MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I am looking for the best book that contains a mathematically rigorous introduction to game theory. I am a group theorist who has taken a recent interest in game theory, but I'm not sure of the best place to learn about game theory from first principles. Any suggestions? Thanks!

share|cite|improve this question
Are you interested in combinatorial game theory, non-cooperative game theory (Nash equilibria and the like), or any other particular part of the field? It's big, and the various parts of it are connected more by application than by mathematical content. – Daniel Litt Aug 2 '11 at 2:51
Community wiki? – Timothy Chow Aug 2 '11 at 3:59
I've changed this question to community wiki mode, since it seems to be seeking a sorted list of responses. – S. Carnahan Aug 2 '11 at 16:23
up vote 8 down vote accepted

As I note in my comment to the OP, game theory is a big field with several essentially disconnected areas, and one can't really hope for a comprehensive introduction from a single text. I'll recommend two, but this still shouldn't be thought of as a complete introduction.

I learned what I know of non-cooperative game theory from "Game Theory" by Fudenberg and Tirole. The book is well-written if terse, and covers a wide range of topics with a great deal of rigor. I would caution you that the book is written more as a reference than a gentle introduction, but it is certainly self-contained and I was able to read the book with no previous knowledge of the theory. It is a bit dry, however.

As for combinatorial game theory, I'd recommend Berlekamp, Conway, and Guy's "Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays," depending on your temperament. The book's style is pretty tongue-in-cheek, and some of the mathematics is non-rigorous (though the details are easy to fill in). But it's an absolutely beautiful book.

share|cite|improve this answer
Winning Ways is by Berlekamp, Conway and Guy, not just by Conway. On Numbers and Games is by Conway alone; it is mathematically rigorous, and probably a better choice if Winning Ways seems too informal. – Timothy Chow Aug 2 '11 at 3:55
@Timothy: Thanks, I've corrected the authors. Though I haven't read "On Numbers and Games" I've heard it's good. – Daniel Litt Aug 2 '11 at 3:59
"tongue-in-cheek"? Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.08.02 – Gerhard Paseman Aug 2 '11 at 18:23
@Gerhard: Yup, thanks! Must have been a little sleepy. – Daniel Litt Aug 2 '11 at 19:04
I would disagree with the assertion that Fudenberg and Tirole has "a great deal of rigor". – Michael Greinecker Nov 5 '13 at 15:30

An excellent, rigorous introduction is provided by A Course in Game Theory by Martin Osborne and Ariel Rubinstein. They are very careful in setting up all conceptual machinnery. The book also contains some cooperative game theory at the end. The book can be downloaded freely and legally here.

A book that is useful for someone having already someo basic knowledge about game theory and what it is useful for, is Foundations of Non-Cooperative Game Theory by Klaus Ritzberger. The book is very conceptual and contains a lot of material that is usually not available in textbooks, such as normal form information sets, index theory of Nash components, and the structure theorem of Kohlberg-Mertens. The book is however somewhat short on motivation and is structured along conceptual lines, not pedagogy.

share|cite|improve this answer

Daniel Litt's suggestion of Fudenberg and Tirole is a good one. Another standard text that takes a mathematically rigorous approach is Game Theory: Analysis of Conflict by Roger Myerson.

share|cite|improve this answer

For a rigorous introduction to combinatorial game theory, there are two other good references. (1) AN INTRODUCTION TO CONWAY’S GAMES AND NUMBERS by DIERK SCHLEICHER AND MICHAEL STOLL which is succinct and might be the best choice given your background. (2) The book `Lessons in Play' by Albert, Nowakowski, Wolfe, is an introduction for undergraduate math majors.

share|cite|improve this answer

Game Theory: Mathematical Models of Conflict (Mathematics and Its Applications) [Hardcover] A.J. Jones

share|cite|improve this answer

Game Theory by Guillermo Owen.

share|cite|improve this answer

This is probably not modern enough for you, but I'd suggest von Neumann and Morgenstern's Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. I'd be hard pressed to find anyone more rigorous than von Neumann. Plus, the text is available online.

share|cite|improve this answer
A great deal has happened in game theory after this book, so it is not a good place to start. – Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya Mar 26 '14 at 2:43
Indeed, I'd probably go for a more modern approach. – Jon Bannon Mar 26 '14 at 11:50

An Introductory Course on Mathematical Game Theory by González-Díaz, García-Jurado and Fiestras-Janeiro

Reviews can be found here: 1, 2, 3.

Taken from the second review:

The book is self-contained and written very rigorously, but on the other hand, it is also very friendly to the reader, containing a lot of explanations and interpretations of game theory notions, as well as very many examples describing and analyzing various economic and other models with an application to game theory results. This makes it very suitable for graduate and advanced undergraduate courses on game theory.

share|cite|improve this answer

I would look for introductions to combinatorial game theory by Elwyn Berlekamp alone. Not that the mathematics is any different from other treatments, but it probably stands clearer of the "recreational" background. I'm assuming here that you want to get past the notation for partisan games, Nim as reduction and so on, to issues to do with temperature and/or what you can do with the game tree. (As a go player I do have a bias, since Elwyn is interested in go while John Conway basically isn't beyond stealing the disjunctive game concept; but that's not why I'm commenting in this fashion.)

share|cite|improve this answer
Do you really think that Berlekamp "stands clear of the recreational background"? Berlekamp has written on Dots and Boxes, and on Go, which are both recreational. I can't think of any book by Berlekamp on combinatorial game theory that is not recreationally oriented. – Timothy Chow Aug 2 '11 at 15:04
He has written introductory papers that aren't books, though. – Charles Matthews Aug 2 '11 at 16:48

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.