Strategic thinking in infinite games, CosmoCaixa Science Museum, Barcelona, March 2023

I am deeply honored to be invited by la Caixa Foundation to give a talk in “The Greats of Science” talk series, to be held 16 March 2023 at the CosmoCaixa Science Museum in Barcelona. This talk series aspires to host “prestigious figures who have contributed towards admirable milestones, studies or discoveries,” who will bring the science to a general audience, aiming to “give viewers the chance to explore the most relevant parts of contemporary sicence through the top scientists of the moment.” Previous speakers include Jane Goodall and nearly a dozen Nobel Prize winners since 2018.

I hope to rise to those high expectations!

My topic will be: Strategic thinking in infinite games.

Have you time for an infinite game? Many familiar finite games admit natural infinitary analogues, infinite games that may captivate and challenge us with intriguing patterns and sublime complexity. Shall we have a game of infinite chess? Or how about infinite draughts, infinite Hex, infinite Wordle, or infinite Sudoku? In the Chocolatier’s game, the Chocolatier serves up an infinite stream of delicious morsels, while the Glutton aims to eat every one. These games and others illustrate the often subtle strategic aspects of infinite games, and sometimes their downright logical peculiarity. Does every infinite game admit of a winning strategy? Must optimal play be in principle computable? Let us discover the fascinating nature of infinitary strategic thinking.

The theory builds upon the classical finitary result of Zermelo (1913), the fundamental theorem of finite games, which shows that in every finite two-player game of perfect information, one of the players must have a winning strategy or both players have draw-or-better strategies. This result extends to certain infinitary games by means of the ordinal game-value analysis, which assigns transfinite ordinal values $\alpha$ to positions in a game, generalizing the familiar mate-in-$n$ idea of chess to the infinite. Current work realizes high transfinite game values in infinite chess, infinite draughts (checkers), infinite Go, and many other infinite games. The highest-known game value arising in infinite chess is the infinite ordinal $\omega^4$, and every countable ordinal arises in infinite draughts, the optimal result. Games exhibiting high transfinite ordinal game values have a surreal absurd character of play. The winning player will definitely win in finitely many moves, but the doomed losing player controls the process with absurdly long deeply nested patterns of forcing moves that must be answered, as though counting down from the infinite game value—when 0 is reached, the game is over.