My 2018 Mathematics A To Z: Zugzwang


My final glossary term for this year’s A To Z sequence was suggested by aajohannas, who’d also suggested “randomness” and “tiling”. I don’t know of any blogs or other projects they’re behind, but if I do hear, I’ll pass them on.

Cartoon of a thinking coati (it's a raccoon-like animal from Latin America); beside him are spelled out on Scrabble titles, 'MATHEMATICS A TO Z', on a starry background. Various arithmetic symbols are constellations in the background.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.

Zugzwang.

Some areas of mathematics struggle against the question, “So what is this useful for?” As though usefulness were a particular merit — or demerit — for a field of human study. Most mathematics fields discover some use, though, even if it takes centuries. Others are born useful. Probability, for example. Statistics. Know what the fields are and you know why they’re valuable.

Game theory is another of these. The subject, as often happens, we can trace back centuries. Usually as the study of some particular game. Occasionally in the study of some political science problem. But game theory developed a particular identity in the early 20th century. Some of this from set theory experts. Some from probability experts. Some from John von Neumann, because it was the 20th century and all that. Calling it “game theory” explains why anyone might like to study it. Who doesn’t like playing games? Who, studying a game, doesn’t want to play it better?

But why it might be interesting is different from why it might be important. Think of what a game is. It is a string of choices made by one or more parties. The point of the choices is to achieve some goal. Put that way you realize: this is everything. All life is making choices, all in the pursuit of some goal, even if that goal is just “not end up any worse off”. I don’t know that the earliest researchers in game theory as a field realized what a powerful subject they had touched on. But by the 1950s they were doing serious work in strategic planning, and by 1964 were even giving us Stanley Kubrick movies.

This is taking me away from my glossary term. The field of games is enormous. If we narrow the field some we can discuss specific kinds of games. And say more involved things about these games. So first we’ll limit things by thinking only of sequential games. These are ones where there are a set number of players, and they take turns making choices. I’m not sure whether the field expects the order of play to be the same every time. My understanding is that much of the focus is on two-player games. What’s important is that at any one step there’s only one party making a choice.

The other thing narrowing the field is to think of information. There are many things that can affect the state of the game. Some of them might be obvious, like where the pieces are on the game board. Or how much money a player has. We’re used to that. But there can be hidden information. A player might conceal some game money so as to make other players underestimate her resources. Many card games have one or more cards concealed from the other players. There can be information unknown to any party. No one can make a useful prediction what the next throw of the game dice will be. Or what the next event card will be.

But there are games where there’s none of this ambiguity. These are called games with “perfect information”. In them all the players know the past moves every player has made. Or at least should know them. Players are allowed to forget what they ought to know.

There’s a separate but similar-sounding idea called “complete information”. In a game with complete information, players know everything that affects the gameplay. At least, probably, apart from what their opponents intend to do. This might sound like an impossibly high standard, at first. All games with shuffled decks of cards and with dice to roll are out. There’s no concealing or lying about the state of affairs.

Set complete-information aside; we don’t need it here. Think only of perfect-information games. What are they? Some ancient games, certainly. Tic-tac-toe, for example. Some more modern versions, like Connect Four and its variations. Some that are actually deep, like checkers and chess and go. Some that are, arguably, more puzzles than games, as in sudoku. Some that hardly seem like games, like several people agreeing how to cut a cake fairly. Some that seem like tests to prove people are fundamentally stupid, like when you auction off a dollar. (The rules are set so players can easily end up paying more then a dollar.) But that’s enough for me, at least. You can see there are games of clear, tangible interest here.

The last restriction: think only of two-player games. Or at least two parties. Any of these two-party sequential games with perfect information are a part of “combinatorial game theory”. It doesn’t usually allow for incomplete-information games. But at least the MathWorld glossary doesn’t demand they be ruled out. So I will defer to this authority. I’m not sure how the name “combinatorial” got attached to this kind of game. My guess is that it seems like you should be able to list all the possible combinations of legal moves. That number may be enormous, as chess and go players are always going on about. But you could imagine a vast book which lists every possible game. If your friend ever challenged you to a game of chess the two of you could simply agree, oh, you’ll play game number 2,038,940,949,172 and then look up to see who won. Quite the time-saver.

