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Game Theory Versus Practice

More companies are using game theory to aid decision-making. How well does it work in the real world?

When Microsoft announced its intention to acquire Yahoo last February, the software giant knew the struggling search firm would not come easily into the fold. But Microsoft had anticipated the eventual minuet of offer and counteroffer five months before its announcement, thanks to the powers of game theory.

A mathematical method of analyzing game-playing strategies, game theory is catching on with corporate planners, enabling them to test their moves against the possible responses of their competitors. Its origins trace as far back as The Art of War, the unlikely management best-seller penned 2,500 years ago by the Chinese general Sun Tzu. Mathematicians John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern adapted the method for economics in the 1940s, and game theory entered the academic mainstream in the 1970s, when economists like Thomas Schelling and Robert Aumann used it to study adverse selection and problems of asymmetric information. (Schelling and Aumann won Nobel prizes in 2005 for their work.)

Game theory can take many forms, but most companies use a simplified version that focuses executives on the mind-set of the competition. “The formal stuff quickly becomes very technical and less useful,” says Louis Thomas, a professor at the Wharton School of Business who teaches game theory. “It’s a matter of peeling it back to its bare essentials.” One popular way to teach the theory hinges on a situation called the “prisoner’s dilemma,” where the fate of two detainees depends on whether each snitches or stays silent about an alleged crime (see “To Squeal or Not to Squeal?” at the end of this article).

Many companies are reluctant to talk about the specifics of how they use game theory, or even to admit whether they use it at all. But oil giant Chevron makes no bones about it. “Game theory is our secret strategic weapon,” says Frank Koch, a Chevron decision analyst. Koch has publicly discussed Chevron’s use of game theory to predict how foreign governments and competitors will react when the company embarks on international projects. “It reveals the win-win and gives you the ability to more easily play out where things might lead,” he says.

Enter the Matrix

Microsoft’s interest in game theory was piqued by the disclosure that IBM was using the method to better understand the motivations of its competitors — including Microsoft — when Linux, the open-source computer operating system, began to catch on. (Consultants note that companies often bone up on game theory when they find out that competitors are already using it.)

For its Yahoo bid, Microsoft hired Open Options, a consultancy, to model the merger and plot a possible course for the transaction. Yahoo’s trepidation became clear from the outset. “We knew that they would not be particularly interested in the acquisition,” says Ken Headrick, product and marketing director of Microsoft’s Canadian online division, MSN. And, indeed, they weren’t; the bid ultimately failed and a subsequent partial acquisition offer was abandoned in June.

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