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Math Trek

The tell-tale anecdote

An Edgar Allan Poe story reveals a flaw in game theory.

By
9:25am, June 20, 2008

During the whole of a dull, cramped and wearisome flight from Israel to New York, as the night pressed heavily against the airplane windows, Ariel Rubinstein had been toiling through a singularly dreary article on game theory; and at length the economist found himself, as the sharpness of his focus waned, seeking respite from the tedium in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter.

But the economist’s work, it seemed, wouldn’t let him rest. For in the middle of the detective story, Poe launched into an analysis of game theory! Rubinstein read:

“I knew one about eight years of age, whose success at guessing in the game of ‘even and odd’ attracted universal admiration. This game is simple, and is played with marbles. One player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd. If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wron
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