Jan 13, 2023

Games

In this episode, first aired in 2011, we talk about the meaning of a good game — whether it's a pro football playoff, or a family showdown on the kitchen table. And how some games can make you feel, at least for a little while, like your whole life hangs in the balance. This hour of Radiolab, Jad and Robert wonder why we get so invested in something so trivial. What is it about games that make them feel so pivotal?

We hear how a recurring dream about football turned into a real-life lesson for Stephen Dubner, we watch a chessboard turn into a playground where by-the-book moves give way to totally unpredictable possibilities, and we talk to Dan Engber, a one time senior editor at Slate, now at The Atlantic, and a bunch of scientists about why betting on a longshot is so much fun. And finally, we talk to Malcolm Gladwell about why he loves the overdog.

CITATIONS:

Videos - 

The Immaculate Reception (https://zpr.io/izhV3Sm88SWF) by Franco Harris on December 23, 1972. Harris was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ fullback at the time.

Books - 

Stephen J. Dubner’s book, Confessions of a Hero Worshipper (https://zpr.io/iQUwfF8vGArj)

Our newsletter comes out every Wednesday. It includes short essays, recommendations, and details about other ways to interact with the show. Sign up (https://radiolab.org/newsletter)!

Radiolab is supported by listeners like you. Support Radiolab by becoming a member of The Lab (https://members.radiolab.org/) today.

Follow our show on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @radiolab, and share your thoughts with us by emailing radiolab@wnyc.org


Leadership support for Radiolab’s science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation Initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

[RADIOLAB INTRO]

[phone ringing]

JAD ABUMRAD: Okay.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Three, two, one.

[beep]

ERIC SIMONS: Hello?

ROBERT: This show we're about to do, it began ...

ERIC SIMONS: Hey guys, how's it going?

ROBERT:  ... with a conversation that we had with a friend of ours, Eric Simons, and he told us about this moment that was kind of strange.

ERIC SIMONS: This is—this is the San Jose Sharks actually, who ...

JAD: Is this a—this is a hockey team? Or ...

ERIC SIMONS: Yeah, hockey team.

JAD: Okay.

ERIC SIMONS: And, like, I—I'm pretty strongly identified with hockey to begin with. Like, I play hockey, my dad has played hockey his entire life, and the Sharks started in the Bay Area, like, when I was 10 years old. Sharks are my favorite, favorite creature by a long way, and so I've rooted for them forever. And for, like, the last, like, six years they've been really good. Every year they're picked at the beginning of the year to go to the Stanley Cup, maybe to win the Stanley Cup, and every year they fall short. And so in 2007, they were in the playoffs. The Sharks are the top seed. They're playing the eight seed which also is Anaheim, which is probably their biggest rival and they lose.

JAD: [raspberries] Oh!

ERIC SIMONS: And I remember driving home from the ice rink, it's probably about midnight. And it was a really pretty night out. Like, the city lights and they're, like, shimmering on the water. And there's always these tankers out, like, parked in the bay. There's like the silhouettes of the boats, and the Oakland coastline and the San Francisco shoreline. And, like, this is everything that makes me happy in the world.

ROBERT: Eric says that usually when he sees that view, no matter how he's feeling he's like, okay everything's gonna be good, it's gonna be fine ‘cause that is one beautiful city. But that night ...

ERIC SIMONS: I was so angry that I—I remember noticing this, like—this, like, beautiful scene and thinking burn! I hate this. I hate everything about it. Burn down in flames. Like, that—that's embarrassing, the fact that these guys I don't know lost a hockey game in Dallas, that has the power to override everything I think I like about myself, and just turn me into this, like, drooling, savage, angry beast, and I don't like that.

JAD: You know what I love about that story is it’s so typical. You know? Almost every sports fan has had a moment where you’re like I can’t believe my own emotions right now. Are you a burner, I mean do you watch sports?

ROBERT: I'm not, no. I mean, I watch sports but I don't get into that—I don't get into a darkness.

JAD: Oh. I do. There have definitely been times I've wanted to burn down New York.

ROBERT: [laughs] And have you ever asked yourself, like, why?

JAD: Well, that's the question, right?

ROBERT: Yeah. 

JAD: For this hour, anyway. Like, why is it that something as trivial as a hockey game can feel like life or death? Which probably doesn't happen to a lot of public radio people but, hey. 

ROBERT: Well, it could. It could. You shouldn't think that. 

JAD: Yeah, all right. All right. Not to generalize.

ROBERT: If you widen—if you widen the category a little bit and just said "Games?" Well, then you'd include everybody.

JAD: All right, games.

ROBERT: Everybody.

JAD: So then, what is it about a game that makes it ...

ROBERT:  ...more than a game.

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT: Well, let's find out.

JAD: This is Radiolab.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: Stay with us.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Sports to me as a kid were vital. Sports were the—like, if everything else on the planet had disappeared except for sports I would have been fine. If—if—if the church had gone away, if school had gone away, even if all my brothers and sisters had gone away, I like them fine, but sports was the only thing that I really loved as a kid.

JAD: Can you introduce yourself?

STEPHEN DUBNER: My name is Stephen Dubner. 

JAD: And Stephen is the author of Freakonomics.

ROBERT: Freakonomics.

JAD: The books, the blog.   

STEPHEN DUBNER: And I've got my own ISDN line. 

JAD & ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: Kind of an inside joke. It's a fancy piece of studio equipment because now Freakonomics is also a radio show. 

ROBERT: Are we talking to you, like, in your living room?

JAD: And the reason we called Stephen up—and this is the honest truth—is that Soren Wheeler, one of our producers, overheard Stephen telling this story in the men's room.

SOREN WHEELER: That's where I do most of my research for the show, actually. 

JAD: That's Soren.

SOREN: This is where I look for friends.

JAD: In any case, Soren overheard Stephen in the stall, got him to come into the studio and tell it to us. 

ROBERT: Because this is the story about a boy, a hero, and a dad. 

JAD: And how those three things can get a little intertwined.

STEPHEN DUBNER: I don't really know what happened. What I know is that when I came into being in 1963 I was the last of eight kids.

JAD: And Stephen says already at that point sports was family law. In fact, when it came to baseball ...

STEPHEN DUBNER: No two people in the family, including my mother and father, there were 10 of us, no two people rooted for the same team. And—and as it turned out ...

JAD: There was even a rule.

STEPHEN DUBNER: ... no two people were allowed to root for the same team. Now ...

JAD: He says his dad actually assigned each of the family members their own baseball team and told them, “This is your team. Only you get to root for this team.”

STEPHEN DUBNER: So, my dad was a Mets fan, my mom I don't remember. But I had a sister who was a Red Sox fan, there was a Cardinals fan, a San Francisco Giants fan. There was an LA Dodgers fan, that was my brother Peter. And I have no recollection of a time before I was a Baltimore Orioles fan. So I think what happened is Stevie was born, here's another kid. We need another team. Who does he get? How about the Orioles? And ...

ROBERT: Was this like a tooth fairy sticking a dollar under your pillow?

JAD: Yeah, how did he assign the Orioles to you?

STEPHEN DUBNER: Okay, so first of all I should just say, like a lot of things in life as a very young, very obedient Catholic boy, I accepted this mystery without question.

JAD: [laughs]

STEPHEN DUBNER: But here's my hunch. My father, I think, felt that it was a shame that he couldn't give more to his children, materially more and even more of himself, and so in my mind the greatest gift that he could give to each of us was our own baseball team.

