Selten studies mathematics at the University of Frankfurt from 1951 to 1957. He takes many extracurricular classes, for example in astronomy and economy. He participates in a student seminar on game theory taught by Ewald Burger, who gives Selten the chance to write a master's thesis in cooperative game theory. Game theory is a mathematical method for analysing strategic interaction. Selten is the first student in Frankfurt to choose mathematical economics as a minor for the master’s degree.

1972 he moves to the University of Bielefeld, being attracted by plans to create a big Institute of Mathematical Economics. However, these plans cannot be realized since the money is not available. Eventually a small institute with only three professors is established. 

After completing his master's degree, Selten is hired by Professor Heinz Sauermann, who employs him for ten years in various assistant positions. He receives his PhD in mathematics in 1961. In 1965 he attends a workshop in Jerusalem where he meets John Harsanyi, starting a collaboration that includes forming a general theory of equilibrium selection in games. Their book was published in 1988.

Selten comes came back to Bielefeld for a year in order to organize a research year on "game theory in the behavioral sciences" at the center for interdisciplinary research. The cooperation resultes in four volumes on "game equilibrium models" published in 1991.

In 1969, Selten joins the Free University of Berlin as professor of economics until 1972. In these years Germany experiences a period of student unrest, which makes teaching difficult.

Selten goes to the University of Bonn in 1984 as a Professor of Economics. There he builds the BonnEconLab, a computerised laboratory for experimental economics research. He is active there until today.

Selten attends high school in the village of Melsungen from 1947 to 1951. During the long walks to school and back, he occupies his mind with problems of geometry and algebra. Also, being a member of an officially despised minority, and being in opposition to the majority's political views, makes him pay close attention to politics. This is one of the reasons why he develops an interest in economics. His first contact with game theory is a popular article in Fortune Magazine.

Reinhard Selten is born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1930. His father is Jewish, so with the rise of the Nazis, Reinhard has to leave high school at the age of 14 and is denied the opportunity to learn a trade. Shortly after, the family leaves Breslau. They were refugees, first in Saxonia, then in Austria and finally in Hessia.

In the academic year of 1967/68, Selten is a visiting full professor at the business school of the University of California, Berkeley. Before leaving, Selten completes his habilitation thesis, which is necessary for a career as a university teacher in Germany. His thesis is about multiproduct pricing. Coming back to Germany in 1968, he is habilitated.

Through a shared interest in the international language Esperanto, Selten meets his wife Elisabeth Langreiner. They marry in 1959.

Reinhard Selten shares the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics with John Harsanyi and John Nash for their pioneering analysis of equilibria in the theory of non-cooperative games. He has refined the Nash equilibrium concept for analyzing dynamic strategic interaction by getting rid of unlikely equilibria. He also applied the refined concept to analyses of oligopolistic competition.