Yale’s Econ 159: Game Theory Made Fun

There’s a reason I’ve posted a lot on game theory of late: I was taking a course on the topic, continuing my education by podcast. The Open Yale Courses (OYC) program makes it easy to turn your iPod or MP3 player into a classroom of sorts, with 15 Yale courses online and 30 more expected over the next three years. Each course includes lectures by video or audio, downloadable from the OYC website or available through iTunes.

So far I’ve listened through Econ 252, which I reviewed previously, and Econ 159. The latter is Yale’s basic game theory course taught by Ben Polak. I don’t need to say very much about the content of the course since I’ve already given readers a large dose of basic game theory. In fact, all of the content of my game theory posts has been inspired by that of Econ 159.

In this review I’ll comment on the style of the course and the quality of the instructor, Ben Polak. Polak is one of those virtuoso teachers. If you’re lucky you’ve had one or two such teachers in your life: the sort who entertains as he instructs, who presents his subject in such easy, digestible bites that one cannot help but learn it. In fact, Polak has won awards for his teaching. It helps that he’s also very funny and has a charming British accent.

Game theory can’t be taught without use of a blackboard. There’s a lot of drawing of diagrams, graphs, arrays of numbers, and so forth. So one might think it impossible to learn the subject aurally by podcast. However Polak speaks what he writes so clearly I did not find it difficult to follow along and to “see” the visual in my head.

I confess that there were details I could not keep track of (was that a “2, 1” payoff in the upper right of the array or the lower left?), but it didn’t matter. It isn’t the details that are important, it is the main concepts. Those Polak makes as plain as day, and they’re emphasized more than once so one cannot miss them.

Polak told his students at the start of the class that the course was “moderately hard but moderately fun.” I think that’s fair. It requires a certain type of logical mind to enjoy game theory, and that is hard for some people. But Polak makes it about as fun as game theory is likely to ever be.

In my review of Yale’s Econ 252 I wrote that its instructor, Robert Shiller, had set the bar high. Well, Ben Polak far exceeded it and Econ 159 is one of the best courses I’ve ever taken (and I’ve taken a lot of them). If you’re interested in learning basic game theory and/or if you’ve enjoyed my game theory posts, give it a try. Even if you only make it through part of the course you’ll still have learned something and probably had a good time doing so.

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