yet, this was no reason to rejoice, as my opponent was a defensive end on our college football team; something I might have considered before deciding to play him for money.

Regardless of the stakes, playing games for money elevates intensity and increases player adrenaline.  Las Vegas casinos host backgammon and poker tournaments and to some, this condemns them as disagreeable games of chance (luck), and those who play are denounced as back-room gamblers.  Their attire and behavior on national television would not suggest otherwise.  In spite of the mathematics at the heart of backgammon and poker, the games are taught and contested in dimly lit rooms, not celebrated in after-school programs.  Joining the school’s chess club on the other hand is lauded; no differently than making the math team or signing up for science club. Chess club is rightly grouped among STEM extracurriculars and winning a state-wide high school chess tournament will certainly burnish a college application, much more so than ‘cashing’ in an internet poker tournament and winning a seat at the World Series of Poker in Sin City.

Of course, everyone should learn to play chess. As the proverb states, “Life is a game of chess,” and two-plus centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin elaborated, “The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it… Life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with.”  You will find no argument from me, except that the rules and complexities of the game wholly exclude the element of chance.  For this reason, I prefer the games of backgammon and poker, whose dice and cards introduce chance, and are a better simulation of the game of life.  Poker and backgammon both trade on odds, and with each card dealt and each dice roll, the probability of winning is adjusted. Additionally, poker has its ‘tells,’ and the concept that if you can’t recognize the sucker at the table, it may just be you.  Kenny Roger’s most famous song “The Gambler” implores “that you need to know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.” It would be very challenging to know how to do this without constantly processing and re-processing the statistical probabilities (the odds), not to mention having the ability to recognize whether an opponent is bluffing.  The card and checker play, math, observation, and risk management skills needed to win at poker and backgammon correlate well with life beyond the baize and board. And for record-keeping purposes, I may be the first, and probably the last person to favorably compare Kenny Rogers to Ben Franklin – which makes me smile.

Enjoying mountains of bad press, it is easy to understand poker’s bad rep, but it is a little less clear for backgammon. While people do play for money, I hardly think dear Aunt Alyce would have enthusiastically taught me a morally suspect pastime, any more than she would have encouraged me to drink or smoke, although she enjoyed both.  Backgammon is a noble game played by small groups in every corner of the globe, and I am proud to be teaching my young children to play.  Most decisions in backgammon come down to mathematics, whether it is the odds of being hit and sent to the bar, or who is ahead in a running race.  Risk-reward is always top of mind, and while the play may seem straightforward, more subtle issues of timing can baffle.  In other games, would players describe high double rolls as “too fast”?  The most intriguing and unique element of backgammon is, without a doubt, the doubling cube, a device that has no bearing on the playing of the game, but everything to do with its strategy.  The six sides of the doubling cube are marked with the numerals 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and 64 and the cube is not employed until a player offers it to his or her opponent.  When a player feels he is ahead, and before he rolls, he can offer to his opponent to double the point value or the stakes of the game by turning the cube to “2”.  If the opponent feels the game is a likely loser, he can decline the double, thereby conceding the game.  If, on the other hand, the opponent feels he has a reasonable chance of prevailing, he can accept the double and take possession of the cube.  Should the circumstances reverse and the player who owns the cube now believe the table has turned, he can offer the cube back at double the value, turning the cube to “4”.  As the game continues the same concession/acceptance process is repeated.  When games are at their most exciting, the cube is passed back and forth a number of times, exerting exponential leverage and a near-constant need for reflection and reassessment.  To make matters even more interesting, a simple win is tabulated based on the value of the cube, but if a player fails to bear off any checkers, the game is considered a gammon and the value is doubled.  If a player does not bear all his checkers from his home board, the game is termed a backgammon and the game is trebled.  Fortunes can change with a roll of the dice, and then change back again just as easily, and yet no matter the rolls, the better and more experienced player usually wins (sound familiar?).  No matter the outcome, the element of chance contributes unpredictability, excitement, and most importantly, hope!

While backgammon may be my favorite game, I’ll play anything.  If I could find a group with whom I enjoy playing late night poker, I’d be all-in.  Buoyed by nostalgia, I’ve recently refinished a modern chess set designed by Lanier Graham in 1967 and purchased at MoMA by my parents when new.  I was thrilled the other day when my daughter told me that she already knows how to play and we have begun to play together.  On a number of occasions, I’ve tried my hand at bridge, perhaps the most challenging of games.  Bridge requires not only math skills, but also fluency in a private language. Learning the game later in life is akin to picking up a foreign tongue without living abroad.  Having difficulty understanding the bidding and the table chatter is frustrating for me, especially since it is known that the best and the brightest play bridge, as evidenced by my mother-in-law being a Life Master.  And yet, in spite of all my curiosity, access, and ego, my kids are probably spot on when they tell me, “No Chance.”

For now, I’ll stick with backgammon and an occasional poker game, and maybe seek out a boutique manufacturer to print up a few decks of cards which read “Make Checks Payable to Daniel Frisch Architecture.”

DF, 01-05-2021