JAD: But this is ultimately a story about more than just baseball.

STEPHEN DUBNER: My parents were both Brooklyn-born Jews, kind of typical second-generation American who, before they met each other, while they were in their 20s, they both converted to Roman Catholicism.

JAD: What was the reaction from their parents?

STEPHEN DUBNER: Oh that was bad. That was bad. The way that my grandfather discovered that my father had converted was when some rosary beads slipped out of his pocket and fell onto the floor. So it was like my grandfather basically threw my father out of the house, literally declared him dead.

JAD: Wow.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Sat Shiva for him.

JAD: And so he says when his dad met his mom ...

STEPHEN DUBNER:  ... who was another Jewish convert to Catholicism ...

JAD: ... they were like two refugees who'd found each other.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Exactly.

JAD: Together they left Brooklyn, went upstate. Spent all their money on an old farmhouse in the country.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Leaving behind a past that was toxic.

JAD: But then when they got upstate, they found themselves a little out of place.

STEPHEN DUBNER: We were kind of these farmers, Jewish—Brooklyn Jewish city people who were now upstate Catholic farmer survivor types.

ROBERT: [laughs]

STEPHEN DUBNER: We had no money, a lot of kids. And my dad ...

ROBERT: He said his dad would often be upstairs.

STEPHEN DUBNER: "Lying down."

ROBERT: For hours and hours, which didn't make a whole lot of sense to him at the time. He thought, "Come on, why isn't he down here with us?" But now as an adult he understands that his dad was not well. In fact, he was depressed.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Yeah.

ROBERT: Really depressed.

JAD: And how much did you know about your parent's backstory when you were growing up and on the farm?

STEPHEN DUBNER: Can my knowledge be measured in negative terms? But it was plain to me that my father was a kind of diminished man. That he wasn't capable of doing all the things that other men were capable of doing.

ROBERT: So Stephen says he would go outside to the backyard and spend time by himself ...

JAD:  ... pretending to be the Orioles.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Recreating the games that had been played the day before in real life.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: And here comes Frank Robbins. He's still spearheading the Orioles ...]

STEPHEN DUBNER: You know, one game could last me six, eight hours. And I would literally—I would literally play 162-game seasons.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: And again makes it too good.]

STEPHEN DUBNER: I would be every batter on both teams and the announcers. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Brooks Robinson completes his home run trot.]

STEPHEN DUBNER: And, you know, this thing about ownership and whether my dad did that on purpose or not, he did make me feel, like—if they failed then they needed me to—to boost them up.

ROBERT: And that kept him busy for a while.

STEPHEN DUBNER: But then the play happens.

JAD: And everything changes. To explain, somewhere along the way when he was 10, Stephen discovers football.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Football was considered barbaric. Worst of all, it was played on the Sabbath. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, football player: Yeah, baby!]

JAD: But regardless, he fell in love with it.

STEPHEN DUBNER: I loved the brute force of it.

JAD: The fact that all these guys wore helmets that made them look kind of like ...

STEPHEN DUBNER: Kind of like knights.

JAD: And almost immediately he latched onto a particular running back from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

STEPHEN DUBNER: And that—and that was Franco Harris.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, crowd: C'mon Franco! Let's go! C'mon Franco!]

STEPHEN DUBNER: I discovered Franco Harris in his rookie season. 

JAD: Read about him in Sports Illustrated, and from the beginning, everything about him just made sense.

STEPHEN DUBNER: I came from a big Catholic family, he came from a big Catholic family.

JAD: His family was kind of mixed, so was Franco's.

STEPHEN DUBNER: His dad was Black, his mom was Italian. He was a very unusual guy, very kind of thoughtful and quiet. And I became a big Steelers fan because of him.

JAD: Which brings us back to the play. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: And this crowd is standing!]

JAD: Saturday, December 23 ...

ROBERT: Almost Christmas.

JAD: ... 1972.

STEPHEN DUBNER: The Steelers were about to lose to the Raiders.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: The Oakland Raiders have taken a 7-6 lead.]

STEPHEN DUBNER: 40 seconds left on the clock. We had the ball on something like our own 35.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Fourth down and ten yards to go.]

STEPHEN DUBNER: Last gasp.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Hang on to your hats, here come the Steelers out of the huddle. Gary Bradshaw at the controls.]

STEPHEN DUBNER: Bradshaw drops back to pass.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Bradshaw running out of the pocket, looking for somebody to throw to, fires it downfield ...]

JAD: Bradshaw throws, and just as the receiver is about to catch it, he gets crushed. The ball pops up ...

STEPHEN DUBNER:  ...goes falling through the air ...

JAD:  ... and right before the ball hits the ground, Franco Harris, his guy, zooms into the frame out of nowhere ...

STEPHEN DUBNER: ... and catches it in full stride at his shoe tops.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: That's caught out of the air, the ball is pulled in by Franco Harris! Harris is going for a touchdown for Pittsburgh!]

JAD: Franco runs 60 yards into the endzone. Time runs out. The Steelers win.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster:  ... the football. I don't even know where it came from. There are people in the endzone!]

STEPHEN DUBNER: Shortly thereafter this play was dubbed "The Immaculate Reception."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: When you talk about Christmas miracles, here's the miracle of all miracles.]

STEPHEN DUBNER: For me, as a kid watching it, where my team won and my guy—it was like, I was sealed for life.

ROBERT: In fact, this guy was so much his guy that when Steve would write his homework papers, he began signing the papers ...

STEPHEN DUBNER: Franco Dubner.

JAD: Wow.

STEPHEN DUBNER: And I thought of myself as Franco Dubner. Which I mean I know it sounds funny now, but it was very natural. Like, we were all named for saints to start with. I mean, my oldest brother is named Joseph, my oldest sister was named Mary. So, we're—you're named for saints, plainly. Franco was my saint. 

ROBERT: The following thanksgiving Stephen's parents drove off to a prayer meeting.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Was part of this religious offshoot that they participated in called the Charismatic Christian Renewal.

JAD: Very fervent group, lots of speaking in tongues.

STEPHEN DUBNER: It was strange, and a little scary to me to see my parents speaking in tongues.

JAD: Stephen would sometimes go, but this time he didn't.

ROBERT: So his parents drove off to the meeting.

JAD: In Albany.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Kind of far from our house.

ROBERT: And a few hours later only his mother returned.

STEPHEN DUBNER: My mother comes home and tells us, "Dad had an attack."

JAD: She told him in the middle of the meeting he just fell over. 

ROBERT: He was in the hospital now, but ...

STEPHEN DUBNER: He would be out of the hospital in time for Christmas. So, that's all I heard. I was a 10-year-old kid, it's like, "Oh, my dad's coming home for Christmas."
JAD: Cool.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Great. And the football playoffs are coming up. 

JAD: Month later ...

STEPHEN DUBNER: It was the 21st of December.

JAD: Almost exactly a year after the immaculate reception.

STEPHEN DUBNER: It was the last day of school before Christmas break, it was a half-day. We had grab bag Christmas gift exchange at school ...

ROBERT: Stephen races home from school pretty excited.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Playoffs are coming up and my dad's coming home. And then my mother comes in and says, "Dad died. I'm gonna go upstairs to lie down."

JAD: And that—that is when the dream began. Now he's not exactly sure if it was that night or maybe the next, but when he went to bed and closed his eyes, this is what would happen.

