Tullock Lottery Contests with Direct and Covert Discrimination

Tullock Lottery Contests with Direct and Covert Discrimination

These notes summarize concepts introduced in Nti (1999), Fang (2002), Nti (2004), Epstein et al (2013), and Ewerhart (2017a) about revenue maximization in Tullock lottery contests.


Contests are models of conflict where risk neutral players exert costly effort to win a prize. A lottery contest is any contest where there is not a deterministic relationship between effort and victory. For example, scores could be measured incorrectly or there could be some randomness in the relationship between effort and the final scores. Alternatively, you can interpret lottery contests as giving each player a slice of a prize. For example, a 5% probability of receiving the prize is the same as receiving 5% of the prize with certainty.

The most popular lottery contest is the Tullock contest.[1] We discuss ways to increase competitiveness in Tullock contests by discriminating against the stronger player. Handicaps in sporting events are a real world example of such discrimination. The purpose of a handicap is to make a match more even so that both teams/players exert more effort.


Suppose that the prize of contest is worth one to both players. So, the two players have the same value. However, their scores have different costs. In particular, we will say that the score is k>1k > 1 times more costly for Player 2 than for Player 1.[2] You can interpret this as saying that Player 1 is more skilled. So, it takes less effort for her to produce a high score.

The probability of Player 1 winning the prize in a Tullock contest when she chooses score s1s_1 and her opponent chooses score s2s_2 is:

p1(s1,s2)=s1rs1r+(δs2)r.p_1(s_1, s_2) = \frac{s_1^{r}}{s_1^{r} + (\delta s_2)^{r} }.

The parameter δ\delta sets the level (and direction) of direct discrimination. If δ=0\delta = 0$, then Player 1 always wins. If δ=\delta = \infty$, then Player 2 always wins. In general, δ>1\delta > 1 implies discrimination against Player 1. Note that the prize is symmetric when δ=1\delta = 1. In this case, there is no direct discrimination.

The other parameter, rr, is more subtle. It affects the variance of the lottery in the contest. If rr \to \infty, the prize always goes to the player with the higher score.[3] If r=0r = 0, the prize is allocated at random. This precision parameter changes the marginal returns to effort at different levels. For example, if r<1r < 1, then the lower effort player gets a disproportionately high return. While such a contest is fair, in the sense that the two players are not treated differently, it is actually rigged in favor of the weaker player.

The final payoffs are:

U1(s1,s2)=s1rs1r+(δs2)rs1U_1(s_1, s_2) = \frac{s_1^{r}}{s_1^{r} + (\delta s_2)^{r} } - s_1

U2(s1,s2)=(δs2)rs1r+(δs2)rks2U_2(s_1, s_2) = \frac{(\delta s_2)^{r}}{s_1^{r} + (\delta s_2)^{r} } - k s_2


We consider pairs r,δr, \delta such that the following two conditions are satisfied.

  1. No reversal: δk\delta \leq k
  2. Pure strategy equilibrium: (δk)rr1\left( \frac{\delta}{k} \right)^{r} \geq r - 1

The first assumption prevents excessive discrimination against Player 1 and is without loss of optimality. This is made for simplicity. Without it, we would have to consider more cases.

The second assumption is more important. It is a necessary and sufficient condition for there to be an equilibrium in pure strategies. It is always satisfied if r1r \leq 1 and is never satisfied if r>2r > 2. The condition is equivalent to

rrˉ(δ/k)=1W((δ/k)log(δ/k))log(δ/k)r \leq \bar{r}(\delta/k) = 1 - \frac{W \left( - (\delta/k) \log{\left( \delta/k \right)} \right)}{\log{\left( \delta/k \right)}}

where WW is the Lambert W function. The upper bound, rˉ\bar{r} is a strictly increasing function.

plot of r upper bound

It is not obvious, but this condition is also without loss of optimality.


To find the Nash equilibrium, we need to find the best response functions for each of the players. We do this by maximizing each payoff function. Player 1’s first order condition is

rs1r(δs2)rs1(s1r+(δs2)r)2=1\frac{r s_1^{r} (\delta s_2)^{r}}{s_1 \left(s_1^{r}+(\delta s_2)^{r}\right)^2} = 1

and Player 2’s first order condition is

rs1r(δs2)rs2(s1r+(δs2)r)2=k.\frac{r s_1^{r } (\delta s_2)^{r}}{s_2 \left(s_1^{r}+(\delta s_2)^{r}\right)^2} = k.

This is a system of two equations with two unknowns. Dividing the second by the first gives us k=s1s2k = \frac{s_1^{\star}}{s_2^{\star}}. So the ratio of the scores does not depend on the discrimination parameters. Thus, any change that increases one also increases the other. With this, we can quickly solve the system of equations to get s1=r(kδ)r(kr+δr)2s_1^{\star} = \frac{r (k \delta)^{r} }{\left( k^{r}+\delta^{r} \right)^2} and s2=r(kδ)rk(kr+δr)2s_2^{\star} = \frac{r (k \delta)^{r} }{k \left( k^{r}+\delta^{r} \right)^2}.

