Part One: Least Unique-Bid Auctions

In recent years a new auction method became widely used on the internet. This method is called Least Unique-Bid Auction, and it goes as follows. An object is offered for sale, say an iPhone or a car. The bids are made in cents. Each participant can make as many bids as he or she wishes, paying 50 cents for each bid. So if I bid on the numbers 1, 2, 5 and 12 (all in units of cents), I pay 2 dollars for the participation. Once the time runs out and all bidders placed their bids, one counts the number of bidders who bid on each number. The winning bid is the minimal number that was bid by a single bidder. This bidder is the winner, and he pays his bid (in cents). So, if Anne bid on the numbers {1,2,3,6,12}, Bill bid on the numbers {1,2,3,4,5,6,7}, and Catherine bid on the numbers {3,4,5,7,13, 14,15,16}, then the number 12 wins, and Anne gets the object. The auctioneer gets 2.5 dollars from Anne for her 5 bids plus 12 cents which is her winning bid, he gets 3.5 dollars from Bill, and 4 dollars from Catherine.

In practice the auction is dynamic and not static; for each bid that you place, you know at each time period whether (a) it is currently the winner (no one else bid the same number, and there is no lower number that was bid by a single bidder), (b) it is a potential winner (no one else bid the same number, but there is at least one lower number that was bid by a single bidder), or (c) not a potential winner (somebody else also bid on that number).
One must admit that this type of auction is ingenious. The selling price is extremely low, usually less than 2% of the object’s market value, so people are drawn to participate. The names of the winners are listed on the site; there are recurring names. So people realize that there are strategies that profit. One can actually think of such strategies: for example, randomly choose numbers, and when you find a potential winner bid on all numbers below it, trying to kill all lower potential winning numbers. So why not participate and make money?
Bottom line: the auctioneer makes a lot of money.

Part Two: LUBA and the court

A couple of months ago a lawyer called me. He wants to sue a company that operates a certain type of LUBA in Israel on a class action, on the ground that this is a lottery, a gambling game, and not an ability game. By law, in Israel only the state can run lotteries. He asked me to provide an expert opinion that LUBA is a lottery. I apologized. I cannot do that. I believe that strategic bidders can make money in LUBA, and therefore, just as black-jack, LUBA is not a lottery. In fact, I write a paper with Marco Scarsini and Nicolas Vieille arguing that LUBA is not a lottery. Having said that, I believe that LUBA is worse that a lottery: in a lottery, all participants have the same probability of winning. This is not the case with LUBA: the presence of strategic bidders essentially kills the chance of non-strategic bidders, or partially strategic bidders, to win the auction.

Part Three: Moral

So LUBA may not be illegal, but it seems that there is something wrong with it. I discussed this issue with Zvika Neeman yesterday. Just like a pyramid scheme or day trading by non professionals, LUBA is a method to get money out of people who may not realize the strategic complexity of the situation that they face.

Part Four: Complexity Fraud

Merriam-Webster defines fraud as:

“a : Intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right. b : An act of deceiving or misrepresenting.” defines it as:
“Deceit, trickery, sharp practice, or breach of confidence, perpetrated for profit or to gain some unfair or dishonest advantage.”

There are many types of fraud. I argue that there should be one additional type: complexity fraud. Sometimes people are asked to participate in complex interactions, paying some amount for participation in the hope of getting a reward at the end. The rules are all set in advance, so nobody can later argue that he or she did not know the rules. But most people are not well versed in game theory, and we have all bounded computational capacity. Therefore, when the interaction is complex, people cannot analyze it and rationally decide whether they want to participate or not. People tend to be optimistic, they over-estimate their ability and smartness. If the strategic analysis of the method was explained to them, and if they were faced by statistics, they would turn away from the method. If this is the case, then hiding the strategic analysis and the complexity of the situation is, in my view, as deceptive as any other fraud.

I am not a lawyer, and I do not know what the court will think of my arguments. I hope that congressmen and parliament members worldwide will look into them, and change the law accordingly.