STEPHEN DUBNER: I would go to the VFW hall in Albany ...

JAD: This is a place his dad had taken him.

STEPHEN DUBNER: ... where Franco Harris was giving a talk, and I would invite him to come back to my house way out in the boondocks for spaghetti and meatballs, and in my dream he would come back, he would eat the spaghetti, it wasn't terrible. Then I would say, "Hey, you want to go out in—in the yard and play some football?" And we would go out. And it's dark, and it's just me and him. We're the Steelers against some mythical team in the darkness, and we're playing on our field in our backyard. And I'm kind of embarrassed because our backyard is all lumpy with frozen cow hoofprints, because sometimes we'd stake the cow back there. And on the second to the last play of the game it's like we're behind three by points, Franco would turn his ankle in one of these cow hoofprints, and then he'd hand the ball to me and he'd say, "Kid, you have to take it from here yourself."
ROBERT: What was the look on his face when he'd hand you the ball and give you The Kid speech?

STEPHEN DUBNER: Oh. You know—you know Jesus on the cross face? Jesus on the cross. 

'Cause he's in pain, he's got a beard, he's kind of sweating and dripping and crying a little bit. And then I'd have to run it in for the winning touchdown. And the dream—but the dream would always fade there, I never knew if I made it or not.

JAD: And he says the next night he had the same dream.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Exactly the same.

JAD: And the next night.

STEPHEN DUBNER: The same.

JAD: And the next night.

STEPHEN DUBNER: The same.

JAD: And the next night.

STEPHEN DUBNER: The same.

JAD: And the next night.

STEPHEN DUBNER: The same.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Almost every night for about three or four years.

ROBERT: Wow.

JAD: And the next night.

STEPHEN DUBNER: The same.

STEPHEN DUBNER: So I, you know, had that dream several hundred or maybe a thousand times, yep.

JAD: And every time you woke up from that dream, just curious, how did you feel?

STEPHEN DUBNER: What I remember feeling is that Franco Harris came to see me, and that he couldn't win the game for me, but that he was on my side and he wanted me to win kind of, period.

ROBERT: So if we were to stop this story right now, this would be a story like many others you've heard: boy falls in love with athlete, dreams of athlete, grows up, leaves athlete behind. But this is a different one.

JAD: Eventually, after a few years Stephen stopped having the dream, he moved out of the house, went off to school, got married, became an adult, pretty much forgot about Franco. But then something happened purely by accident.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Living in New York, maybe—I don’t know—15, 18 years ago I caught sight of him on the cover of Black Enterprise magazine. Franco had become a—a very successful small businessman, and my heart just started to thump like it had when I was a kid and I thought I gotta—I gotta get to know Franco. 

JAD: So he tracked down Franco's address. 

STEPHEN DUBNER: Wrote him letters.

JAD: Then more letters.

STEPHEN DUBNER: And to make a long story short ...

JAD: One day the phone rang and it was him.

STEPHEN DUBNER: ... he did agree to meet with me.

ROBERT: Wow.

STEPHEN DUBNER: I told him I'd like to write a book about a boy getting to know his childhood hero and trying to figure out what that person is like in reality, and I was also interested in ...

STEPHEN DUBNER: I—I was very careful in my mind that first day that I met him in Pittsburgh, saying "Don't tell him the dream, don't tell him the dream, because he will think that you're a freaking lunatic, right?" That first day I told him the dream, of course.

JAD: [laughs]

STEPHEN DUBNER: I couldn't. It's like—I don't know.

JAD: What was his reaction? Was he horrified?

STEPHEN DUBNER: He doesn't show horror. He's a very interesting fellow. He's got a really—he's got a really interesting manner. Very low key.

JAD: They did end up meeting a few times as Stephen wrote his book, but he says Franco was always really careful to keep him ...

STEPHEN DUBNER: At—at arm's length, I would say. 

JAD: And anytime they kind of got close, Franco would sort of disappear a little bit. In fact, toward the end of the book project, they make an appointment to meet ... 

STEPHEN DUBNER: I get to Pittsburgh a couple days early. Typical.

JAD: And Franco's not there. Actually, Stephen ends up standing in a parking lot waiting for him, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And then eventually he heads back to New York.

STEPHEN DUBNER: And I guess I thought that somehow he had a lot to teach me, you know, about being a man, being a real—a real grown up, being a father. And he was polite, and—and just not really that interested.

JAD: And it was around this point that Steven decided, "You know maybe that's what he was trying to tell me in the dream, and in real life too."

STEPHEN DUBNER: That no one can save you but yourself. Part of his messiah job was to persuade me that, you know, everybody's got to be their own messiah. That was the message.

JAD: But isn't that disappointing to you?

ROBERT: This guy was your—your hero, you want him to be all these things and he didn't want to be those things back. I mean, that must have hurt a little.

STEPHEN DUBNER: You know, look, Franco Harris didn't fall in love with, you know, me. He didn't want to be my best friend, but that—that aside, he is an exemplary human being, he—he's a really—he's a good human being. I think it can easily go too far, I think you can put too much of your emotional life in the hands of people who have—you know, who don't know you and have no responsibility for you, but I—I think sports fandom is a fantastic gift with almost immeasurable value, and my ...

JAD: Wait, but why? I mean, really? I mean, I love sports, but I mean, he's just a running back, he's not a saint.

ROBERT: I don't—what exactly about sports makes it—gives it an immeasurable value?

JAD: Yeah.

STEPHEN DUBNER: It's a proxy for real life but better. You know, it renews itself, it's constantly happening in real time. There are conflicts that seem to carry real consequences but at the end of the day don't. It's war where nobody dies, it's a proxy for all our emotions and desires and hopes. I mean, heck, what's not to like about sports?

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: There you go. You just sort of—you just wrapped it all up in a—in a little bow right there. That was awesome. 

JAD: Stephen Dubner is the author of Confessions of a Hero Worshiper, and he is the host of Freakonomics. Check them out at Freakonomicsradio.com.

ROBERT: We'll move on to other heroes, other sports and other puzzles in just a moment.

JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich. 

JAD: This is Radiolab.

ROBERT: We're talking about—well, what are we talking about?

JAD: Sports.

ROBERT: We're talking—sport? 

JAD: Sports, games. 

ROBERT: Games. Yeah, you know what? What we're really talking about is a fundamental behavior of everyone on Earth, including, like, wolves and cats.

JAD: Wolves and cats? That was—well, you're broadening more than I would broaden. But that's, you know, go—go with it. 

ROBERT: Well, I mean, come on. Like, what do little wolves do?

JAD: They don't play football.

ROBERT: No, but they tussle.

JAD: Yes. You mean, like, like they play?

ROBERT: Yes, like human babies.

JAD: Yeah. Okay.

ALISON GOPNIK: Babies and young children spend almost all of their time playing. It seems so natural we don't even think about it.

JAD: So let's just go with that thought. This is Alison Gopnik, she's a developmental psychologist.

ALISON GOPNIK: At the University of California at Berkeley.

JAD: Big sports fan.

ALISON GOPNIK: Yeah.

JAD: Baseball.

ALISON GOPNIK: An Oakland fan.

JAD: Professionally though, she studies kids. And she's got an interesting idea. She says if you look at kids, how they play over time?

ROBERT: Yes?

JAD: You see that in the center of their play, there's this really interesting tension that exists.

