I should like to argue that the axiom of determinacy is true for all games having a small payoff set. In particular, the size of the smallest non-determined set, in the sense of the axiom of determinacy, is the continuum; every set of size less than the continuum is determined, even when the continuum is enormous.

We consider two-player games of perfect information. Two players, taking turns, play moves from a fixed space $X$ of possible moves, and thereby together build a particular play or instance of the game $\vec a=\langle a_0,a_1,\ldots\rangle\in X^\omega$. The winner of this instance of the game is determined according to whether the play $\vec a$ is a member of some fixed payoff set $U\subset X^\omega$ specifying the winning condition for this game. Namely, the first player wins in the case $\vec a\in U$.

A *strategy* in such a game is a function $\sigma:X^{<\omega}\to X$ that instructs a particular player how to move next, given the sequence of partial play, and such a strategy is a *winning* strategy for that player, if all plays made against it are winning for that player. (The first player applies the strategy $\sigma$ only on even-length input, and the second player only to the odd-length inputs.) The game is *determined*, if one of the players has a winning strategy.

It is not difficult to see that if $U$ is countable, then the game is determined. To see this, note first that if the space of moves $X$ has at most one element, then the game is trivial and hence determined; and so we may assume that $X$ has at least two elements. If the payoff set $U$ is countable, then we may enumerate it as $U=\{s_0,s_1,\ldots\}$. Let the opposing player now adopt the strategy of ensuring on the $n^{th}$ move that the resulting play is different from $s_n$. In this way, the opposing player will ensure that the play is not in $U$, and therefore win. So every game with a countable payoff set is determined.

Meanwhile, using the axiom of choice, we may construct a non-determined set even for the case $X=\{0,1\}$, as follows. Since a strategy is function from finite binary sequences to $\{0,1\}$, there are only continuum many strategies. By the axiom of choice, we may well-order the strategies in order type continuum. Let us define a payoff set $U$ by a transfinite recursive procedure: at each stage, we will have made fewer than continuum many promises about membership and non-membership in $U$; we consider the next strategy on the list; since there are continuum many plays that accord with that strategy for each particular player, we may make two additional promises about $U$ by placing one of these plays into $U$ and one out of $U$ in such a way that this strategy is defeated as a winning strategy for either player. The result of the recursion is a non-determined set of size continuum.

So what is the size of the smallest non-determined set? For a lower bound, we argued above that every countable payoff set is determined, and so the smallest non-determined set must be uncountable, of size at least $\aleph_1$. For an upper bound, we constructed a non-determined set of size continuum. Thus, if the continuum hypothesis holds, then the smallest non-determined set has size exactly continuum, which is $\aleph_1$ in this case. But what if the continuum hypothesis fails? I claim, nevertheless, that the smallest non-determined set still has size continuum.

**Theorem.** Every game whose winning condition is a set of size less than the continuum is determined.

**Proof.** Suppose that $U\subset X^\omega$ is the payoff set of the game under consideration, so that $U$ has size less than continuum. If $X$ has at most one element, then the game is trivial and hence determined. So we may assume that $X$ has at least two elements. Let us partition the elements of $X^\omega$ according to whether they have exactly the same plays for the second player. So there are at least continuum many classes in this partition. If $U$ has size less than continuum, therefore, it must be disjoint from at least one (and in fact from most) of the classes of this partition (since otherwise we would have an injection from the continuum into $U$). So there is a fixed sequence of moves for the second player, such that any instance of the game in which the second player makes those moves, the result is not in $U$ and hence is a win for the second player. This is a winning strategy for the second player, and so the game is determined. **QED**

This proof generalizes the conclusion of the diagonalization argument against a countable payoff set, by showing that for any winning condition set of size less than continuum, there is a fixed play for the opponent (not depending on the play of the first player) that defeats it.

The proof of the theorem uses the axiom of choice in the step where we deduce that $U$ must be disjoint from a piece of the partition, since there are continuum many such pieces and $U$ had size less than the continuum. Without the axiom of choice, this conclusion does not follow. Nevertheless, what the proof does show without AC is that every set that does not surject onto $\mathbb{R}$ is determined, since if $U$ contained an element from every piece of the partition it would surject onto $\mathbb{R}$. Without AC, the assumption that $U$ does not surject onto $\mathbb{R}$ is stronger than the assumption merely that it has size less the continuum, although these properties are equivalent in ZFC. Meanwhile, these issues are relevant in light of the model suggested by Asaf Karagila in the comments below, which shows that it is consistent with ZF without the axiom of choice that there are small non-determined sets. Namely, the result of Monro shows that it is consistent with ZF that $\mathbb{R}=A\sqcup B$, where both $A$ and $B$ have cardinality less than the continuum. In particular, in this model the continuum injects into neither $A$ nor $B$, and consequently neither player can have a strategy to force the play into their side of this partition. Thus, both $A$ and $B$ are non-determined, even though they have size less than the continuum.

I am a little unclear about whether the theorem requires the axiom of choice, since in the argument, in order to know that $U$ is disjoint from some piece in the partition, we would seem to be choosing elements of the partitions in order to get a large subset of $U$. It seems to work provided that there is no surjection of $U$ onto $\mathbb{R}$. Hmmmmnnnnn….

Here’s another pickle of choice for you.

Suppose that there are two disjoint sets, $A$ and $B$, both of size strictly less than $2^{\aleph_0}$, but $A\cup B=\Bbb R$. And indeed this was shown consistent by Monro [“Decomposable Cardinals”, Fund. Math. vol. 80 (1973), no. 2, 101–104]

Consider the game with payoff set $A$. Then the argument that small games are determined would work symmetrically for both players, since both have a small payoff set.

That solves it! Neither player can force the play into their side, since that would inject $\mathbb{R}$ into one side or the other, but there is no such injection. Thus, both $A$ and $B$ are non-determined. So the theorem does use AC, and it is consistent with ZF that there is a small non-determined set.

Huzzah! 🙂