In order for the first order approach to be valid, we have to check the second order and boundary conditions.

The second order conditions require the second derivative of the payoffs to be negative at the equilibrium. They are satisfied if and only if (kδ)r>r1r+1\left( \frac{k}{\delta} \right)^{r} > \frac{r - 1}{r + 1}. This inequality holds by Assumption 1.

The boundary conditions require that payoffs are non-negative at the proposed equilibrium. Otherwise, the player would prefer to chose a score of zero. Using k=s1s2k = \frac{s_1^{\star}}{s_2^{\star}}, we can dramatically simplify the equilibrium payoffs:

U1(s1,s2)=krkr+δrs1U_1(s_1^{\star}, s_2^{\star}) = \frac{k^{r}}{k^{r} + \delta^{r}} - s_1^{\star}

U2(s1,s2)=δrkr+δrs1.U_2(s_1^{\star}, s_2^{\star}) = \frac{\delta^{r}}{k^{r} + \delta^{r}} - s_1^{\star}.

By Assumption 1, U2(s1,s2)U1(s1,s2)U_2(s_1^{\star}, s_2^{\star}) \leq U_1(s_1^{\star}, s_2^{\star}). So, we only need a condition such that Player 2 has a positive payoff. Substituting s1=r(kδ)r(kr+δr)2s_1^{\star} = \frac{r (k \delta)^{r} }{\left( k^{r}+\delta^{r} \right)^2} gives our lowest payoff

U2(s1,s2)=δrkr+δrr(kδ)r(kr+δr)2.U_2(s_1^{\star}, s_2^{\star}) = \frac{\delta^{r}}{k^{r} + \delta^{r}} - \frac{r (k \delta)^{r} }{\left( k^{r}+\delta^{r} \right)^2}.

It’s not obvious that this is non-negative by Assumption 2. However, it just requires some factoring.

Contest design

Suppose that there is some contest designer who can choose rr and/or δ\delta in order to maximize the revenue, s1+s2s_1 + s_2. Because we know that k=s1s2k = \frac{s_1}{s_2}, we are actually trying to maximize (1+k1)s1(1 + k^{-1}) s_1. Because kk is constant, maximizing s1s_1 is enough.

Direct discrimination

Suppose rr is fixed. For now, assume it is one. To maximize revenue, we need to maximize s1s_1. Suppose that we can directly discriminate using δ\delta. Then, our problem is

maxδkδ(k+δ)2.\max_{\delta} \frac{k \delta}{( k + \delta )^2}.

This maximum is obtained at δ=k\delta^\star = k.

plot of s1 that we maximize for delta

In this case, the revenue is

s1+s2=(1+1k)s1=(1+1k)k2(2k)2=1+k4k\begin{aligned} s_1 + s_2 &= \left( 1 + \frac{1}{k} \right) s_1 \\ &= \left( 1 + \frac{1}{k} \right) \frac{k^2}{( 2 k )^2} \\ &= \frac{1 + k}{4 k} \end{aligned}

If we allow rr to take any positive value, then the optimal delta will still be δ=k\delta^\star = k. This result comes from the optimization problem

maxδr(kδ)r(kr+δr)2\max_{\delta} \frac{r (k \delta)^{r} }{\left( k^{r}+\delta^{r} \right)^2}

which has the following first order condition:

r2(δk)r(krδr)δ(kr+δr)3=0.\frac{r^2 ( \delta k)^{r} ( k^{r} - \delta^{r} )}{ \delta ( k^{r} + \delta^{r} )^3 } = 0.

Covert discrimination

Suppose that the contest designer cannot discriminate directly. So δ=1\delta = 1, and the designer chooses rr in order to maximize the revenue of the contest. Then, our problem is

maxrrkr(1+kr)2.\max_{r} \frac{r k^{r}}{( 1 + k^r )^2}.

If we take first order conditions and solve, we get

r=1log(k)(121+kr)1r = \frac{1}{\log(k)} \left( 1 - \frac{2}{1 + k^{r}} \right)^{-1}

which defines implicit function r(k)r^\star(k). However, these values cannot be attained unless kk is sufficiently large. Recall that there is no pure strategy equilibrium if r>rˉr > \bar{r}. So, there is no way to reach some of these values.

plot of s1 that we maximize for delta

If you set up a Lagrangian as in Proposition 3 of Nti (2004), then you find that the constrained optimum is the minimum of the two pictured curves. No exact representation of the intersection is known. However, it is approximately k=3.509k = 3.509.

