Skip links

The Big Bad Blackmail

The Big Bad Blackmail


Blackmail in game theory is about confidence and having the balls to say, ‘either I get more than you or we don’t have a deal’. Whichever side of the game you are on, know your opponent before you negotiate.

The Big Bad Blackmail

Blackmail is an ugly word. It conjures up all kinds of nasty images when it comes to ways of playing. It says ‘I’ve got this on you now pay up or I’ll spill the beans’. But blackmail tactics in the game are more subtle than that, and they often work. So, what does blackmail mean when it’s part of the game?

How it’s done

Imagine there’s an opportunity for you and someone else to gain something from a situation. You are both in the game together and the other person involved wants a fair outcome where you each get an equal share. It’s a good solution, you both walk away with something, you should be happy. But for some people this will never be enough. Some people will always want more. Whether that’s you or not, it’s important to understand how this works so you know how to play the game. Do you both walk away with an equal share or will one of you win more? When one person wants more than the other they’ll use the game to get it. When we talk about blackmail in this situation it’s a simple case of ‘give me more or we both have nothing’. If you think about world leaders negotiating deals, about territory or trade, they often reach a stalemate and have to walk away with nothing because they haven’t agreed. This is because one party wants more than their fair share and they’d rather both parties have nothing than they have to compromise. If you’re that type of person you can use blackmail to get what you want, but you must be equally prepared to have nothing at the end of the negotiation if your play doesn’t work.

Your opponent

Understanding your opponent is the key to making this work. But this can be difficult. The blackmailer is taking a huge risk, but must appear as if this is no risk to them at all. When the blackmailer says ‘I want 90% of this land and you can have 10%’ their opponent is either going to be so glad to get anything at all they say yes, or they are going to stick two fingers up to the deal and both are at a stalemate. It’s the ultimate confidence play. The blackmailer is so sure they’ll win, they often do. But not always. This is seen at all levels of life. If you play this game in your home life you’ll most likely be seen as a selfish pig, but play this game at international levels and you’ll be seen as a successful business man or politician. The answer is, learn how to read people and situations and know your opponent before you play. Whether you are the blackmailer or the blackmailed, coming out of this game with a fair hand is down to understanding the rules the other person will play by. Is your opponent rational and fair or irrational and a risk taker?