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on 2 July 2017
Good book
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on 2 March 2010
Prisoner's Dilemma: John Von Neumann, Game Theory and the Puzzle of the Bomb

I bought this book following a short section of an economics course which used game theory and the Prisoner's Dilemma to explain decision making in areas such as cartels, collusion and advertising budgets which inspired me to learn more. However, it sat unread on my shelf for nearly a year, which I now regret because this is such an interesting text.

The author has made it part von Neumann biography, part cold war politics and part game theory and, in the main, has put it together perfectly with enough emphasis on each part to make it interesting to a wide readership.

Although I did struggle with certain sections, partly because there is possibly a little too much discussion about the different types of game theory and their likley outcomes e.g. chicken, stag hunt etc, I disagree with another reviewer that thought that the book tailed off towards the end. For me the last couple of chapters which outlined later uses of game theory in the biological and evolutionary fields were very interesting, and I am sure that there are more recent applications which build on this chapter and which this book has inspired me to look for.

In all, a very well written book that is easy to read and which shows how Game Theory is present in every day life decisions whether we realise it or not, often making human behaviour very predictable.
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on 7 January 2010
The book is loosely centered on John v. Neumann's life and career; people and topics it also covers are the rise of the RAND Corporation from a wad of cash the Air Force didn't know what to do with after the Second World War, and how it came to be the world's focal point for research in Game Theory and other odd and unlikely subjects. It mention in passing John Nash and the equilibrium carrying his name, Bertrand Russel and his involvement in cold war diplomacy - the time span it covers is, as hinted in the title, from before the cold war to towards its end.

On the subject of game theory, it gives a comfortably non-technical introduction to the field, where everyone can read along without getting lost in pages many of equations. Even though the center of it all is game theory, it wanders to and fro between the game theoretic field, a biography of J v. Neumann, and the developments and people of Game Theory thoughout the decades, and international politics under the shadow of a nuclear weaponized age. In this case, this is however a plus, as I feel the author manages to do this without causing too much of a dense of discontinuity, and besides, seeing the wider aspects of the discipline put into practise (or rather, attempted...) makes for good perspective. And sometimes with outrageous humor, as well.

All in all a very enjoyable little book about a very interesting subject.
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on 26 July 1999
This should be of interest to both readers concerned with Cold War policy and the development of game theory. Poundstone is one of the more gifted writers (at least regarding narrative skills) to address game theory, an often perplexingly technical subject, offering an interesting, fairly comprehensive introduction to the subject without becoming mired in its more technical aspects. And his characterization of von Neumann, an interesting intellect, is able and compelling.
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HALL OF FAMEon 17 December 2002
The enjoyment, or perhaps the utility you'll find with this book, will be directly related to how much you know about Game Theory prior to this read. This book spends, as much time on history and biography as it does on what Game Theory is about, so this work would seem to be most appropriate to those who are new to the material. I had only basic understanding of Game Theory from other books I had read, within which this field of study was mentioned, so for me the book was very worthwhile. The historical and biographic aspects of the book were not new, so there were of less interest to me.

Math need not be a passion for this book to be understood and enjoyed. The various games that are explained and, "played", for the reader actually utilize little in the way of math. Game Theory in practice is about the number of participants, the choices they have, how the games should rationally be played, and how there are played when people replace theory. The results of these games are applicable to daily life, whether it explains how a network will decide the placement of their commercials, why a person will stand in a line of unknown length, or pay more than the true value of an item (like a dollar bill). Peoples behavior often crosses from the irrational to the absurd, and many of these games will point out courses of action almost all readers will have taken at one time or another, when the rational decision was the opposite of what they chose to do.

The book is also a good primer for further reading on Bertrand Russell, John Nash the subject of the movie, "A Beautiful Mind", and John von Neumann, who many considered the most brilliant man alive during his career, and many other great scientists of the 20th Century. There is also review of the development of both the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and the very surprising groups of people that either supported their development and use, and those that were diametrically opposed. There is also some discussion on how Game Theory was and is used to make decisions on a global scale, and also where Game Theory falls short of some of its initial promise.

You will most likely enjoy following "The Prisoner's Dilemma, The Stag Hunt, The Dollar Auction, and So Long Sucker", the last of which often was alleged to have spouses leave the scene of the game is separate cabs. Any one who is inquisitive will enjoy the book, and may be motivated to pursue a variety of its topics further.
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on 13 May 2000
I read this a few years back. I found it a good mix of theory and history. After reading it I felt I knew John von Neumann better and also knew why TIT FOR TAT is such a good strategy for iterated games. The latter helped when reading texts on altruistic behaviour in animals.
It motivated me to buy a text book on game theory - so it must have been good.
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on 31 May 2000
This book has been a constant reference for me since I bought it in 1993. It complements such classics as Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", and Axelrod's "The Evolution of Cooperation". Provides an analytical basis for understanding the development of "society".
The biographical notes on Von Neumann are historically interesting, and provide an elegant counterpoint to the technical material. The alternation of chapters between the two threads is well-done.
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on 27 July 2015
Simultaneously one of the most over and underrated areas of mathematics, game theory has many applications in the behavioral sciences. The classic example of this is illustrated by the problem known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Each arrested person must make a decision as to whether they should keep silent or confess and implicate both of them based on how they think the other person will act. Both gain the most by silence, but the worst possible outcome is to keep silent when the other talks. With applications in politics all the way up to the consideration of nuclear war, the problem is fascinating.
The treatment here is a combination of a biography of John von Neumann and a description of the (mis)uses of game theory. Clearly, the most interesting items are the descriptions of strategies advocating a “preventive” nuclear war in the late 1940’s. The end result of such a conflict would have been a world where the United States was overwhelmingly dominant and Washington D. C. would have been the de facto capital of a “world” government. As amazing as it sounds, there were people who rationally argued for such an action, Bertrand Russell being one of the most outspoken. Such positions continued to be argued until both sides developed a reliable second strike capability, which solidified the nuclear balance of terror. One of the most interesting what-if scenarios that once can imagine, a nuclear preventive war would make an exciting science fiction story.
John von Neumann clearly ranks as one of the most talented people of all time. Arguably the best mathematician ever, one of the original computer scientists, fluent in many languages and knowledgeable in many areas, his accomplishments are truly awesome. At one point he was one of the most powerful people in the world, influencing decisions affecting the lives of everyone on the planet. All of this is explained in a very readable style as very little mathematics is used in the descriptions.
This book should be required reading for all who rise to positions where national security decisions are made. It could also be used as a text for many courses in political and behavioral sciences. Even mathematicians will find it useful.

Published in “Mathematics and Computer Education,” reprinted with permission.
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on 15 January 2010
this is a decent introduction to game theory, the cold war and the life of John Von Neumann. it starts off well enough and is interesting enough but it soon becomes a little boring if your not that bothered by the cold war. The information on game theory and prisoners dilema is interesting, but it all gets a little samey. Not bad, but seems to run out of steam.
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on 4 March 2010
I found this book a little to categorise (it wasn't quite what I expected). The book could be:
- an introduction to game theory and the prisoner's dilemma (which is what the title suggests)
- a biography of John von Neumann, the mathematician / academic
- a history of the Cold War from the perspective of the genuine fear of nuclear holocaust

The book is definitely interesting to read and it does connect the three subjects above together but I'm not really sure it's what I wanted to read. Certainly von Neumann was a key contributor to game theory and was employed by the US government in the drive to build a nuclear bomb but somehow the book misses something
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