ROBERT: Tension of what kind?

JAD: Well, you can actually hear it. So we'll get back to Alison in just one moment, here's a four-year-old girl named Rosa.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa: Now pink is anger.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: Yes.]

JAD: Listen to her describe her imaginary friend to her dad.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: And how does Hermione know Antarctica?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa: She was in the Antarctic for a bit before she moved to the moon.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: Oh, what was she doing in the Antarctic? In Antartica?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa: You know how she used—what she used to keep warm?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: To keep what?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa: Warm.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: Warm?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa: Do you know what?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: No.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa: She got leopard seal skin for—to make a coat.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: I see.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa: And then went back to the moon.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: And what prompted her to move from Antarctica to the moon?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa: Because she wanted a place high, but now she's thinking she wants to move back to Antarctica.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: Really?]

ALISON GOPNIK: In preschool children you start seeing this wonderful flowering of pretend life. The children are becoming ninjas and princesses and superheroes. 

JAD: At first, says Alison, this is what play is all about, inventing, making up crazy psychedelic connections, complete improv.

ALISON GOPNIK: You get this period to just explore, just innovate.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa: Can jump from planet to planet.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: What does it eat on the moon?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa: House mice. House mice.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rosa's dad: House mice?]

ROBERT: House mice, of course.

JAD: But if you fast forward just a couple of years, not four anymore, but six, six year olds, the vibe totally changes because now it's all about rules.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, child's voice: You wanna play? The person who wants to be it is the freezer. If they—if the tagger—if the freezer tags you, you're frozen. But then if somebody else tags you, you're—you're unfrozen. And—and, like, these two are bases, okay? So let's play! She's it. And she freezes. Freeze. That's how you play freeze tag. Go!]

JAD: With six year olds it just sounds really different. You hear a lot of this ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, child's voice: No fair!]

JAD: A lot of yelling about what's allowed, what isn't allowed.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, child's voice: I start out with it. I start out with it.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, child's voice: Last time you started out with the ball!]

ALISON GOPNIK: In some ways, I think the school-aged children are practicing being in society. They're practicing having laws, they're practicing having rules.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, child's voice: Nigel, no you don't. Not anymore.]

ALISON GOPNIK: They're sort of developing a theory of sociology.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, child's voice: Yes I do.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, child's voice: I had the ball first.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, child's voice: I had the ball!]

JAD: So you've got these two modes of play: you've got the three-year-old inventor, who's like ...

ALISON GOPNIK: "Okay, I'm just gonna make this happen. I'm going to create something new in the world."

JAD: Then you've got the six-year-old enforcer, who's like ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, child's voice: No fair!]

JAD: "You can't just create what you want!"
ALISON GOPNIK: The world is bigger than we are.

JAD: We need rules!

ALISON GOPNIK: And one of the things that's really interesting about the games that seem to stick is that the greatest games like baseball are the games that let us experience the world in both those ways at the same time. 

JAD: In other words, like, a good game is like a weird, constantly shifting war between the three year old in us, and that—and the six year old.

ROBERT: I think she's probably correct because there are games which suffer from a lack of the tension she's describing. There's one game in particular ...

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: Okay.

ROBERT: I don't know if you've played it lately, but we heard about it from this guy, Brian Christian.

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: A writer, yeah.

ROBERT: He was on a recent show talking about robots, but he also mention this little ...

JAD: Moment?

ROBERT: Yes, it's a moment.

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: So yeah. At the world checkers championship ...

ROBERT: [laughs]

BRIAN CHRISTIAN:  ...in Glasgow, Scotland in 1863. It is James Wiley against Robert Martins. 

ROBERT: The two best checker players in the world. 

JAD: Wiley! Wiley!

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: Playing a 40-game series. All 40 games opened with the same three or four moves, and all 40 games were draws.

ROBERT: [laughs] Really?

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: Yeah.

ROBERT: Not only that ...

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: 21 of the 40 games are the exact same game.

ROBERT: Meaning that move for move for move, they were precise duplicates of each other.

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: Start to finish.

JAD: Every single move was the same?

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: Yeah.

ROBERT: Yup.

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: You know, can you. It's like a month of checkers.

JAD: How exactly does that happen?

ROBERT: Well see, these guys were professional checkers players.

JAD: Yes.

ROBERT: So they studied moves that other competitors had made. They would write them down, memorize them and they became a kind of catalog. So, at—at a certain point, every move you saw at the checkerboard you think, "Oh yeah. That one."

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: Checkers had hit this point where the conventional wisdom about what was the proper move to play had gotten to this point where there was now basically a perfect game of checkers. And with the world title on the line ...

ROBERT: Both players played that perfect game over and over and over.

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: They stuck to the script. So this was really rock bottom for the checkers community. I mean, it—it's ...

ROBERT: Wow. Yeah.

JAD: So there you go, that's why no one plays checkers anymore.

ROBERT: Well, some people play checkers. I play—I play checkers.

JAD: What? No you don't.

ROBERT: Checkers is fine, as long as you don't play it for too long. 

JAD: No.

ROBERT: Or too well. 

JAD: No, no, no, no.

ROBERT: I mean, if you're a lame checker player you could play checkers forever.

JAD: Well, then what's the point? I mean, why would you play a game that's been gobbled up? It's dead!

ROBERT: But by the way, this thing that you just said killed checkers?
JAD: Yeah? 

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: This concept ...

ROBERT: Has a name. It's called ...

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: Called the book.

ROBERT: The book!

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: The danger is that the entire game stays in book the whole time.

ROBERT: And that danger, says Brian, is not specifically confined to checkers.

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: Occasionally, very rarely, in the chess world you'll see two grandmasters play the exact same game that another pair of grandmasters played, you know, a year before. And they'll get boos and jeers all over the internet as a result. 

JAD: Now chess. Let me—let me talk about chess.

ROBERT: Okay.

JAD: Chess—the book in chess is huge. It started in the 16th century, and for hundreds of years players were keeping track of moves and counter moves and counter-counter-counter-counter moves. Until by the 1950s ...

FRED FRIEDEL: It was like a library ...

JAD: It actually was a library.

FRED FRIEDEL: ... in the Moscow central chess club.

ROBERT: Who is this?

JAD: This is Fred Friedel. He's a chess analyst and one of the few non-Russians to have seen this room.

FRED FRIEDEL: Yes, it's a huge musty room. All these shelves, and there were little boxes, and the boxes contained little cards. Index cards.

JAD: And each of these cards documented a particular game of chess from the past. And for a while, this was all a secret.

FRED FRIEDEL: There were about three or four players in the world ...

JAD: All Russian ...

FRED FRIEDEL: ... who had access.

JAD: When one of these guys had a big game they would go to this library, and say, "All right. I've got this opponent, he's a Polish guy, Przepiórka something or other. Give me all his games."

FRED FRIEDEL: And suddenly you have a few hundred cards ...

JAD:  ... which you and your team could study ...

FRED FRIEDEL: This is how they prepared.

JAD: ... by memorizing literally thousands of moves.

FRED FRIEDEL: Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands.

JAD: But where Fred comes in is in the '80s, he convinced the Russian Federation to put this online where anyone could study it and add to it. And suddenly, this book explodes. Which is, for some people, distressing.

FRED FRIEDEL: People tend to boo me sometimes when I come into a chess tournament today. They will point to me and say, "That's him, Frederick, the man who ruined chess."

