The Big Game

I’ve been trying to learn how to play Nim, the numbers game in which matchsticks are drawn from various matchstick piles. A player can draw any number of matchsticks, but only from one pile at a time. The player left with the last matchstick is the loser. Of course there is a mathematical strategy involved. The odds of losing increase considerably if a player simply starts grabbing matchsticks at random, which, out of impatience, I always do. Thus, I never win.

I have a friend who stops by from time to time for a session of Nim. He has a mind for numbers and game theory. He tries to teach me how to play. Being both teacher and adversary, I suspect he never gives me enough instruction to beat him. Only enough to keep me playing. I get a quiet thrill when I sense I have the advantage. I choose my matchsticks carefully. I wait for his move. He cleans me out. There is one matchstick left on the table. My matchstick. I lose again.

It isn’t a coincidence that the world’s biggest game is going on while my friend and I play Nim. We play in silence, riveted to the dwindling piles of matches. We will not watch the Super Bowl this year. There are more serious competitions afoot.

“Did you hear about the scandal in Flint, Michigan?” my friend says. “About the water.”

“Yup,” says I. 

“More lead than a pencil factory.”

“Technically pencils are made with graphite,” says I.

“How long do you think the government knew?” he asks.

“Maybe it was just an honest oversight,” says I. My friend laughs and tells me that is a good one. I watch him make a pivotal move. We both have two turns left and it is obvious I will end up with the last matchstick. I lose again. Shit.

“Remember the Libor scandal? British banks manipulating interest rates?” says he.

“Natural market fluctuations,” says I. “Educated guesses on expected returns.” My friend laughs again. He says I’m a riot. “Anyway,” I continue, “I want to believe I can trust a British accent. Even when they are robbing you, depressing or inflating the numbers, you still feel somewhat cultured and refined. Like Lord Lucan as he beat his children’s au pair to death. Atrocious and suave.” 

“You’re about to lose again,” says my friend, and he is right. My familiar lone matchstick is waiting for me on the game table.

In the game of Nim there is a thing called the Nim-Sum. The trick, that I have only a loose grasp on, is to break down the sums of the matchsticks in the various piles into factors of 4, 2, and 1, then make sure they all cancel out to zero. This ensures the winning advantage. I lose count and start drawing at random, trying to find another strategy. Before long I’m holding the lone matchstick. Lose again.   

“Remember Enron? Bear Stearns? Goldman-Sachs? J.P. Morgan? Different dogs with the same fleas.”

“You think they knew what was coming?” says I.

“You should take this stand-up act on the road,” says my friend.

I want to believe that I’m getting better at this game. Like chess I try to weigh the permutations of every possible play until my mind collapses from the sheer weight of it all. Not only do I have to figure the possibilities as they exist, but the possibilities of the possibilities after the next move. I have a hard time believing anybody is that gifted.

“Hear about Ezubao, the 7 billion dollar Chinese Ponzi scheme?” he says. “Run with the full support of the people’s government. No shame.”

“Whatever happened to the dignified option of ritual suicide?”    

“Hear about the Volkswagen emissions scandal?”

“Isn’t nitrogen oxide good for plants?” says I. “Those cars are like plant food.” 

He tells me that is funny. Then he tells me something else that’s funny. I’m about to lose again. For our next game he plays blindfolded. I’m mildly offended, but I accept the handicap. It doesn’t matter. He’s got a picture of the diminishing piles in his head. I have only to tell him how many matches I remove. He doesn’t even want to know from what pile. I lie a few times. He wins anyway.

“Hear about the Fiat Chrysler roll-away scandal?” he says.

“Finally a car that gets people to exercise as they chase after it,” says I. 

“Hear about the G.E. flawed ignition switches?”

“Broken eggs in the omelette of technological progress. You don’t like it there is always a horse and buggy.”

“Mr. Madoff?”

“Made off like a fucking bandit, he did.”

“Valeant Pharmaceuticals? Spelled incorrectly for a reason.”

“That Shkreli guy is like human jelly,” says I. “That moon-pie face and elfin nose. I mean, even people making money off him must want to kick his ass.”

“Yes, nothing valiant about fleecing the sick.”

“Whatever happened to an honest game for the fun of it?” says I.

“You’re the funniest friend I have,” he says.

We play one last game of Nim. I throw all my focus into it. I’m going to beat him this time. I keep track of the Nim-Sum. I force myself to concentrate. I remove the matchsticks. He makes a mistake somewhere down the line. I see it, a few moves ahead. He is stuck with the last matchstick. I win. He loses. He doesn’t seem upset about it. He is actually smirking. Then he lets me in on the joke. While I was concentrating on the game he had come around the table and stolen my wallet out of my back pocket. 

“Just keep on playing. You’ll win one of these days,” he says.

I can’t wait.

More Alembics to come.

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