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Combinatorial Game Theory: Surreal Numbers and the Void

Chess, by Andrew Phillips (small)

[A pdf version is available here; LaTeX here]

Any number can be written as a tuple of games played by the void with itself.

Denote the void by the empty set ∅. We write: {∅|∅} = 0, with | as partition. ‘Tuple’ signifies ordering matters, so that {0|∅} = 1 and {∅|0} = −1. Then recursively construct the integers: {n|∅} = n + 1. Plug {∅|∅} into {0|∅} to get {{∅|∅}|∅} = 1, then this into {1|∅} to get {{{|}|∅}|∅} = 2…

So if games exist, numbers exist. Or rather: if games exist, numbers don’t have to.

Mixed orderings generate fractions, e.g. {0|1} = {{∅|∅}|{{∅|∅}|∅}} = ½. Games with infinity (written ω) or infinitesimals (ε = 1/ω) permit irrationals, and thus all reals. Further, it is valid to define {ω|∅} = ω + 1, etc. Once arithmetic operations are defined, more complex games can define and use such quantities as ∛ω and ωω.

Therefore: by defining numbers as games, we can construct the surreal numbers.(1)

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As well as defining numbers as games, we can treat games like numbers.

{∅|∅} can be played as the zero game. Simply: player 1 cannot move, and loses. Any game where player 2 has a winning strategy is equivalent to the zero game. Take two games G and H, with G a 2nd player win. The player with a winning strategy in H can treat the games separately, only moving in G to respond to the opponent. Player 2 wins G, but does not affect H’s outcome. Conversely, given G′ and H′, with G′ a 1st player win, player 1 is last to move in G′, giving player 2 an extra move in H′, potentially altering its outcome. In terms of outcomes, we say G + H = 0 + H → G = 0.

For a game G, −G is G with the roles reversed, as by turning the board around in chess.

G = H if G + (−H) = 0, i.e. is a player 2 win, and so is equivalent to the zero game.

Two more properties are clear: G + (H + K) = (G + H) + K (associativity) and G + H = H + G (commutativity).

We can see that G + (−G) = 0 by a clever example called the Tweedledum & Tweedledee argument. In the game Blue-Red Hackenbush, players are given a drawing composed of separate edges. Each turn, player 1 removes a blue edge, plus any other edges no longer connected to the ground, and player 2 does likewise for red edges. Since in G + (−G) the number of pieces is the same, player 2 can just copy the moves of player 1 until all pieces are taken. Player 1 will not be able to move, and so will lose. Hence player 2 has a winning strategy.

tweedledum and tweedledee

Thus games are a proper mathematical object—namely, an Abelian group.(10)

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A new notation links all this to surreal numbers. For any set of games GL and GR, there exists a game G = {GL|GR}. Intuitively, the Left player moves in any game in GL, and likewise for Right in GR. The zero game {∅|∅} = 0 is valid, and we may construct the surreals as before. Now we can write the surreals more easily with sets: {1, 2, … , n|} = n + 1.

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