By In Stuff

Golden Balls Revisited

Every now and again, an awesome email just pops in unexpectedly. A few months ago, you might remember, I wrote something about an episode of the British game show Golden Balls. Don’t worry, if you missed it, I’ll review here.

The game show is really pretty simple — or anyway the last part of it is simple. There are two contestants, and at the end of the show there is a kitty of money they have earned. From what I’ve seen this can be as much at 100,000 pounds though it is usually somewhat less than that.

Then, each player is given two golden balls. In one golden ball is the word SPLIT. In the other golden ball is the word STEAL.

The players are explained the basic rules. They are each to choose one of the golden balls. If they both choose SPLIT, they will split the money and everyone will cheer. If they both choose STEAL, they will lose everything, neither player will get a penny, and everyone will laugh at them for getting the greedy ending they deserve.

And then, if one chooses SPLIT and the other chooses STEAL — the person who chooses STEAL gets all the money, and the person who choose SPLIT gets nada.

I included this little handy chart the last time.

…Player A… …Player B… Result
Split the money
Player A wins all
Player B wins all
No one wins anything

The more you think about this arrangement, the more you really how brutal it really is. You are bumping right against human nature. The ideal ending, most believe, is for both players to choose SPLIT. That way, they each get half the money. Everyone is happy. Can’t we get along?

But ask yourself the question: If you KNEW the the other person was going to choose SPLIT, knew it with all your heart, what would you do? Let’s say there was $100,000 in the pot. Choose SPLIT and you get $50,000 and and the enduring respect of your competitor and everyone watching. But choose STEAL and you get $100,000. How much do you care about the person your competing against anyway? You just met that person. Is his or her regard worth an extra $50K?

Before each player chooses in Golden Balls, the competitors are given a couple of minutes to talk to each other. This time is almost always spent with each competitor PLEADING with the other to choose SPLIT. Every emotional string is pulled, every impassioned argument is made. Competitors will talk about how much they need half the money, how close they now feel to their competitor, how deeply they believe in honor and so on and so on and so on.

A typical example was this famous Golden Balls finale for more than 100,000 pounds:

Her: Steven I just hope that those weren’t puppy dog tears, that they were real tears, and you’re genuinely going to split that money.

Him: I am going to split. That’s just … 50,000 … that’s just unbelievable. I’m very, very happy to go home with 50,000.

Her: Will you split that money?

Him: If I stole that money, every single person over there would go over here and lynch me.

Her: There’s no way I could … I mean everyone who knew me would be disgusted if I stole.

Him: When people watch this they’re not going to believe it.

Her: Please … I … please …

Him: Sarah I can look you straight in the eye and tell you that I’m going to split. I swear to you.

Her (Nods).

Him (as they hold the balls): “We’re going home with 50 grand each, I promise you that.”

The ending of this one was more interesting than most, but the lead-up was very similar. To win any money, you need the person to choose the SPLIT ball. To do that, almost everybody tries to bring out the other person’s honor.

And that’s why one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen involved in a game show or really anything else involved a contestant named Nick, who turned the whole idea on its head. When his game with Ibrahim ended, they had 13,600 pounds in the kitty. The Golden Balls were handed out, everyone expected the usual begging and cajoling and promising and so on. Only this time, Nick had a whole different plan.

“Ibrahim,” he said. “I want you to trust me 100%. I’m going to pick the STEAL ball.”

Ibrahim, like everyone else, is entirely baffled by this. “Sorry, you’re going …”

“I’m going to choose the STEAL ball. … I want you to do SPLIT and I promise you I’ll split the money with you.”

He was saying he would STEAL … and split the money after the show. What the heck was this? Ibrahim is NOT happy by this bit, to say the least. At first he kind of tries to talk this through with Nick, sort of making light of it. Nick is having none of it. “Ibrahim,” he says, “if you choose SPLIT I promise you I’ll do that. If you choose STEAL we will both walk away with nothing.”

Ibrahim — it is beginning to dawn on him that Nick might be serious about this suicidal strategy — says, “I’ll give you another alternative,” and asks why they don’t just both pick SPLIT, you know, like normal people do. Nick shakes his head, “I’m not going to pick SPLIT, I’m going to pick STEAL. Ibrahim, I’m honestly 100% going to pick STEAL”

And … you can see Ibrahim getting angrier and angrier. “It’s in your nature to steal?” he asks. .. “I can’t see myself doing that,” he says when Nick asks him again to choose SPLIT so they can divide the money later. … ‘Where is your brains come from?” he asks. … “I can’t work out …” he says at one point and you can see he simply cannot understand what the heck Nick is doing.

