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Today’s Blog: Who are the Great Master Game Theory Strategists?

Lewis Harrison is a Story-Telling Problem-Solver
Helping people to create better lives through efficiency, effectiveness, precision, self-awareness and game-based strategies

Q. If a person wanted to apply game theory in their daily life who are the master strategists you would recommend studying?
A. Nicollo Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and, Morihei Ueshiba. Here I why – A skilled game theorist will see any problem as nothing more than a challenge to be transcended, – a “game” to be won. Since there are usually other players involved with different intentions the skilled player needs to create a win-win situation even when other players are intent on winning at the expense of others. One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with strategic thinking is to play chess or poker. These are the games of strategy. My favorite pioneers in strategy theory and applied game thinking include Nicollo Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and, Morihei Ueshiba. Let’s explore each them.

Nicollo Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527) was an Italian philosopher/writer, and one of the main founders of modern political science. His small treatise, “The Prince” is read by virtually anyone interested in power, influence, and strategies. Machiavelli also published a book, The Art of War, about high-military science. Long before Machiavelli wrote the Art of War, Sun Tzu, a military strategist in the sixth century China wrote a military treatise of the same title. Sun Tzu’s work consists of 13 chapters, each devoted to one aspect of warfare, and within these chapters, there are 47 core principles that underlie the most effective strategies.

Morihei Ueshiba, (December 14, 1883 – April 26, 1969) was a pioneering martial artist and founder of the Japanese martial art of Akido. Ueshiba’s system is the one most concerned with compassion ethics, win/win scenarios. Akido is a synthesis of his martial studies, philosophy, and religious beliefs. Uesheba teaches that one needs to have compassion for one’s attacker. This is expressed by one of his core principles – to have concern for the well-being of the attacker and whenever possible disarm or disable them without doing them harm or causing them to be injured.

Aikido is often translated as “the Way of unifying (with) life energy ” “unifying with ki” “the way of peace.” or as “the Way of harmonious spirit.” Ueshiba’s system allows the practitioner to defend themselves by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than resisting it head-on. In this way, even a physically small or weak person is capable of disarming a large, physically strong person. This is done by gently redirecting or “leading” the attacker’s momentum by gently but skillfully applying entering and turning movements. These techniques are completed with the addition of various throws or joint locks.
Machiavelli’s, Sun Tzu’s and, Ueshiba’s systems all were created before the terms Game Thinking or Game theory came into existence and yet all three offer approaches that though different in action and perspective, can each employ the essence of game thinking effectively. Like Machiavelli, Sun Tzu understood the importance of positioning when developing a strategy. Of course in The Prince, Machiavelli was less concerned with war specifically and more concerned with political culture. Ueshiba is the Master of dealing with an immediate and potentially violent win/lose confrontation both “winning” and allowing the opponent to survive (a form of winning), hopefully with a better attitude and behavior in the future. Let’s explore the differences between the three approaches?

Machiavelli: His ideas were revolutionary for the time and for many they still are revolutionary today. First and foremost he had no illusions about politics. He felt that it is a rare situation to find a purely idealistic politician who is also successful. He further understood that it is rare even in the most democratic societies to find completely “clean” politics, selfless-noble civil servants, and, or legislation that is free from some hidden agenda and results from government policy that serves all. For him, the natural reality of political culture is self-protection tempered with reciprocal altruism, mistrust of the opposition and the need to use power and influence to maintain stability, and support the status quo while serving society. To those who see themselves as spiritually motivated, and democracy as a stable idealistic form of government Machiavelli’s ideas may border on the offensive. Essentially they are written to instruct a prince in the obtaining and the maintaining of power and influence.

Sun Tzu: Though this brilliant strategist focused on creating strategies for war his ideas are of great value in any competitive situation. In fact, Sun Tzu’s Art of War has been used effectively by leaders as diverse as Napoleon, Mao Tse Dung, and General Douglas MacArthur, as well as stockbrokers and salesman of every type. One of his core ideas was that one’s position is affected both by objective conditions in the external physical environment as well as subjective opinions of competing players in that environment. This is a very sophisticated understanding of game theory before the term “Game theory” and gamification even existed.
Some are critical of Sun Tzu’s ideas because no matter how valuable the information in Sun Tzu’s writings may be, they claim he is promoting mass violence, murder, and pillaging. To believe this is to misunderstand what he is saying. Actually, his Art of War is more concerned with how to fight wars without actually having to do battle than it is with violence. The goal of the book is to guide a competitor to outsmart, outmaneuver and outlast one’s opponent so that physical violence is unnecessary. It is for this reason that this work has become the “Bible” for many interested in Game theory and Gamification models as well as the study of competitive social behavior in general.

