A Beautiful Mind mathematician gives mahjong tip

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 March, 2011, 12:00am

Can game theory be applied in mahjong? That was one of the more practical questions about the arcane mathematical theory that came from a jam-packed audience of 1,000 people who queued to hear a lecture by the Nobel-winning mathematician John Nash yesterday.

Nash's life as professor and mental patient was portrayed by actor Russell Crowe in the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind.

The audience member who wanted to know if game theory could give him an edge in the ancient Chinese game of mahjong asked after the lecture: 'Can you extend your three-player game [in the theory] to a four-player one? Because games like mahjong have four players.'

Nash - who pioneered the theory for which he won a Nobel prize in economics - was not dismissive of the idea. 'In theory, it should be similar,' he said. 'We can have as many as 10 players in a game.

'But problems may appear.'

Game theory analyses the processes of decisionmaking among competitors who have limited or incomplete information about each other. The theory can also look at co-operative strategies.

The presentation by Nash, 82, at Shue Yan University's Lady Lily Shaw Hall yesterday was on 'co-operative optimisation', which seeks to work out strategies that may not be clear to people working together.

For example, commercial cartels may co-operate while hiding information from each other.

His famous Nash equilibriums, which have great influence on contemporary economic thought, determine strategies that cannot be improved upon - that is, they are 'optimised'.

Though frail, Nash did not obviously show traits of someone who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and mild clinical depression leading to 30 lost and painful years, an ordeal dramatised in the 2001 American film.

When asked about A Beautiful Mind, he said it was inaccurate in many places about his life. What seemed to upset him most was its portrayal of him criticising Adam Smith, widely cited as the father of modern economics and capitalism.

'In a scene, I was understood as criticising Adam Smith, but that's not accurate,' he told the audience. 'In reality I never criticised him.'

He explained how scientists at the frontier of game theory were now working to refine and improve upon modelling of players who react to approval and disapproval by others.

'My personal view is that the high goal is to develop models which can be used in counselling or arbitration,' he said.

He conceived the co-operative theory with a paper on bargaining when he was an undergraduate at Carnegie Institute of Technology - now part of Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The now-Princeton academic, who was awarded the Nobel prize in 1994, arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday for a series of speaking events.