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The key moment for understanding the deeper intentions of Crazy Rich Asians comes during one of the final scenes, when Rachel and Eleanor sit down at a table to play Mahjong.
With 13 tiles propped in front of her, Rachel picks up a 14th tile…and pauses. She stares at it, caresses it, contemplates her decision to either keep it or give it away. Keeping it means she’s fighting for the man she loves; giving it away means she’s willing to let him go.
This tile isn’t just the key to winning this game of Mahjong—it will change her life and the lives of everyone around her.
At this point in the movie, Rachel has gone through hell with Nick’s family, has refused Nick’s proposal, has decided to head back to the United States and leave the Young family behind forever after a disastrous trip.
As they play, Rachel asks why she was never good enough for Nick, why she didn’t belong in Eleanor’s family; Eleanor explains that Rachel is “American”, that she’s “not what Nick needs” as Nick takes over the family empire in China.
And then she picks up that tile.
Why does Rachel then hand the tile off to Eleanor, allowing Eleanor to win? Well, that depends on how you define “winning”—and it also depends on which game you’re playing. The answer to that question traces all the way back to one of the opening scenes. And we can better understand Rachel’s intent by discussing a concept you use in your life every day, whether you realize it or not—something called game theory.
What is game theory?
Game theory is, at its core, pretty much exactly what it sounds like: Strategizing your way to victory during a game. The game could be tennis, chess, checkers, Jenga (ahem, Mahjong…).
Game theory could also describe the battle between a kicker and a goalie in soccer1. There are two players, and two different different decisions the two players could make. The kicker can kick to the left or right side of the goal, and the goalie can move to block either the left or right side of the goal. There’s essentially a 50/50 shot for the goalie to choose correctly. So what is the right choice?
Here’s the thing: It’s not really a split-second, 50/50 decision, is it? There are so many factors and strategies at play leading up to that penalty kick.
How about another game…how about poker—the game Rachel is playing with her student during her introduction in Crazy Rich Asians.
And what particular subject is Rachel covering in today’s Economics class? GAME THEORY.
Rachel sits across the poker table from her opponent, Curtis, in a dark classroom. Curtis’s hand ain’t too bad: a two pair of nines and kings. He looks down at his hand, then back at Rachel, his eyes peering between his sunglasses and curly hair.
Then, Rachel makes her move as she goes all in and pushers her giant stack of chips into the center of the table.
Perplexed, uneasy, frustrated, Curtis folds.
And then Rachel reveals what she has: nuthin’.
When describing how she beat her opponent in poker, Rachel tells the class:
“Well, I know for a fact that Curtis is cheap. So he’s not playing using logic or math, but using his psychology. Our brains so hate the idea of losing something valuable to us that we abandon all rational thought and make some really poor decisions. So Curtis wasn’t playing to win—he was playing not to lose.”
That, right there, is game theory. If you’re a soccer goalie, it’s not about jumping right or left to block a shot—it’s about understanding your opponent and then employing a logic-based strategy to achieve the best result.
Let’s use an example that may hit a little closer to home: Say you and your brother are playing Rock Paper Scissors, best-two-out-of-three, and for your brother’s entire life he always for some reason throws out rock on the first throw—you will, of course, want to then start with paper. By winning that first throw, you’ve put yourself in pretty good position for the next two throws, right? You now have a 75% chance of winning.
But there’s something else to consider: Your brother might actually anticipate that you know he always throws rock first, which means your brother might throw scissors to cut your paper. Then you’re in a hole, and now you have to win the next two rounds to beat him.
So how do you choose? This requires thinking that goes beyond the basic components of the game: Is your brother this strategic in other games? Is he as observant of you as you are of him? Does he have some sort of physical tic that lets you know if he’ll throw either rock or paper or scissors? Has he been reading about game theory lately so has a whole new strategy?
Rachel doesn’t win because she had a royal flush, but because Curtis ended up folding. The key was that she psychologically understood Curtis. She knew she could bluff her way to victory not because she knew what cards Curtis had drawn, but because she knew Curtis was cheap, because Curtis would hesitate, because Curtis was “playing not to lose.”
Ironic, because that’s exactly how Rachel screwed up meeting Nick’s family. She presented herself to Eleanor all wrong, failing to transfer the game theory she taught in class to everyday life.
Game theory in everyday life
Maybe this all seems really obvious to you: of course you have to strategize during games. But we’re limiting the power of game theory if we think of it as just applicable to “games.” Remember: game theory is a class Rachel teaches at NYU. It’s been written about extensively in academic journals. Game theory is something studied and evaluated by the top athletes, economists, and psychologists in the world.
If you want a more revealing definition of game theory, take this one from Investopedia:
“A model of making decisions that weigh the benefits of choice along with the interaction in between participants. It looks at relationships and tries to predict the optimal decisions people will make.”
So game theory truly does extend beyond simple games like Rock Paper Scissors and complex games like chess—game theory can be used as we move through life, as we interact with others, as we position ourselves to have the upper hand in any given situation. It’s not necessarily about winning or losing, but about achieving the most beneficial, fulfilling results in our daily lives.
We can show this through a common example used to explain game theory: The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Here’s a chart we can use as an guide:
Player 1 and Player 2 are two people who have been brought by the police in for questioning regarding a crime they committed. An officer takes each player into a separate room, and tells them each, “If you confess and agree to testify against the other player, and the other player does not confess, then I will let you go. If you both confess, then I will send you both to prison for 2 years. If you do not confess and the other player does, then you will be convicted and I will seek the maximum prison sentence of 3 years. If nobody confesses, then I will charge you with a lighter crime for which we have enough evidence to convict you and you will each go to prison for 1 year.”
