Saturday, July 24, 2010

How is a sumo wrestler like a writing desk?

I have a number of things about which I'd like to blog, but obviously, lately, I've been a little short on time. Sigh.

I recently read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. In one of the early chapters, they discuss whether or not sumo wrestlers throw matches, how often, and why. I don't remember entirely the point they were trying to make (and I have since returned the book to the library), but it did get me thinking, which may be a more important outcome than whatever their point was anyway.

Here's the setup: in a sumo tournament, each wrestler wrestles 15 times (presumably to different opponents, otherwise this math would never work). In order to improve their ranking, they have to win eight of these matches. So, for a wrestler going into their final match with a score of 7-7, winning this final match is very important. In final matches where their opponent is 8-6 (and therefore, probably a slightly better wrestler, but who does not need to win this last match), the 7-7 wrestler wins most of the time, even though statistically they shouldn't.

The Freakonomics guys do a whole bunch of analysis and basically show that the 8-6 dudes are throwing their last match. This doesn't really bother me. I brought this up to Captain America, who felt that professional athletes should always do their best. While I agree in principle, I also sort of feel like this was decent sportsmanship. If a 9-6 record isn't going to do you any more good than an 8-7, why not give the win to the other guy, who actually needs it? (Am I actually nicer than we all think?)

This led me to thinking about two other rather unrelated topics. The first was my high school swim team. My swim team, although labeled "varsity," actually had swimmers of a large breadth of skill (there was no JV team). Some meets we swam were close, and our better swimmers swam a lot, and hard. Others, we knew we were going to win and our coach let our less skilled swimmers swim a lot more (this gave the less skilled swimmers opportunities to letter, which I won't get in to). In these meets, we could have swum our best athletes and creamed the other team, or swimmers like me could have a chance to letter and we'd still win.

Captain America points out that a public high school swim team is very different from professional athletics, and that we still won. But so did the 8-7 wrestler. We won, but we didn't have to be obnoxious about it.

This led me to think about a very random exercise in one of my MBA classes. We did a number of similar exercises but the one I'm specifically discussing involves bidding on nickles. (If you're confused as to why we were even bidding on nickles, so was my team--we were horrible at this exercise. At one point, one of my team members turned to me and said, "Virginia, if you need a nickle this badly, I'll just give you one.")

The exercise is simple: in groups of three, two people bid on nickles (taking turns to go first) and one person acts as the auctioneer. So, if I bid first, and I bid a penny for the nickle, you have two choices: you can let me win the bid, or you can bid two pennies (or more). The point (which my group just could not figure out) is that if each bidder allows the other to win the bid at one penny, after 10 rounds of alternative bidding, everyone ends up with five nickles, but only spent five pennies. This is the outcome that maximized each person's gain. I have no idea how to apply this to the real world because who would sell money at 1/5 of its value? Even if we were bidding on something with a market value, like corn, still, who would sell it for 1/5 of its value?

Later on, in subsequent classes, we did another similar exercise, and I was paired with a girl, D, whom I knew to be a big proponent of this maximized gains idea, so when she bid the minimum the first time, I let her win it, knowing she would do the same for me. I considered the possibility that she would trick me and force me to bid more than the minimum, but I figured I could do the same to her in the next round. As it turns out, I was right; she let me win all of my bids and I let her win all of hers and we ended the game both winning a lot more than we spent and both being even. The professor was thrilled with us, as no other team had managed so well, but I still have no idea how to apply this to the real world.

The takeaway, I suppose, is that if your opponent is like-minded, you can probably reach an agreement at a lower cost. No kidding, right? Or maybe the point was you don't have to be ruthless to succeed in business. (Yeah, I'm sure that's the point.) This could only work if both parties were equally not ruthless.

So yeah, what did you get out of your $55k education?


  1. On a related note, I was unable to convince Hawaiian airlines to give me a first-class upgrade for a $90 voucher. In fact, the women looked at me like I was insane. The problem in that scenario, I think, is that the airline already held all the nickels. So what if they were my nickels to begin with? My 6-year education has gotten me stuck permanently in economy class.

  2. Haha! At least your 6-year education didn't get you permanently stuck in Economics Class, which I what I originally thought you meant!