JAD: Because here's the modern game: when two players sit down at one of these tournaments to face off, they've already consulted Frederick's database, which he's named Fritz. 

FRED FRIEDEL: The chess players all call it Fritzy now. 

JAD: And because of Fritzy, they walk into these games with so much of the book in their heads that whole portions of the game are very checkers-like, very rote.

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: You'll see this if you watch grandmasters play speed chess.

ROBERT: That's Brian Christian again.

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: They'll just hammer out the first dozen or so moves ...

JAD: Bam!

ROBERT: Bam!

JAD: Bam. Ba-bam!

ROBERT: Bam!

JAD: Bam!

ROBERT: Bam! Bam!

JAD: Bam!

ROBERT: Bam!

JAD: Bam!

BRIAN CHRISTIAN:  ... with barely any thought.

FRED FRIEDEL: Out of memory.

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: Yeah.

FRED FRIEDEL: It used to be two, three, four, five, six moves.

JAD: No big deal.

FRED FRIEDEL: Nowadays, it is 16 moves, 20 moves ...

JAD: There does seem to be a kind of creep that's happening. The book is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. But inevitably in every chess game there is a moment which puts the book in its place, and if you watch a game ...

JAD: Is there a chess tournament coming up, that—like a big one?

FRED FRIEDEL: Yes. Next Thursday I'm going to Romania where some of the top players are playing.

JAD: If you watch a game, as I was able to do, 'cause you can watch these games online ...

JAD: Okay, yeah. We're gonna watch a chess tournament online.

JAD: ... you will see that moment ...

JAD: Say "Chess!"

[baby voice saying chess]

JAD: And it's not like Jordan scoring 40 points while he has a fever. It's not like that, but if you know what to look for, it's quite profound.

JAD: Okay, it's 8:30 a.m. I'm here with my little man. Say hi.

CHILD'S VOICE: Hi.

JAD: And somewhere in Romania, two grandmasters are about to sit down at a table to do battle, and I will watch it virtually.

JAD: The match I watched was Magnus Carlsen, the world's top player, vs. Hikaro Nakamura, the US champ. I call up Frederic ... 

FRED FRIEDEL: Hello, it's Frederic.

JAD:  ... to give me the play by play, because I actually don't know much about chess.

FRED FRIEDEL: Okay.

JAD: His program, Fritz, can tell you how many times each move has occurred in the entire recorded history of chess.

ROBERT: What does that mean?

JAD: It's like his computer can look at the board and say, "That move that you just made, that has happened before. And I will tell you exactly how many times before."

JAD: Hey, it started. Here we go.

JAD: Move one.

JAD: White moves its D4 to D5.

FRED FRIEDEL: White pawn two squares forward. My database tells me that there are 1,775,000 games in which this occurred.

JAD: Then ...

JAD: Move 2.

JAD: ... black counters with its pawn going from C4 to E6.

JAD: Now we've got two pawns facing each other, middle of the board. And according to Fred's database this exact configuration has occurred in ...

FRED FRIEDEL: 514,518 games. 

JAD: So a million and a half, down to half a million.

ROBERT: Smaller.

FRED FRIEDEL: Yes.

JAD: Move three. White moves another pawn.

FRED FRIEDEL: 335,000.

JAD: Black, another pawn.

FRED FRIEDEL: 149,000.

ROBERT: Even smaller.

JAD: Yup. White moves its knight.

FRED FRIEDEL: 114,000.

JAD: Black moves its bishop.

FRED FRIEDEL: 91,000.

ROBERT: Less again.

JAD: White pawn takes a black pawn.

JAD: Just had our first casualty, people.

FRED FRIEDEL: 2,428 games.

ROBERT: What was that again?

JAD: 2,400.

JAD: Oh, the black pawn responds.

FRED FRIEDEL: 2,613 games.

JAD: White bishop flies across the board.

FRED FRIEDEL: 2,125 games.

JAD: Black moves another pawn up. 

FRED FRIEDEL: 1,200.

JAD: White queen does a little thing. 

FRED FRIEDEL: 381 games.

ROBERT: 381. Getting lower. 

JAD: Yes. Black bishop retreats.

FRED FRIEDEL: 19 games.

ROBERT: 19.

FRED FRIEDEL: 1-9.

JAD: White moves another pawn.

FRED FRIEDEL: Which has occurred in 11 games.

JAD: Okay, black bishop retreats.

FRED FRIEDEL: Still 11 games.

JAD: White bishop advances.

FRED FRIEDEL: We're down to 10 games. 

JAD: 10, whoo. Black bishop falls back even further.

FRED FRIEDEL: And we have nine games.

JAD: Black bishop takes white bishop.

CHILD'S VOICE: Good.

FRED FRIEDEL: Five games.

JAD: White pawn retaliates, taking black bishop.

FRED FRIEDEL: Still five games.

JAD: And then white rook and white king switch places.

FRED FRIEDEL: Now, there are no more games. You have a position which has never occurred before in the universe.

JAD: Ever?

FRED FRIEDEL: No.

JAD: In the universe?

FRED FRIEDEL: Not in the history of this universe. And this is what's known as the novelty.

JAD: The novelty.

FRED FRIEDEL: The novelty, yeah. And in chess notes, if you read chess notes, you will see ...

JAD: That shortly after this move ...

FRED FRIEDEL: The annotator writes, "Out of book."

JAD: Out of ...

CHILD'S VOICE: Book.

JAD: Book, yeah. 

JAD: Out of book.

CHILD'S VOICE: Bye-bye book.

JAD: Bye-bye book. 

FRED FRIEDEL: Which means ...

JAD: No more book.

CHILD'S VOICE: No more book.

FRED FRIEDEL: Both sides now are on their own.

JAD: And everyone we talked to who plays chess told us that when you get to that moment ...

FRANK BRADY: You feel you're alive in a way that you're not normally. 

JAD: That's Frank Brady, he's an author and a professor at St. John's. 

FRANK BRADY: And an international arbiter of the World Chess Federation. You're totally in it. Your mind is in some ways not even operating.

JAD: It's like you're back to being three again.

ROBERT: What are you saying?

JAD: I'm saying this is one of the reasons we watch sports, for these kinds of, like, zero moments. 

FRED FRIEDEL: A position which has never occurred in the universe.

JAD: At the same time, the zero is happening inside all of these rules, which are like, our lives. And this is what Alison was saying.

ALISON GOPNIK: Games let us experience the world in both those ways at the same time.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: The Pacers could foul.]

JAD: For example, here's one. 1999, Knicks-Pacers. Larry Johnson has the ball, Knicks are down by three, final seconds. He has no shot. Best you could think he can do is tie. But he has no shot! And yet, somehow, he twists, he shimmies, he moves to the left, he throws it up ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: Johnson is fouled [ball goes in, crowd roars] and yeah!]

JAD: That—that was like what? What? I mean, that's in the rules but nobody could have imagined that.

FRED FRIEDEL: A position which has never occurred in the universe.

JAD: I mean, I don't know about never, but ...

ROBERT: You wanna know about mine?

JAD: Sure.

ROBERT: This is a hockey moment. It's Wayne Gretzky, early '90s. He's playing, shoots for the goal, the puck hits something, somebody, and starts flying through the air like a tennis ball. Wayne Gretzky turns around and whacks the flying puck out of the air.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster: And up in the air, Gretzky scores! What a shot by Wayne Gretzky!]

