Golden Balls

So, this thing has been on my mind ever since my Esquire/ESPN pal Chris Jones sent it my way: There was a British game show that had the unfortunate name of “Golden Balls.” Ah, those cheeky Brits! Best I can tell it ran for two years, and it had this somewhat uneven plot where two people would open these, well, golden balls and build up money in what was sort of a joint bank account. It’s actually a bit more convoluted than that, but for the point in this post that doesn’t really matter. Just know that money gets piled up. And then, at the end of the show, you have two people who have up to now been working together, and an amount of money that would range somewhere between 10,000 pounds and, maybe, 120,000 pounds.

Then, they play the final round -- which is what is absolutely fascinating in that Lady and the Lion sort of way.

See the final round of Golden Balls is basically a psychological death trap. It’s a financial and even more freaked out version of the famous prisoner’s dilemma that is often used for game theory. In that one, you have two prisoners charged with a crime.

-- If they both confess to the crime, they each get two years in prison.

-- If one confesses and the other denies, the confessor gets three years in prison and the denier is let free.

-- If they both deny, they each serve one year in prison.

In Golden Balls, like in the prisoner’s dilemma, each person has two choices: Split or Steal. But the outcomes are even more unbalanced than in the prisoners dilemma.

-- If they both choose to split the money, they will split the money.

-- If one chooses to split the money and the other chooses to steal, the stealer gets everything.

-- If they both choose to steal, nobody wins any money.

It took me a few moments to fully appreciate the stark and bare humanity that is exposed by this choice. And they do it in a dramatic way (for TV, of course). Basically, the two players are reminded of the rules, and they are given two Golden Balls -- one split, one steal. They are told to secretly look inside so only they would know which is which. And then they are told to talk with each other. Only after they are finished talking will they each decide what to do. And then, after some grueling TV pauses, they each unveil their ball at the same time.

Again, the possibilities using Player A and Player B. …Player A… …Player B... Result Split Split Split the money Steal Split Player A wins all Split Steal Player B wins all Steal Steal No one wins anything I’ve watched a bunch of Golden Balls endings and it usually goes like so: Both players say they will definitely split the money. They promise they will split the money. They talk about how their friends would never forgive them if they don’t split the money. They talk about how half the money could change their lives. They talk about how they would never in a million years cut the other person out; they would never be able to live with themselves. They beg each other to please, please, please split the money.

And then at reveal time, well, you can go on YouTube to see the pain -- I don’t want to ruin it for you. It’s just fair to say that sometimes they do split the money. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they both try to steal and lose everything. I have to say, it really is human nature on display in all its generosity and treacherousness. I’m shocked this show hasn’t made it to America yet.

But, what really got me was the crazy Golden Balls finale I have linked below. It seems to say a lot not only about human nature, but about sports and how teams can be successful.

In this game, the two men are playing for 14,000 or so pounds. So not as much money as other games, but still a pretty sizable chunk. They start to talk, and you expect this to be the usual blather about how they have a baby at home, and they want that baby to look up to them, and they would never, ever steal money from a grandmother of five and so on. Only it isn’t like that at all.

One player, Nick, starts the conversation like this: “Ibrahim, I want you to trust me, 100%, I’m going to pick the steal ball.”

Ibrahim, expecting Nick to have said something different, does a comical silent film double-take and then says, “Sorry, you’re going to pick …”

And Nick confirms: “I’m going to choose the steal ball.”

Yep, he’s going the other way. Here’s Nick’s deal. He promises Ibrahim that he is absolutely going to choose the steal ball. But he also promises Ibrahim that he will split the money with him after the show. Ibrahim looks at him like he’s some kind of nutter. The host, clearly taken aback, reminds Ibrahim that Nick would be under no legal obligation to split the money -- something Ibrahim already knew. He’s outraged. But Nick doesn’t seem to care. Nick says the decision is entirely up to Ibrahim. He can choose steal too and they will each walk away with nothing. Or he can choose the split ball and trust Nick to split the money with him.

This concept is so fascinating that, as I said, I’ve been thinking about it way too much the last couple of weeks. Let’s try to break this down for a minute. If you are playing Golden Balls, your only goal is to get your opponent/partner to choose the split ball. That’s the only way you can win any money.

If opponent chooses split ball:

You choose split: You get half the money.

You choose steal: You get all the money.

If your opponent chooses the steal ball, though, you only have two bad choices:

If opponent choose steal ball:

You choose split: You get no money, opponent gets it all.

You choose steal: Neither of you get a dime.

So, your only hope in this game is to somehow, someway get your opponent/partner to choose the split ball. Well, how do you do that? That’s the essence of the game. Most people would say that way to get your opponent to split is to convince your opponent/partner that you are honest, and you will definitely choose the split ball. That’s the strategy almost everyone uses. But there’s a big problem with that strategy: If your opponent KNOWS you are going to choose the split ball, you are giving them the choice to be kind and split the money with you or just take all the money for themselves. That’s hardly a choice you want to give people, is it?

But what else can you do? You see people beg and plead and make the most intense promises. Sometimes, it works. And sometimes, it doesn’t.

Nick changed the entire drift of the game. He reversed the rules. It seems to me that’s what great coaches and managers can do sometimes. Nick told Ibrahim straight out that he would steal. He did not back off of it no matter how angry Ibrahim got and no matter how much Ibrahim tried to reason with him. He left Ibrahim with absolutely no doubt that he would steal, which left Ibrahim with only two choices.

1. He could choose split and hope that Nick really would give him half the money, which seems kind of a sucker’s bet.

2. He could steal and walk away knowing that, at the least, he prevented that nutter Nick from getting the money.

See the difference? Instead of Nick appealing to Ibrahim’s essential goodness like everyone else does, he challenges Ibrahim’s fury. OK, he’s basically saying, I’m telling you straight out I’m going to steal. I know that ticks you off but, frankly, I can’t help that. I’m stealing. Now, what are you going to do? How badly do you want to punish me for choosing steal? Are you so angry that you will choose steal yourself, assuring that neither of us will get a dime? Or will you choose split and take the chance -- however low you might believe it to be -- that I really will give you half the money?

What does Ibrahim do? How does it end? I don’t want to ruin it for you. Let’s just say that it’s pretty great. You can skip ahead to 2:35 and watch the psychological drama unfold.