WASHINGTON – For two days, Alice Schelling brought the phone to bed, sure the call would come. Finally, uncertainty crept in and she kept the phone close, but it was in its cradle at THE moment.
The call in the early morning hours Monday made her husband, Thomas Schelling, the University of Maryland’s third Nobel laureate, this time in economics.
The University of Maryland professor with dual appointments in both the School of Public Policy and the Department of Economics, was still asleep.
Professor Schelling had for years been on the Nobel Prize short list for his 1960 book on game theory, “The Strategy of Conflict.”
Game theory is the anticipation of what people will do based on current and past relationships or, as Schelling succinctly said, “It’s the subject of interdependent decisions.”
Some decisions, however, such as the Nobel Prize award, managed to elude him.
“His wonderful reasoning for once was incorrect,” said Alice.
Game theory is so pervasive now that it has found its way into various arenas of life including military war strategy, political campaigning and trade negotiations.
One example of how Schelling has applied game theory came in 1962, when he served as chairman for the Department of Defense’s committee on ballistic missiles.
The nation and the Soviet Union were in the middle of the Cold War and the U.S. needed to determine whether it would be a good idea to build the missiles. He and the committee members had to run through the consequences of what would happen if both countries built them, if only one built them and if neither built them.
Their decision led to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara persuading the Soviets in 1967 that both countries would be better off without them and the eventual signing of an anti-ballistic missile treaty in 1972.
Schelling shares the $1.3 million prize with Robert Aumann, a retired Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor whom he considers to be “the genuine game theorist.”
“I tend to be more a user of game theory,” said Schelling. “I consider myself a social scientist strategist on human behavior.”
This modesty is what Schelling is known for in the Economics Department.
“He’s a very understated guy,” said Department Chairman Peter Morrell. “He didn’t develop fundamental mathematic ability, but developed the fundamental insight into this tool. Many ideas are due to him.”
Others, such as former University of Maryland economics graduate student Matthew Farrelly, see him as a realist.
Schelling was a committee member on his dissertation on government regulation of smoking in 1996. Farrelly recalled how, during his defense, Schelling came up with numerous analogies to explain the results that he obtained.
“He’s grounded in reality,” said Farrelly. “He pulls you back down to the ground if you’ve been lost in the theory and in the numbers,” said Farrelly.
In fact, Schelling does not think that his life will change much from his regular routine.
“I expect more invitations to speak than I would,” he said, adding later on that “the money is not going to change our lifestyle.”
For him, family is the center of his life. He and Alice Schelling, his second wife, between them have six children and nine grandchildren. The couple met 45 years ago, when she was his secretary, but they married just 15 years ago.
Schelling says he starts his day by reading the newspaper for one hour at breakfast. Then he and his wife do the Sudoku puzzles that appear in The Washington Post.
“It’s a lot of fun with two people to do,” he said.
He goes to the gym three times a week for a couple of hours. However, the majority of his time is spent with his wife, either taking hikes, listening to music or reading.
“She’s such a terrific companion,” he said, adding that the two of them are avid mystery novel fans, both of them chiming in to include such authors as Umberto Eco, Michael Connelly and Ellis Peters. For him, Dan Brown’s book, “The DaVinci Code” was “too predictable.” Schelling is also working on republishing a book of his own with Harvard University Press titled “Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays.”