JAD: Just smacked it out of the air?

ROBERT: Yup.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, sportscaster:  ... right out of midair!]

ROBERT: The universe would have to be extremely old to have a previous version of that.

JAD: Frank, do you have a number one favorite novelty in chess?

FRANK BRADY: Well, my number one favorite would be Bobby Fischer's game of the century.

JAD: And when—and when did that happen?

FRANK BRADY: We're jumping to 1956, Bobby is 13 years old. 

JAD: And is he the Bobby Fischer of legend at this point? Or just a 13-year-old kid?

FRANK BRADY: No, he's a 13-year-old kid. He got invited to this tournament, it was an all-adult invitational tournament.

JAD: And Frank says all the world's best were there. And this was kind of Bobby's first official match in the big leagues, so to speak.

FRANK BRADY: Exactly.

JAD: And to set the scene: it was October.

FRANK BRADY: Warm Indian summer.

JAD: We're at the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan, which is this big, stodgy brownstone with lots of mahogany. And Bobby Fischer in his T-shirt sits down sits down to play a fellow named ...

FRANK BRADY: Donald Byrne.

JAD: A guy who looked the part.

FRANK BRADY: Very urbane, sophisticated.

JAD: Jacket. Bow tie.

FRANK BRADY: He always had a cigarette between two fingers. 

JAD: I imagine it would have been hard for him to take this kid seriously.

FRANK BRADY: Yeah, and he was not doing all that well.

JAD: From the beginning, Bobby Fischer was making what looked like dumb errors.

FRANK BRADY: He was losing.

JAD: For example, midway through the game ...

FRANK BRADY: Bobby made this move where he moved his knight to the rim of the board, which is usually strategically speaking is not the greatest place to move your knight.

JAD: Because you know, if your knight is shoved against the edge, it's boxed in.

FRANK BRADY: And the knight could be taken. And people said, "What? What is it, did he blunder?"
JAD: Like, c'mon kid.

FRANK BRADY: Yeah, this is crazy.

JAD: But then Bobby Fischer does something truly crazy.

ROBERT: What?

JAD: He leaps so far ...

FRANK BRADY: Out of the book, in effect ...

JAD: ... that people are still talking about this move 50 years later.

FRANK BRADY: On the 18th move he allowed Byrne to take his queen.

JAD: He just said, "Here, take my queen?"

FRANK BRADY: Now in chess ...

JAD: That's—that's, like, crazy.

FRANK BRADY: Yeah. In chess, it's almost impossible to win a game if you lose your queen. It's like, what? It's got to be wrong, that must be a stupid blunder that you ...

JAD: It seemed like maybe he was throwing in the towel, so a crowd gathered ...

FRANK BRADY: Scrum of people hanging around ...

JAD: ... to watch this kid get put in his place. And Byrne did what anyone would do in that situation, he took the queen.

FRANK BRADY: But maybe four moves later ...

JAD: Just at the moment you would think he would have Bobby Fischer in a stranglehold ...

FRANK BRADY: Bobby started checking the king.

JAD: He was chasing Byrne all over the board.

FRANK BRADY: And people began to see that there was some combination, but it was a long combination, and, you know ...

JAD: 20 moves later, Byrne was done.

FRANK BRADY: Nothing he could do. He was checkmated.

JAD: And Frank says if you analyze the game you see that it all began—and in a way ended—when he sacrificed his queen.

FRANK BRADY: It was a lost game from that moment. If Byrne didn't take the queen he was lost. If Byrne took the queen he was lost.

JAD: Wait, are you saying he essentially checkmated him 20 moves ahead of time?

FRANK BRADY: Yes, it was unstoppable, it was forceful. 

JAD: So, it's like he wrote a new book. He stuck the guy in his book.

FRANK BRADY: [laughs] I love that.

JAD: So, it's kind of interesting, like you—you can—you can start the game in book, so to speak.

ROBERT: And you're kind of locked into a set of moves. The game ends ...

JAD: Kind of the same way.

ROBERT: The same way. That's destiny.

JAD: Mm-hmm.

ROBERT: But then in the middle, you just get a peek at something ...

JAD: Infinite.

ROBERT: Infinite.

JAD: Although, we were wondering, like, is that middle space really infinite? I mean, we asked Frederic if people played chess for hundreds and hundreds of years, inventing new moves into that empty space would they ever fill it up? And he said ...

FRED FRIEDEL: No. Because the number of chess games that are possible is vastly more than the number of atoms in the universe.

JAD: More than ...

FRED FRIEDEL: That's just a silly little number compared to the number of chess games.

ROBERT: What kind of a number is that? How many atoms are there in the universe?

FRED FRIEDEL: 1082 the last time I counted. No, 78.

ROBERT: 10 with 82 zeros.

FRED FRIEDEL: 1078 I think is more accurate.

JAD: And there are more possibilities within a 40-move chess game?

FRED FRIEDEL: 10120, approximately.

JAD: And he says if he were to try to get all that information into Fritzy, his database ...

FRED FRIEDEL: We would have to dismantle an entire solar system just to store the information.

JAD: And he says he'd have to dismantle another one, just to plug it in.

ROBERT: And what he says about chess, you could say that about hockey, you could say that about baseball, you could say that about curling.

JAD: But you could not say that about checkers, let's just be clear.

ROBERT: Exactly. So, checkers aside, every game has this kind of strange thing. It has a field of play ...

JAD: A small, little box.

ROBERT: It could be a board, it could be a field, whatever. And then, you step into it, and there's like a whoosh.

JAD: A solar system.

JAD: Thanks to Alison Gopnik. She wrote the wonderful book The Philosophical Baby. And Frank Brady who's the author of Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall, and also Brian Christian, who wrote the book The Most Human Human.

JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab.

ROBERT: That was the Tarantella opening. The little "Hey" that we did.

JAD: Was it a little ...

ROBERT: No, it was fine. It was fine. It was good. It was good.

JAD: All right. I could bring it down. Should I bring it down?

ROBERT: No, no, no, no. We keep going. So we're talking about sports.

JAD: And games. 

ROBERT: And emotions.

JAD: And we just did a thing on rules and creativity. 

ROBERT: And now it's time to add yet another element to the mix.

JAD: 'Cause what do you get if you put all of those three things together? 

ROBERT: You get ...

JAD: Robert. 

ROBERT: You get ...

JAD: Bring it. Do it. Say it.

ROBERT: You're a little energized here. You get a story. 

JAD: Exactly.

ALISON GOPNIK: Really good games are sort of story-generating machines.

JAD: For example, here's Alison Gopnik again, talking about a little teeny story that happens dozens of times a game in her favorite sport.

ALISON GOPNIK: One of the great moments in baseball is always that that ball is going out there and the guy is going out there with the glove, and it might end up in the glove and it might not. And he backs up against the stadium wall and he—either he gets it or he doesn't. That wouldn't be nearly as much fun if he was just playing catch, right? That's a fantastic human drama.

JAD: So the question we want to explore now is ...

ROBERT: What kind of drama do you want?
JAD: What kind of drama to you is most fantastic?

ROBERT: Yeah.

SOREN: Think you want the—think you want the headphones the other way around.

ROBERT: That's our producer, Soren Wheeler.

DAN ENGBER: How's that?

SOREN: Yeah, something like that.

ROBERT: Who's out of the bathroom and seems to have made a new friend.

