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The Hunger Game: play for your dinner at the Betrayer’s Banquet

Posted at 12:00 pm, December 18, 2013 in Food & Drink
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Would you sell someone out for a square meal? A new monthly pop-up restaurant event in east London is inviting diners to do just that. The less-than-cunning Jonny Ensall has a crack at competing for his eating

I’m staring hard at the stranger across the table, looking for a sign in her eyes. Between us there are several half-finished glasses of red wine, a few candles and a palpable tension. Throw on a Barry White record and things could get very freaky indeed. Instead, there’s a severe-looking monk with a bloody great big staff ordering us to face off against each other. ‘You must choose!’ he booms. ‘The goblet of grace, or the dagger of betrayal!’

The game we’re playing is Betrayer’s Banquet – a new monthly secret dining experience that is half old-world mystique (hence the monks and a general sense that we’re at an Arthurian orgy), and half Cold War-era game theory. It’s an unlikely match, but one that makes for the kind of dinner party frisson the producers of ‘Come Dine With Me’ could only dream of.

The stakes are high: we’re playing for food.

Those at the top are devouring rich steaks, tender salmon parcels and buttery fruit crumbles. Move down the table, however, and the menu starts to get worse. By the middle you’re on cabbage, meatballs and dry cake. At the bottom, it’s spam, bread and butter, and chicken foot soup.

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There’s only one way I can move up this pecking order, and that’s to play a trust game with the person opposite me. If we show each other the goblet (a small symbol etched on a wooden coin) we’ll both be bumped up the table five places. If my partner is cunning, and shows me the dagger symbol instead, she moves up ten spots, while I move down ten. If we’re both shitty enough to betray each other, we both move down five.

The Machiavelli behind this gourmet gambling is Ed Saperia, a Cambridge maths graduate who gave up a career as an investment banker to design games. ‘I believe that games are the ultimate form of engagement in any artform,’ he says, with arch seriousness. In this case, the game is an important one (and not just because a good pudding is on the line). It’s basically a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a famous logic puzzle that helps mathematicians analyse human behaviour. A similar model was used to make predictions during the Cold War, with strategists assuming that the only thing humans could be trusted to do was act in their own interest.

It’s an idea that’s stuck around, and now influences more than just parlour games. In fact, the Betrayer’s Banquet has some fairly obvious real world resonances, as Saperia explains: ‘Nearer the top, more people tend to co-operate, and lower down, more people tend to betray, which makes sense. A lot of people don’t realise that co-operating isn’t going to get you anywhere; it keeps you in the same place. If you want to get ahead, you’ve really got to betray people.’

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So what about my fortunes? I’ve chosen to show my partner the goblet. Will she reciprocate? Can’t we all just get along?

Of course not. I’m shown the dagger and have to sink down the table to join the other plebs chewing on fowl extremities. ‘I’m sorry,’ my Judas coos at me, rising to join the delicious end of the feast. The Barry White won’t be necessary after all. I always knew that one way or another, tonight I was going to get screwed.

The next Betrayer’s Banquet is on Dec 21, get tickets here.

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