Make Sure You're Playing the Right Game


Chess and poker are perfect analogies for the competing interests in deciding how and where to be transparent. In chess, the state of the game is transparent. Each player can see the current state of the game and plan their strategy, and try to deduce their opponents strategy, from that state and the actions taken to get there. In poker, the current state is a secret, or at least mostly secret. You can't bluff in chess the way you can in poker.

Most geeks play better chess than poker, metaphorically at least. IETF and other organizations work on the basis of compelling ideas and working code. We like to believe that if everyone just has the right facts, good decisions will follow. I hear variations on this theme whenever I talk to techies about public policy issues.

This is one of the biggest problems I had when I was Utah State CIO: I thought we were playing chess when in fact we were playing poker. Its actually worse than poker---at least in poker, everyone has the same goal. In government everyone has a different goal and their actions often look irrational because you don't understand their motivation. I've spent years studying the actions of some people there and still can't deduce their motive. And yes, I've flat out asked them. They just look all wide eyed and innocent and say "I have no motives of my own---I just do my job."

In an environment like that, its difficult to make progress through an appeal to rationality and facts. Its often the bluffing and the behind the scenes maneuvering that makes the most difference. The winners frequently have no facts at all. They'd lose a chess game hands down, but they're very good poker players.