How I Lost A Game With No Rules

Eliezer Yudkowsky (
Thu, 19 Dec 1996 15:05:36 -0600

That yoga bit of Lyle's reminded me of something that happened to me
once, way back when.

This game was played with with two people and three blocks. We were not
told what the rules were. So first, the guy takes two blocks. In
response, I take three blocks. He takes one of them back. I take the
three blocks and set up a bridge. He takes them and sets up a different

At the end of the game, I was asked "Who won?" Yes, my opponent had
won. You see, I had been absent the day this game was introduced to
everyone else, so when it was played with me, I thought my opponent knew
the rules. There weren't any, but he knew that and I didn't. So when I
was playing, I got sort of frantic and desperate; I would try elaborate
strategems, while my opponent calmly switched blocks back and forth.
Yes, I lost.

What did I learn from this? I don't know that I could put it into
words. In one sense I was defeated by my conviction that I was losing,
so I "defeated myself", but not in the same sense as Lyle's anxiety
interfered with his auditory short-term memory. The main moral is that
if you remove all the rules from the game, what remains is the
psychology of competition; and now I know to handle that in its most
elemental form. Perhaps some of it has spilled over into more rarefied

Moral of the story: If the rules aren't clear, do your best to believe
you're winning. (This only applies in debates and such; I would not
advise using it in science or engineering.)

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.