Overall optimum

We know that if both forms of discrimination are allowed, then δ=k\delta^\star = k because this is the optimum for any rr. As you can see in the first plot, this means that rˉ=2\bar{r} = 2. We will show that this is also the constrained optimum. Our optimization problem is

maxr2r4\max_{r \leq 2} \frac{r}{4}

which is obviously attained at r=2r = 2. So, the optimal revenue is (1+k1)24=1+k2k(1 + k^{-1}) \frac{2}{4} = \frac{1 + k}{2 k}.

Beyond pure strategies

Assumption 2, which guarantees that equilibria exist in pure strategies is without loss of optimality. So, the solutions in the previous sections hold for all r1r \geq 1.

If payoffs are symmetric, Assumption 2 is violated if and only if r>2r > 2. In this case, Baye et al. (1994) shows that when there is a symmetric mixed strategy equilibrium in which both players receive a payoff of zero.[4] This means that when δ=k\delta = k,

E[s1]=E[s1rs1r+(ks2)r]kE[s2]=E[(ks2)rs1r+(ks2)r]\begin{aligned} E[s_1] &= E \left[ \frac{s_1^{r}}{s_1^{r} + (k s_2)^{r} } \right] \\ k E[s_2] &= E \left[ \frac{(k s_2)^{r}}{s_1^{r} + (k s_2)^{r} } \right] \end{aligned}

Symmetry implies that that each player’s expected probability of winning is one half. Therefore, E[s1]=12E[s_1] = \frac{1}{2}, E[s2]=12kE[s_2] = \frac{1}{2 k}, and E[s1+s2]=1+k2kE[s_1 + s_2] = \frac{1 + k}{2 k}. This is the same maximum revenue as in the overall optimum in pure strategies. It’s not obvious that this is the maximum revenue. For example, one might imagine that the principal could ensure zero payoffs but have Player 1 win with probability greater than one half. In order to confirm that Assumption 2 is without loss of optimality, we need to answer a few questions.

Are equilibria revenue equivalent? Yes. Ewerhart (2017a) shows that the equilibrium is unique when r2r \leq 2 and Ewerhart (2017b) shows that equilibria are revenue and payoff equivalent when r>2r > 2.

Is r(rˉ(δ/k),2]r \in (\bar{r}( \delta / k ), 2] ever optimal No. Wang (2010) shows that revenue is

2δrk(1+k2k)(r1)(r1)/r\frac{2 \delta}{r k} \left( \frac{1 + k}{2 k} \right) (r - 1)^{(r - 1)/r}

on this interval which is weakly decreasing in rr. Therefore, r=rˉ(δ/k)r = \bar{r}( \delta / k ) yields weakly greater revenue.

Is r>2r > 2 ever optimal? No. Alcade and Dahm (2010) show that if r>2r > 2, the Tullock contest is revenue and payoff equivalent to an all-pay auction. Revenue in this auction is (δk)1+k2k\left( \frac{\delta}{k} \right) \frac{1 + k}{2 k}. This is the same revenue as when r=2r = 2.

Is δ<k\delta < k ever optimal? No. Note that the revenue in the last two points is increasing in δ\delta.

revenue for at each r for k = 1.5

The above shows an example of how revenue depends on rr. Note that the maximum is reached before rˉ(δ/k)\bar{r}(\delta / k) when the players are very heterogeneous (orange) and at the upper bound when players are more homogeneous (blue).[5]


This table summarizes the results that we have about each type of optimal contest. There is not much to summarize for covert discrimination because there aren’t any closed form expressions.

$$r,\delta$$ Payoffs Revenue
No discrimination 1, 1 k2(1+k)2,1(1+k)2\frac{k^2}{(1+k)^2}, \frac{1}{(1+k)^2} 1k+1\frac{1}{k+1}
Direct ($$r$ fixed) r,kr,k 2r4,2r4\frac{2-r}{4}, \frac{2-r}{4} 1+k4k\frac{1+k}{4k}
Covert ($$\delta = 1$$) r(k),1r(k),1
Unrestricted 2,k2,k 0, 0 1+k2k\frac{1+k}{2k}

The case of covert discrimination demonstrates an important precision tradeoff. Choosing a large value of rr increases competitiveness by awarding the prize more frequently to the player with the higher score. However, choosing a low value allows you to discriminate against the stronger player – which also increases competitiveness. The effect that wins out depends on the size of the asymmetry between players. When kk is large enough, this discrimination effect wins out. However, when direct discrimination is possible, there is no advantage to covert discrimination.

  1. Tullock contests were introduced 1980 by Gordon Tullock. The other major lottery contest is the rank order contest (Lazear and Rosen 1981). ↩︎

  2. The papers mentioned give different prize values instead of different costs. The two are equivalent. I prefer to say that one player is more skilled than to say that one player values the prize more. ↩︎

  3. In this case, it is not a lottery contest. It converges to the all-pay auction – the main deterministic contest. ↩︎

  4. The symmetric equilibrium is characterized in Ewerhart (2015). ↩︎

  5. More figures like the above can be found in Chowdhury et al. (2020). ↩︎