‘Follow the Follower’: a Lesson in Strategy from Sailboat Racing

Picture of a boat sailing.

 

Sailboat racing offers the chance to observe an interesting reversal of a “follow the leader” strategy… The leader imitates the follower even when the follower is clearly pursuing a poor strategy. Why? Because in sailboat racing (unlike ballroom dancing) close doesn’t count; only winning matters. If you have the lead, the surest way to stay ahead is to play monkey see, monkey do.

The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life

 

America’s Cup is a prestigious sailboat race, and one of the world’s oldest international sports competitions. In 1983, the American boat Liberty was leading 3-1 against the Australian Australia II, in a best-of-seven competition. Since they needed only one more victory in order to win the cup, it appeared that Liberty was ready to extend the US’s 131 years long winning streak.

Right at the start of the race, Liberty took the lead when Australia II was penalized for crossing the starting line early. The Australian skipper then attempted to catch up by sailing to the left side of the course, in hopes of catching good winds. The American skipper decided to keep his ship on the right side of the course, believing that it would have more favorable winds.

Soon after this, the wind shifted in favor of the left side of the course, leading Australia II to win the race. Following this victory, Australia II went on to win two more consecutive wins, thus winning the cup and breaking the long-standing American winning streak.

 

What should have happened

In this situation, the speed of each ship depended on the wind, and each ship’s skipper can only make an educated guess regarding which course is the best to take.

Since the Liberty was already in the lead, if it had simply imitated the strategy of the runner-up, Australia II, it would have sailed at the same rate as her, thus maintaining the initial advantage, and winning the race. Regardless of how sureLiberty‘s skipper was that his course was the better one, the smarter strategy in this case would have been to imitate his runner-up.

 

Recognizing when the strategy is applicable

“Follow the follower” is by no means a strategy that always works. In the above scenario, there are only two ‘players’, and the only thing that matters in the race is whether you win or lose. However, if these conditions were different, the strategy may have been ineffective. For example, if the race had more than two ships, and changing course was not an immediate action, so that the leading ship couldn’t always adjust to match the runner-up, then the strategy wouldn’t necessarily work. This is because each follower can take a difference course, while the leader can only commit to one of those courses.

In addition, the original scenario discussed here is a relatively clean and simple view of reality. There could have been other considerations that affected the American skipper’s decision:

  • Maybe it’s considered more prestigious to win the race by a bigger gap, and imitating the loser’s strategy can be construed as a lack of confidence.
  • Perhaps there is a high cost or risk in changing course, which could have caused the ship to lose its advantage.
  • We also don’t know how confident the American skipper was in his choice of course; it’s possible that his calculation showed a very high probability that his original course was significantly better.

While these reasons don’t negate the fact that imitating the runner up was the correct choice from a purely strategic perspective, they offer some possible explanations as to why the American skipper made the choice to maintain his course. If, for example, the benefits (in terms of prestige) that come from winning the race by a large gap were significant enough to be worth a small chance of losing, then his choice may have been smart after all. Of course, it’s also entirely possible that the choice of strategy was driven by ego, and not from careful calculation.

This illustrates an important lesson regarding the applications of game theory in real life: reality is messy. There is a reason why simplified models are preferred in game theory; the more factors you add in, the more complicated the game becomes.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • In certain cases, the best strategy for the leader is to imitate his runner-up.
  • By doing the exact same thing as his follower, the leader can win a ‘race’ by maintaining his original lead. This is true even in cases where the follower select a non-optimal course.
  • Be selective in using this strategy, as it’s only applicable in certain cases. For example, it may not be relevant when there are more than two ‘players’.
  • Once you are familiar with the strategy, the important thing is learning to recognize situations where you can implement it.
  • Ego may lead people to avoid using this strategy. Make sure to overcome this issue in yourself, and to take advantage of other people’s failure to do the same.

 

The sailboat example and the rationale behind the strategy come from “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life”. It’s a good read for someone looking to understand basic game theory and how it applies to real-life situations.

I recommend it over the earlier version of the book (“Thinking Strategically”), because that’s what the authors themselves recommend. However, the difference between the two versions isn’t too crucial.