“If I gave you my word,” Ibrahim says at one point, “and let me tell you what me word means — my father once said to me, ‘A man who doesn’t keep his word is not a man.’ He’s not worth nothing, not worth a dollar.’”

“I agree,” Nick says. “Ibrahim, I’m going to steal. So you’ve got the choice. You either steal and we both walk away with nothing. Because you know, I’ve told you my intention and I’ve told you I’ll split the money with you.”

“If I gave you my word I’m going to SPLIT, I’m going to split,” Ibrahim said. “And you’re going to take STEAL. … We’ve lost everything. You’re walking away with my money because you’re an idiot! That’s what you are. You’re an idiot! That’s what you are.” He was basically babbling by the end.

Then it was time for the decision. Ibrahim then chose one ball. I did not notice this the first few times I saw the video. He chose one ball and then he shouted, “I’ll tell you what, I’m going to go with you. I’m going to go with you.” So he had one ball in his hand and, last second, changed his mind and chose the other ball.

Final answer:

Ibrahim chose SPLIT.

And, as it turned out, Nick chose SPLIT too.

“Why did you put me through that?” Ibrahim yelled at Nick as they split the money. Nick just smiled. Great stuff.

Well, the other day I got an email from … Nick! That is Nick Corrigan, who works in Cardiff at the “Media Academy Cardiff,” which is a non-profit organization to help young people develop skills. Nick is director of the place, meaning he’s pretty much an awesome all-around guy.

Anyway, Nick wrote in to give a little bit of his insight. He said that recently Radiolab, a New York public radio show, did a story on the show and caught up with Ibrahim. Nick hear the show (I have not yet) and learned some fascinating things. For one, he says Ibrahim admitted that he was never going to share (“Which was my initial view of him,” Nick writes). Not only that, but Nick says Ibrahim admitted the whole Dad interlude — “A man who doesn’t keep his word is not a man” — was completely fabricated. Ibrahim didn’t even know his father.

This was Nick’s take — he knew, absolutely knew, that Ibrahim was going to steal and try to get all the money. So Nick explained he wasn’t trying to throw Ibrahim off his game by making him angry. “I didn’t try and tap into his fury,” Nick wrote. “I tried to take the control and power and his greed to be his downfall.”

It was, in retrospect, and even more remarkable strategy than I originally thought. Nick read the situation just right. Ibrahim was never going to split. He was not going to be able to appeal to Ibrahim’s compassion and sense of fair play. And so Nick fashioned this fascinating strategy — he would convince Ibrahim that he was going to STEAL. He figured Ibrahim would believe THAT readily, would understand that threat completely. He figured Ibrahim would, in the end, completely believe that Nick planned to STEAL and realize that left him only two choice, neither good but one a lot worse than the other:

1. Choose STEAL and lose everything.
2. Choose SPLIT and hope that Nick would actually split the money later. While he would hate doing this, Ibrahim had to realize that this was the only chance he had at any money.

“For me,” Nick wrote, “it was about developing a winning strategy and sticking to it even in adversity (the audience were booing me).”

Well, in the end, this is a big part of the games people play. You pick a strategy. You stick with it even through the boos. It is why I have so much respect for the great organizations, in sports and in life, the ones that don’t make rash decisions based on the pressures of the moment. Lots of organizations and people do the expedient thing for the few cheers and plaudits they will get for a few days or a few weeks. But before too long, their rashness and unwillingness to do the hard thing will cost them. They will not end up winning anything.

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22 Responses to Golden Balls Revisited

  1. You never know what you will really do until you are put in that situation. But the whole time I am reading this article, I’m thinking “screw Nick. I’m not getting a dime anyway (he’ll never split the money), so I’m picking STEAL.”

    • blair says:

      He’s making an oral contract with you, and doing it on camera. So you’ll get the money eventually. Unless the game’s producers have put in a rule prohibiting collaborating outside the show. Game shows (and sports) generally do that, to prevent contestants from taking the competitiveness out of the game. So you’ll get the money even if he steals it in the game. Because there’s a world out there that’s bigger than games, and it really does make people keep to their word, if you have proof.

      Nick was right. The only way to ensure you get half is to take away the other guy’s chance of getting it all.

      I’m looking straight at you, capitalism.

      • BobDD says:

        Dear Which Project,

        You are brilliant! No one could ever be more wrong than that. Capitalism is a “game” where anyone and everyone are allowed to do as well as you can. From there governments can get in the way and create rules to make it more complicated or less fair or more fair or favor one group over another. Or criminals can cheat the system like the “crony capitalism” we have in DC now, which is not real capitalism. So until the rules get corrupted, true capitalism with the most minimal set of regulations (just enough to ensure rules are followed and monopolies kept out) is the one economic “game” where you can make all you’re capable of without needing to take away from other people. Leave that wretchedness to the government.

