High Stakes Poker & the Zero-Sum Game: COVID-19

You can’t have a win/win scenario in poker because of the way the game is designed. In economic and game theory we call this a zero-sum game. 

Poker is a game that has winners and losers. You play your cards and put your chips on the table: if you win then you take it all. Our global strategy for COVID-19 acts pretty much the same way.

Anytime you have a zero-sum game, there is no half-measure, no compromise, and no way that “everybody wins”. If you all have chips, it means that everyone else has lost everything they brought to the table.

That’s what we are looking at with the COVID-19 response. Countries are putting people on lockdown because the virus either spreads or it doesn’t. And if it spreads, everyone loses- not just the people who get sick. One person’s gain (freedom) is another person’s loss (safety).

Countries are in turmoil right now because people want the freedom to choose for themselves, but the freedom of choice- in this scenario means that it is done at the expense of others. Either you keep a lockdown and stop the virus or you don’t. If you can stop the virus, then everyone wins, and if you let people “make their own choice” people will take risks and invariably everyone will lose.

We are no longer talking about health in the context of the elderly or immunocompromised. We’re talking about society as a whole, because the longer this drags on- the worse it is for economies and society at large.

If you calculate your likelihood to die, and even if you find it low or are willing to take the risk, it can’t be done without calculating the exponential growth of the virus, the number of other people you will infect who will die because of your choices, the devastating effect on the economy and the magnitude of letting COVID-19 circulate in your community and around the world uncontrolled.

The Chinese response worked because they took the zero-sum game seriously. They were unified in their lockdown, they didn’t ease up until it was gone and the strategy worked. They had a few hard months but they won. But their culture has experience with previous viruses makes this kind of sacrifice for the greater good a pill that is easier to swallow.

In societies that foster individuality, personal freedom becomes part of the cultural DNA. Trying to convince individualists to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good is proving to be an incredible challenge which sadly, we will all pay for in the end.

Because the final stage of the game is when the cards are on the table and the chips are down- how many will be sick and die, how hard will this hit the economy, how long will it take to recover. And while individuals are playing this game with their health and others, they are underestimating their opponent because, in this deadly game, COVID-19 is holding all the cards.

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© 2020 Sarah Nadav