Morihei Ueshiba: This master of the win/win game understood that sometimes one has little time to strategize. In such a case the skill must be developed to get the desired result compassionately and with as little thought and energy as possible. It is here that the skills of both physical and “mental” Aikido are most important.
One can take many different approaches to complex problem-solving and I am not willing to say that one approach is superior to another.
I have personally found that there are a number of concepts and principles in Sun Tzu’s Art of War that is generally accepted by most skilled strategists, and are in alignment with my studies in Applied Game Theory and Gamification. Any ordinary individual can use these ideas
to be successful in competitive environments. Many game theorists focus on ten of his key points for succeeding in competitive situations. I have reinterpreted them a bit and added my own spin to using the concept of teams or groups to replace Sun Tzu’s concept of armies.

1. Goals: A game thinker strategist must have end-games (goals) and the means for assessing and comparing key factors. Here Sun Tzu focuses on the following five fundamental factor.
(a) The end results you are seeking.
(b) The climate – The weather and the seasons.
(c) The physical environment you are competing in
specifically the terrain, leadership, and the managing and utilization of resources. Before anything else can take place the effective strategist must assess and compare these key points. Any deviation from this is guaranteed to produce failure.
2. Risk Analysis: No matter how skilled an individual is, they cannot succeed in a competitive environment if the cost of winning ultimately bankrupts them. Here Sun Tzu explains the economics of competition. This includes not only the ability to assess and compare key factors while taking action but also taking economical and beneficial action.
3. The Plan of Attack: Here Sun Tzu defines what makes a team strong or weak. Counter-intuitively he minimizes the importance of size or numbers focusing more on unity, skill among team members and commonality of purpose as the primary tool of success. He also places great value on forming strong alliances with other groups against a common adversary.
4. Tactics: This strategy recognizes the power of seizing opportunities as they arise rather than expending valuable resources in attempting to create opportunities. By waiting for opportunities you can more effectively defend what you already have (defending existing positions) and create an emotionally grounded, low-stress environment that will more easily enable you to act at exactly the right time. This philosophy reflects the idea, “Success happens when preparation and opportunity meet”.
5. Momentum: When one is able to conserve one’s energy and use it at the most appropriate time, a natural rhythm comes into play. The formula here is Creativity and timing = momentum. Momentum wins the battle.
6. Maximizing Personal Strengths: This is my own category title, not Sun Tzu’s. In my studies in Applied Game Theory and Gamification, I focused on how an individual might isolate their natural talents and skills and apply them to gain benefits at the lowest possible cost. Conversely, tremendous opportunities may arise if an individual is able to isolate relative weaknesses of an opponent as well.
7. Maneuvering in Confrontation: Sun Tzu is adamant that whenever possible it is best to avoid direct conflict even in a situation where your opponent is intent on having such a conflict come about. It is essential that one be aware of the costs and dangers of such engagement and have the essential skills to succeed or win such a confrontation when it is forced upon you (when one is between “a rock and hard place”).
8. Responding to Black Swan Events: A Black Swan Event is what happens when seemingly minor, irrational, or improbable and unexpected events take place with substantial consequences. The master strategist must be able to respond successfully to these shifting circumstances.
9. The Tools of Attack: This addresses the use of technology and the general use of circumstances and environment to outwit an opponent. It also explores how to use circumstances and the environment against an attack.
10. Information: Here Sun Tzu discusses the importance of developing and managing good information sources. He is especially interested in information resources that your opponent is unaware of.

Once you understand and can apply the philosophies of Nicollo Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and, Morihei there are a number of things one can do to become a skilled problem solver. These include:
1. Reading the news and seeing how real life strategies are applied to solve real-world problems.
2. Studying with a Strategy Coach and exploring the hundreds of strategies in my books.
3. Using self-assessment tools to explore the obstacles in your life. Then determining which of Sun Tzu’s or Machiavelli’s ideas would be of help.
4. Practice, practice and practice some more.
5. Teaching the work to others.

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If you have an interest in having a basic understanding of Applied Game Theory (and you need to) here is an interview I did with James Selman, a pioneer and innovator in Leadership research.

Just click below to watch the entire interview.

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