        • EnzoHernandez11 says:

          History constantly reminds us that “true” anything almost never works. No country has ever succeeded under true capitalism, true socialism, or true communism. None ever will. Mixed systems borrow the best of all worlds and are invariably more successful. And…

          [watch as he pivots back to the main interest of this blog]

          …that holds true for sports as well. I want sabermetricians helping to guide my team, but I want the old-style scouts out there as well. Everyone has part of the answer; nobody has *the* answer.

          Oh, and I would have totally stolen Nick’s money. 🙂

      • mark says:

        That’s not how capitalism works at all.

      • Ian R. says:

        For what it’s worth, I believe the host essentially said during the show that such a verbal agreement would be impossible to enforce. It seems that Nick could have really stolen the money and gotten away with it (though he didn’t, of course).

      • Ed says:

        You can’t make an oral contract to just give away money for nothing.

        Oral contracts are enforceable, but there has to be consideration on both sides. I doubt any court would enforce a contract giving half of a sum money that you don’t have yet in exchange for a person picking a certain ball. I’m not saying it’s impossible… it’s just really unlikely.

        • Not Jennifer Gibbs says:

          The promise to pick the Split ball would be consideration for the promise to split the money. You also could regard picking the Split ball as acceptance by performance, in which case picking the Split ball would be the consideration. There might be other issues (statute of frauds, for example), but there’s mutual consideration in that scenario.

          • Not Jennifer Gibbs says:

            That last sentence should say, “There might be other issues (statute of frauds if the jurisdiction does not limit the SOF to the sale of goods, for example), but there’s mutual consideration in that scenario.”

          • Ed says:

            I disagree — but there’s no reason to get into a long legal discussion here about conditional promises, unilateral contracts, etc.

            It’s really a matter of opinion as to whether that would be enforceable, and it would come down to parsing every single word they said.

          • Dr. G says:

            If this type of “verbal contract” would hold up in court, I would assume that anybody from this show that agreed to pick “SPLIT” and didn’t would end up in court (which could be a lot). Likewise, I’d think that anybody on any gameshow that conspired with or against a competitor and went back on their word would be open to litigation.
            While the host of this show may have just been saying it couldn’t be enforced in order to keep the suspense and not undermine the show, I’m having a tough time seeing how a court (at least in the US) could uphold a “verbal contract” in the context of a gameshow where deceit is an accepted and commonplace strategy.
            Which leads to a further question… how far would somebody be willing to go, and allowed to go, in coercing a competitor to pick “SPLIT?” Would the producers allow one competitor to threaten harm to another, or another’s loved ones, whether real or imagined? What about blackmail, whether a bluff or legitimate?
            And would those types of strategies then be legal?

  2. tarhoosier says:

    The Ultimatum Game

  3. Jake Bucsko says:

    Does anyone remember, I forget what channel it was on, a game show called Unanimous? It involved 10 people or so and a bank of 1 million dollars. The catch was, the 1 million was slowly counting down, and the only way to win was to convince all the others to vote unanimously to give the money to you. I think one person was eliminated each week, too. I thought it was unbelievably brilliant and fascinating, but it disappeared never to be seen again.

  4. blair says:

    In America you’d have to name it “Balls of Steel,” but 100% chance we see it soon.

  5. bl says:

    There is an American version. It’s called Friend or Foe.

  6. Dre says:

    Crazy. I was reading a paper on game theory and that exact episode popped into my head so I watched the clip. This happened YESTERDAY. Weird.

    Love the strategy, and the breakdown of it.

  7. Which hunt? says:

    I’ve seen this before as “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”:

    Two guys are arrested and interrogated separately. If neither talks they both go home, if you talk but the other guy doesn’t you go home he goes to prison, if he talks and you don’t vice versa, and if you both talk it’s off to prison for the both of youse.

  8. Brent says:

    Of course, the prisoner’s dilemna is a little different, in that the “contestants” don’t get to directly communicate with each other at all and have to guess what the other guy is doing and the “game show host” lies to both of them about what the other guy is going to do the whole time.

    And cops use this ploy the world over to get criminals to rat on each other.

  9. Mark Daniel says:

    This show sounds horrible and agonizing to watch.

  10. Jeff says:

    Jeopardy! used to have something like this, where two of the players would brutally beat the third to death and then split his money.

  11. Victor says:

    Joe, you should definitely listen to the Radiolab episode. It was fascinating to hear Ibrahim interviewed (he was apparently tough to track down!).

    Link to the whole show here:

    To just that segment here:

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