SOREN: [laughs]

JAD: So set that up, who's that guy?

SOREN: So that's Dan Engber.

DAN ENGBER: Senior Editor at Slate magazine.

SOREN: And I brought him into the studio because he told me about this thing that had happened to him ...

DAN ENGBER: When I was watching the NCAA tournament.

SOREN: The basketball, college ...

DAN ENGBER: The men's college basketball tournament.

SOREN: This was just last year.

DAN ENGBER: And I don't know anything about college basketball. It's a—you know, I—I have two or three sports I can pay attention to. Some people have one, or two, or zero, but college basketball isn't one of them. 

SOREN: But, there's this tournament on every year, it's kind of exciting, so he watches.

DAN ENGBER: Yeah.

SOREN: And what he does, since he doesn't really have any loyalties, he doesn't know who to root for, he just kind of, by default ...

DAN ENGBER: I don't—I just pick whichever team has the lower seed. Whichever is the worse team.

SOREN: Why do you do that?

DAN ENGBER: I have no idea. And it—it came to a head when I showed up at a friend's house, and they had the game between Butler and Michigan State on.

SOREN: It was the semi-finals.

DAN ENGBER: And they were both seeded number five.

SOREN: So it's like your little system is ...

DAN ENGBER: Right, I've—I have no idea which team to—to root for. So I just was—I started rooting for whichever team was losing. And it was a close game, so ...

SOREN: Butler would make a run, then Michigan comes back.

DAN ENGBER: I start feeling sorry for Butler.

SOREN: Every time one would go up he'd switch to the other. And at a certain point, he's like, "Wait a second. This strategy guarantees that at the end of the game when the buzzer goes, I'll have been rooting for the team that lost."

DAN ENGBER: Right. I've actually created a situation where I'm guaranteed to be disappointed.

SOREN: [laughs] You're guaranteed to be disappointed.

SOREN: So Dan decided to figure out, like ...

DAN ENGBER: What the hell is going on. Like ...

SOREN: Why would anyone do this to themselves? 

SOREN: Is that—is that something that's actually been studied?

DAN ENGBER: Yeah. So, there's—there's a small group of psychologists ...

SCOTT ALLISON: That would be me.

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: And me.

DAN ENGBER: ... who are interested in this question.

SCOTT ALLISON: Underdogs.

SOREN: Tracked a couple of them down.

SCOTT ALISON: My name is Scott Allison. 

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: Nadav Goldschmied.

SOREN:  Two.

SCOTT ALLISON: University of Richmond.

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: University of San Diego, currently.

DAN ENGBER: So there are these studies that are just sort of hilariously simple, where you take a bunch of undergrads and you put them in a room.

SCOTT ALLISON: And we give them scenarios to read.

SOREN: Like a paragraph of ...

SCOTT ALLISON: Yeah, involving, say, two competing teams. So, here's a—a basketball team ...

DAN ENGBER: And it's—there's almost no information, the teams don't even have names, it's just—they're just team A and team B. Team A is playing team B in a game. You don't even have to tell them what sport.

SOREN: Okay.

DAN ENGBER: Team A is considered the better team and is more likely to win.

SCOTT ALLISON: Who you gonna root for?

DAN ENGBER: 80 percent of the students choose the underdog team.

JAD: 80?

SOREN: Yup. In fact, a lot of times it comes out 90 percent.

DAN ENGBER: 9 out of 10. Yes.

SOREN: In the absence of any reason to choose one or the other.

SCOTT ALLISON: That's almost universal.

DAN ENGBER: You can do the study in all different ways, and the answer always comes out the same. You can describe it as two political figures.

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: You know, running for election.

DAN ENGBER: Or, you can talk about two businesses.

SCOTT ALLISON: Mom and pop's electronics store against Walmart.

DAN ENGBER: Or you can talk about two landscape painters who've painted pictures and are now trying ...

SOREN: Wait, wait, wait. Landscape painters?

SCOTT ALLISON: Yes, we gave participants a painting, half the participants were told this painting was done by a successful, established artist.

DAN ENGBER: You know so-and-so, who has a gallery show downtown.

SCOTT ALLISON: And the other half of the participants were told this same painting was done by a starving artist ...

DAN ENGBER: First-year art student.

SCOTT ALLISON: Who's trying to make it in the art world.

SOREN: Who only has one arm and ...

SCOTT ALLISON: Yeah, exactly.

DAN ENGBER: And people have this very strong bias in favor of the underdog painter. 

SOREN: So what else do we have? We got landscape painters, unnamed sports teams ...

DAN ENGBER: Businesses, politics ...

SOREN: Businesses, politics.

DAN ENGBER: And, my favorite: shapes.

SOREN: Shapes.

DAN ENGBER: Yeah.

SOREN: What would an underdog's shape be?

SCOTT ALLISON: It's just a circle, about an inch in diameter, moving left to right across the computer screen.

DAN ENGBER: Moving up what could be a hill.

SCOTT ALLISON: Exactly. As the circle moves up, the circle slows down as it goes up the hill.

DAN ENGBER: Nudging up and then dropping back a little bit, and then nudging up and dropping back a little bit. 

SOREN: Quivering. 

DAN ENGBER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

SOREN: And then, along comes ... 

SCOTT ALLISON: A second circle that has no trouble getting up that hill.

DAN ENGBER: Cruises past the slowpoke circle.

SCOTT ALLISON: Zooms right past it.

DAN ENGBER: And sure enough, people have a real preference in some way or another. They're really rooting for circle B.

SOREN: The struggler.

DAN ENGBER: We get people emotionally reacting to a geometric shape.

SOREN: When they're sitting there are they like, "C'mon, c'mon, you can do it?"

SCOTT ALLISON: Yes, yes.

DAN ENGBER: You're pulling for it. It's going to be like Rudy, you know?

SCOTT ALLISON: This is how deeply ingrained the underdog phenomenon is in us. 

SOREN: At this point, like, my question is ...

JAD: Why? What's going on here?

SOREN: Why, exactly.

JAD: Why do we do this?

SCOTT ALLISON: Well ...

DAN ENGBER: Well ...

SOREN: Well ...

DAN ENGBER: Well, I think there—there are two different approaches to—to that—to that "why" question.

SOREN: One of them is this kind of what they call an emotional economics argument, and it goes like this. 

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: If you know that you have an underdog and you have a top dog. So,the top dog is expected to win, right?

SOREN: If you think of this, like, the way a gambler would think of it. Like, if you go with the top dog they're expected to win, so you're not gonna get a big payout if they do win.

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: Minimal emotional payoff.

SOREN: But you'll lose a lot if they lose.

JAD: Meaning, you won't feel too good if they win but you'll feel really bad if they lose.

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: Yes. But if you go with the underdog ...

SOREN: It's the reverse.

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: Right.

SOREN: They're expected to lose. So if they do lose it's not that big a deal because you kind of figured that's how it was gonna go. But if they win you feel great.

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: A significant emotional payoff.

JAD: So it's like betting on a long shot horse. You can put in five bucks, you're probably gonna lose it, but if you win you might get back like a hundred.

SOREN: Exactly.

JAD: Hmm.

SOREN: I don't think ...

JAD: That just does not feel at all like how I watch sports.

SOREN: Well, there's—there's another argument, which is these guys say that maybe it's something about fairness.

SCOTT ALLISON: That deep down we want to live in a fair society where there’s an even playing field.