Most games don’t have such a book, though. Players have to act on what they understand of the current state, and what they think the other player will do. This is where we get strategies from. Not just what we plan to do, but what we imagine the other party plans to do. When working out a strategy we often expect the other party to play perfectly. That is, to make no mistakes, to not do anything that worsens their position. Or that reduces their chance of winning.

… And yes, arguably, the word “chance” doesn’t belong there. These are games where the rules are known, every past move is known, every future move is in principle computable. And if we suppose everyone is making the best possible move then we can imagine forecasting the whole future of the game. One player has a “chance” of winning in the same way Christmas day of the year 2038 has a “chance” of being on a Tuesday. That is, the probability is just an expression of our ignorance, that we don’t happen to be able to look it up.

But what choice do we have? I’ve never seen a reference that lists all the possible games of tic-tac-toe. And that’s about the simplest combinatorial-game-theory game anyone might actually play. What’s possible is to look at the current state of the game. And evaluate which player seems to be closer to her goal. And then look at all the possible moves.

There are three things a move can do. It can put the party closer to the goal. It can put the party farther from the goal. Or it can do neither. On her turn the other party might do something that moves you farther from your goal, moves you closer to your goal, or doesn’t affect your status at all. It seems like this makes strategy obvious. On every step take the available move that takes one closest to the goal. This is known as a “greedy” strategy. As the name suggests it isn’t automatically bad. If you expect the game to be a short one, greed might be the best approach. The catch is that moves that seem less good — even ones that seem to hurt you initially — might set up other, even better moves. So strategy requires some thinking beyond the current step. Properly, it requires thinking through to the end of the game. Or at least until the end of the game seems obvious.

We should like a strategy that leaves us no choice but to win. Next-best would be one that leaves the game undecided, since something might happen like the other player needing to catch a bus and so resigning. This is how I got my solitary win in the two months I spent in the college chess club. Worst would be the games that leave us no choice but to lose.

It can be that there are no good moves. That is, that every move available makes it a little less likely that we win. Sometimes a game offers the chance to pass, preserving the state of the game but giving the other party the turn. Then maybe the other party will do something that creates a better opportunity for us. But if we are allowed to pass, there’s a good chance the game lets the other party pass, too, and we end up in the same fix. And it may be the rules of the game don’t allow passing anyway. One must move.

The phenomenon of having to make a move when it’s impossible to make a good move has prominence in chess. I don’t have the chess knowledge to say how common the situation is. But it seems to be a situation people who study chess problems love. I suppose it appeals to a love of lost causes and the hope that you can be brilliant enough to see what everyone else has overlooked. German chess literate gave it a name 160 years ago, “zugzwang”, “compulsion to move”. Somehow I never encountered the term when I was briefly a college chess player. Perhaps because I was never in zugzwang and was just too incompetent a player to find my good moves. I first encountered the term in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The protagonist picked up on the term as he investigated the murder of a chess player and then felt himself in one.

Combinatorial game theorists have picked up the word, and sharpened its meaning. If I understand correctly chess players allow the term to be used for any case where a player hurts her position by moving at all. Game theorists make it more dire. This may reflect their knowledge that an optimal strategy might require taking some dismal steps along the way. The game theorist formally grants the term only to the situation where the compulsion to move changes what should be a win into a loss. This seems terrible, but then, we’ve all done this in play. We all feel terrible about it.

I’d like here to give examples. But in searching the web I can find only either courses in game theory. These are a bit too much for even me to sumarize. Or chess problems, which I’m not up to understanding. It seems hard to set out an example: I need to not just set out the game, but show that what had been a win is now, by any available move, turned into a loss. Chess is looser. It even allows, I discover, a double zugzwang, where both players are at a disadvantage if they have to move.

It’s a quite relatable problem. You see why game theory has this reputation as mathematics that touches all life.


And with that … I am done! All of the Fall 2018 Mathematics A To Z posts should be at this link. Next week I’ll post my big list of all the letters, though. And, as has become tradition, a post about what I learned by doing this project. And sometime before then I should have at least one more Reading the Comics post. Thanks kindly for reading and we’ll see when in 2019 I feel up to doing another of these.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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