John von Neumann is walking through the graduate common room one afternoon in spring 1949 when he notices two students leaning over a piece of cardboard covered with hexagons, putting black and white stones down on the board. When he later asks Tucker what the students were playing, Tucker responds, “Nash.” This is a game that Nash—a fan of board games and a highly competitive player—invented, based on the German game Kriegpiel and the Chinese game go. David Gale, another graduate student, helped to design the game board, and the two developed the game together, a zero-sum two-person game in which each player (playing with either black or white stones) attempts to construct a chain of their own stones. “Nash,” or “John,” beomes incredibly popular with the math graduate students.
Nash first becomes interested in game theory—his specialty as a mathematician—by developing a popular game with another graduate student. Nash’s interest in the communal decisions involved in games is unusual, given his fierce individualism and sense of self-importance (as evidenced by his naming the board game after himself). Nonetheless, Nash becomes interested in dynamics of cooperation and strategy among individuals competing in group games—ideas that will lead him to find success as an early career mathematician.