SOREN: And—and there is research that shows that fairness is a pretty deep instinct in us. But I don't know. I mean, like, none of that seems to—I guess, the thing is that this whole thing feels like a lot more basic.

JAD: Yeah.

SOREN: If you look back at, like, the stories we tell, this underdog story is ancient.

SCOTT ALLISON: The Iliad, The Odyssey, great epics from Asia, Africa, it's all the same story.

SOREN: And so Scott says, you know, maybe we love the underdog because we feel like we are the underdog. I mean, in some sense, just to be a living thing is to fight against the odds. 

SCOTT ALLISON: Think about newborns. You can't be any more weak and helpless and small. 

SOREN: You know, I mean, it’s just a baby. I guess that's true. But I don't know. I mean, I don't remember being a baby and feeling like—but I do remember junior high, and I do remember feeling like I would never get a job, and I do remember feeling like there's no way that girl is ever gonna like me ...

JAD: Yeah.

SOREN: You know?

SCOTT ALLISON: We need these stories.

SOREN: Just to make it through.

SCOTT ALLISON: They're part of who we are as human beings.

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: There's actually a very interesting story about Haruki Murakami, the famous Japanese novelist.

SOREN: Yeah, author. Yeah.

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: He was awarded the Jerusalem Literature Prize, and this was in the midst, or immediately after Israel invaded Gaza and/or more than 1,000 Palestinian dead.

SOREN: Yeah.

NADAV GOLDSCHMIED: In his delivery speech he said the following, "Between a high solid wall and an egg that breaks against it I will always stand on the side of the egg. No matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong, perhaps time or history will do it. But if there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

ROBERT: Hmm.

JAD: " ...value would these works be?" That's an interesting word. It's almost like he's saying, like, a story's job is—it's beyond morality, it's beyond truth, like, it's job is somehow to—to tell you that the world could be a way that we know inherently it never will be. I think that's what he's saying.

ROBERT: Or maybe he's really saying that I stand with the powerless, and the powerful can take care of themselves. So what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna add a little weight to people who have no muscles of their own.

JAD: I'm gonna put a little pebble on the scale.

ROBERT: That's the job of the story.

JAD: And I guess if the scale is always weighted in the wrong direction, then that's why we love the story 'cause we need more pebbles.

SOREN: Well, yeah. But there's a question we haven't asked here.

ROBERT: Which is ...

JAD: What?

SOREN: Well, four out of five of us root for the underdog or the struggling circle, but that's not everyone.

DAN ENGBER: One out of five people are like, "Screw that circle, I'm excited about the circle that ..."

SOREN: Yeah, you could probably do some interesting follow up studies on, like ...

DAN ENGBER: Yeah. Who are those psychopaths, yeah?

SOREN: So you assume they're psychopaths. [laughs]

DAN ENGBER: I do.

JAD: Actually, oddly we ended up bumping into a guy who falls into this group.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: It's Malcolm.

ROBERT: Yeah, hi.

JAD: His name is Malcolm Gladwell, he's a writer.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: For the New Yorker magazine. 

JAD: He's also written a bunch of best selling books. 

ROBERT: And in the middle of a conversation, unbidden by the way, he suddenly says ...

MALCOLM GLADWELL: Oh, I never, ever cheer for the underdog.

JAD: You don't?

MALCOLM GLADWELL: No.

JAD: Why? Why not?

MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well, because I'm distressed by the—by the injustice of the person who should win not winning.

JAD: The injustice of the—what?

MALCOLM GLADWELL: Losing for the favorite. That is the most exquisitely painful situation to be in. So, I remember as a kid, the first time I ran. I was a huge track and field fan. '76 Olympics Dwight Stones lost the high jump, even though he was still far and away the greatest high jumper in the world, because it rained. His technique required absolutely perfect footwork and he would slip on the tarmac. And I just remember sitting there as a kid and I was just devastated because I could feel his pain, right? And his pain was so much greater than anybody else's.

ROBERT: What's wrong with you?

MALCOLM GLADWELL: It's too painful if they lose. When Dwight Stones loses the high jump, it is literally one of the most painful experiences of my young life, I can't—I thought about it for weeks afterwards. I just couldn't wrap my mind around how he must have felt going home. And ever since then I was like, there's no way you cannot cheer for the overdog because they will suffer. Like—I mean it's—it's the only humane position. Because you are trying to end human—end human suffering.

ROBERT: This is as tortured and twisted a logic as I've ever heard.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: I mean I—I—I always thought this was, you know, rare evidence of my empathy that I—I felt ...

JAD: [laughs]

ROBERT: [laughing] I'm so sorry to have brought you the news.

JAD: Exactly.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: No, it's also—you know what it is? There's another part of this too, and that is—that it is— that I have a—a deep distrust and unhappiness with luck. So I do not like it when the outcome turns on an—an unrepeatable sequence. So Georgetown losing to Villanova in—is it the '82 NCAA college basketball championships? There is no way—you could play that game 100,000 times and Villanova would still win only that one time. That just—that game, it did more than upset me, it outraged me. I mean, I just thought, this is not—it's just not right, it is like—it is a violation of everything. You shouldn't be able to shoot 78 percent from the floor or whatever—I forgot what the number was, a preposterous number they—and I just, you know, if I had been on Georgetown I would—to this—I would wake up every night in a cold sweat to this day, just thinking, "This is outrageous! Like what? How did this happen?"

ROBERT: That's so weird, 'cause you're a storyteller by trade. Like, what if Hans Christian Andersen had woken up every morning and said, "Here, I have a great story. There's an ugly duckling and it just stays ugly. Because, you know, why should it get lucky and be a swan? It's just an ugly duckling.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: Robert, we're not talking about stories, I understand stories. To me, a game is not a story. To me, a game is—it is a contest between two parties, according to certain rules, and when the—when expectations and rules are violated, some part of me takes offense.

JAD: Well, I'm curious, how do you feel about people who always root for the underdog, which happens to be most people? Do you feel like that's the weaker position, morally?

MALCOLM GLADWELL: Is it weaker morally? I mean, there's a—there's a—there's a very unflattering interpretation of this, and that is that on some deep level I think of myself as a favorite, not an underdog, right? You know, that's like I say an unflattering way of interpreting my motives. But, you know, unlike many of my peers, I grew up in a tiny, tiny town and went to a kind of an unexceptional high school where everyone left at 16 to go home and milk the cows. So it was like a situation where I did sort of grow up as the—if you had parents who had gone to college, you were the overdog in my universe growing up. So I—you know I do, sort of—when I was in seventh grade and someone got a better grade than me, it was outrageous to me, right? Because, no one should get a—only my friend Bruce should get a better grade than me. You know, he's the only other person in the class whose parents went beyond the ninth grade or who had books at home or who had left the province of Ontario. So, maybe there's something—there's something in that. But if you grow up in these impoverished environments where you—you're forced into a particular dominant role, right? You just—you come back to it again and again long after those circumstances have changed.

ROBERT: That's Malcolm Gladwell.

JAD: Defender of winners everywhere.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: I do. I do hate when winners lose. It is true. It is true.

ROBERT: That's so strange. [laughing]

 

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Ekedi Fausther-Keeys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neeson, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Kreiger and Natalie Middleton.]

 

[LISTENER: Hi, this is Beth from San Francisco. Leadership support for Radiolab’s science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]

 

-30-

 

Copyright © 2023 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.