zero-sum game

This page is about the idiom zero-sum game

American English


A zero-sum game is a situation in which any gain by one side or person is at the expense of a loss to another side or person involved in the situation.

For example

  • The stock market has become a giant zero-sum game in which one investor gains what another investor loses.

  • In a zero-sun game, if you add the total gains of the participants and the total losses of the participants, the sum will always be zero.

Origin: From game theory, a branch of applied mathematics that is used in the social sciences, especially economics.


This idiom is typically used in American English but may be used in other varieties of English too.

Quick Quiz

In a zero-sum game, any gains made by one player will

a. be greater than their losses

b. increase the sum in the game

c. equal the losses of another

Idiom of the Day

Contributor: Matt Errey