So there are four different results that could play out:
- Player 1 confesses, Player 2 does not
- Player 2 confesses, Player 1 does not
- Both players confess
- Both players refuse to confess
Seemingly, the answer is pretty simple: Refusing to confess nets you zero years in prison. But then you add in another factor: What if the other player refuses to confess and plans to testify against you as well? In the short term you’ll get zero years, but then you’ve got a legal headache on your hands.
To avoid that scenario, you could confess, but then the amount of time you spend in prison is, again, dependent on what the other player chooses to do. And because you’re in separate rooms, your decision must be based on how well you know the other player.
You can extend these examples to much bigger ordeals in your life, from The Prisoner’s Dilemma to…quitting your job. Say you work a normal 9-to-5 job, but then you get an opportunity to invest in a start-up—you’ll obviously weigh the benefits of each scenario:
- At your current job, you’re earning $60,000 a year with benefits, there’s a chance for a promotion in 6 months, and you hate your boss.
- At the start-up, you’ll only make money if the company does well, you’ll be vice president, and your best friend is president.
There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to both, and your decision must be framed in the long-term. What is better for your career? Your bank account? Your well-being? Your family’s well-being? Are you putting others in danger by pursuing your dream at this start-up? Will remaining at the factory make you unhappy, but your family happy?
With alllll of this in mind, let’s look back to the moment Rachel holds that ceramic tile: Game theory can be used to better our relationships, to win the game of love, to set ourselves up for true happiness and fulfillment. So while Eleanor is playing Mahjong, Rachel ends up playing Eleanor.
Game theory in the Mahjong scene
Before Rachel and Nick hop on a plane, Rachel has no idea that the Young family is one of the richest families in Singapore. After she learns about this? Her demeanor changes. She’s anxious. She loves Nick, but if she were to marry him, she’d be part of a completely new environment. Raised by a single mother, Rachel knows a modest life—while Nick knows an extravagant one.
This tension makes Rachel very nervous about meeting Nick’s mother, Eleanor. And thus, game theory begins: How do you best present yourself to the matriarch of a billion-dollar empire? How do you show you’re right for her son? What will be your role in this family?
Rachel’s move is to describe her strengths: She’s the youngest faculty member of New York University; her mother is a self-made woman; she’s passionate about her career.
And all Eleanor can respond with?
If Rachel had known more about Eleanor, she would have known that Eleanor treasures a woman committed to building the family name. So pursuing your career? As opposed to supporting your husband’s successful empire? Nuh-uh. Eleanor even says later in the movie:
“It’s nice that you appreciate this house, and us being here together wrapping dumplings. But all this doesn’t just happen. It’s because we know to put family first, instead of chasing one’s passion.”
From here on out, no matter how hard Rachel tries to prove herself and her love for Nick, nothing is good enough for Eleanor. Rachel is too poor, too American, too ambitious. What Rachel doesn’t understand is that in Eleanor’s mind, Rachel actively wants to steal Nick away from her. And, as Nick explains, Eleanor is only this way because of the way Nick’s grandmother, Ah Ma, treated Eleanor.
“There is a reason I lived with Ah Ma growing up. It’s because my mom knew she wasn’t the favorite, so she let Ah Ma raise me so I would be…It’s hard to understand what she did from the outside, but she did what she thought was best for the family, for everyone involved.”
With this in mind, it becomes clear that Rachel has been employing the wrong strategy. Eleanor doesn’t respect pursuing one’s passion, but instead someone who will put their loved ones ahead of themselves, even at the most crucial of junctures.
And that’s why Rachel switches up her strategy and invites Eleanor to that game of Mahjong. Let’s look back on that conversation now with everything we know about game theory:
Rachel: “My mom taught me how to play. She told me Mahjong would teach me important life skills: negotiation, strategy, cooperation.”
Eleanor: “My mother taught me too.”
Here we have two women who were taught to play Mahjong by two different mothers with very different mindsets. One taught Rachel to be ambitious, to be passionate, to build her own legacy; the other taught Eleanor to support her husband, to build the family name.
Rachel once believed that Eleanor didn’t like her because she wasn’t rich, but now she understands that Eleanor is terrified of losing her son, who has already spent his 20s living in America, not carrying on the family name. And because Eleanor sees Rachel as “American,” Rachel has become a threat to the Young Empire. Eleanor has already lost her son once to Ah Ma, and doesn’t plan on losing him again.
And that’s when Rachel picks up the Mahjong piece that will allow Eleanor to win the game. And Rachel knows it! She’s a game theorist, after all, which means she’s been studying Eleanor’s every move.
But Rachel’s not just a theorist for little games like Mahjong—she’s extending her skills to life. Because while giving up that tile loses her the game, it gains Eleanor’s respect, let’s Eleanor know that Rachel cares more about Nick being part of his family than taking Nick back to America.
“If Nick chose me, he’d lose his family,” Rachel says after revealing she turned down Nick’s marriage proposal. “And if he chose his family, he might spend the rest of his life resenting you.”
“So you chose for him?” Eleanor responds.
“I’m not leaving because I’m scared,” says Rachel, “or because I think I’m not enough. Because maybe for the first time in my life, I know i am. I just love Nick so much. I don’t want him to lose his mom again.”
This is not just a selfless decision for Nick—it’s for Eleanor and Nick’s entire family. Rachel might be an ambitious American who’s passionate about her career…but that doesn’t mean she won’t put family first. So while giving away that tile meant losing at Mahjong, it also meant winning Eleanor’s approval—which means Rachel won the game.
- “Brief Introduction to the Basics of Game Theory” by Matthew O. Jackson