Many a hero has felt this sentiment.
You've got to know when to hold 'em An Aesop
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
When you're sittin' at the table
There'll be time enough for countin'
When the dealing's done
having to do with how You Can't Fight Fate
. Knowing when to just let go is a useful skill
. Good luck trying to tell that to the Determinator
. The Fatalist
, on the other hand, is quite aware of this wisdom.
The Trope Namer
is the Kenny Rogers song "The Gambler," which uses poker as a metaphor for life.
, if presented as a flaw, will rarely if ever know when to back down, even when it would be beneficial. Compare You Were Trying Too Hard
, which is about situations where folding somehow causes you to win the pot.
See also Screw This, I'm Outta Here!
; Villain Exit Stage Left
; Opt Out
; I Surrender, Suckers
; Graceful Loser
; I Will Fight No More Forever
; Run or Die
; Switch Out Move
. List as #36 (and probably the first made) of The Thirty-Six Stratagems
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- God gives the eponymous character an epic put down in the last issue of the Lucifer series, using the tale of Buddha and the Monkey King to illustrate the foolishness of fighting someone that you could never conceivably defeat. Lucifer counters that he lost with pride at least, the validity of which is up to the readers to decide.
- All-Star Superman: This is Superman's answer to the riddle of the Ultra-Sphinx.
Ultra-Sphinx: Question: What happens when the Unstoppable Force meets the Immovable Object?
Superman: Ha. How about this? They surrender.
- Both Romans and Pirates in the Astérix comics give up fighting at some point. The pirates are infamous for sinking their own ship once they realise there are Gauls on the other vessel and they can't run away fast enough.
- At least twice Marvel Comics has used the schtick that an alien force is intent on invading Earth only for one person doing the research to realize they are trying to invade a planet that has defended itself successfully, multiple times, against other invading aliens, multiple galactic empires (at the same time), cosmic entities no one else in the universe has ever managed to even slow down, and is home to entities capable of eating stars, assorted deities, and a Watcher who thinks the planet rocks so much he's actually done stuff instead of merely observing. One time the fleet commander listens and does a u-turn. Another, not so much. The invasion is defeated by three X-Men (one of them drunk).
- Made literal in the latter case when one group of the invaders backs off when faced with a lethal bet in a card game against Wolverine.
- The Dragon from the third Blue Beetle series advocated just up and leaving when it became clear they weren't in control of the situation. The Big Bad always shot down his suggestion that they quit while they were ahead.
- This is a part of what has always made Doctor Doom such a capable antagonist. Unlike most supervillains, Doom can recognise when the plan has gone south and it's time to leave. Yeah, Reed Richards is still alive, and you don't have what you came here for. It doesn't matter. It's time to go. Long before he had his diplomatic immunity, Doom regularly got away by having planned his escape in advance, and leaving the minute he was in danger of being surrounded.
- Reed Richards once contacted an alien invasion fleet right before they were about to attack Earth. In the middle of introducing himself, the aliens realized who he was (the supergenius leader of the group that has foiled other alien invasions and Galactus himself) and wisely got the hell away from Earth.
- As their name suggests, the Runaways frequently follow this principle.
- Transformers: In Infiltration, the Earth Based Infiltration team renege against Megaton, with Starscream discovering Ore-13 which can empower them greatly. After Megatron curbstomps Skywarp and Blitzwing, Starscream tests the formula and sends an empowered Thundercracker, Astrotrain, Runabout and Runamuck against Megatron. Megatron calmly tells them to stand down, or he will kill all of them. The four immediately lower their weapons. The threat was not hallow, as the empowered Starscream can't even stand up to Megatron.
- Simply having the presence of mind to recognize when to back down is considered a strength among many Micromasters in Transformers Generation One; Swindler of the Race Car patrol knows when he's beat. Detour of the Sports Car patrol is a bit of a coward, but can tell when the other shoe's about to drop, too.
- A couple of criminal droids in Paperinik New Adventures realize it's not worth trying to defeat their boss from the hero. Subverted since Paperinik still stops them.
Gottfresh: Stop him! Do something!
Mantis!: You made him angry! See you!
- Also Colonel Neopard— in his words "The mercenary that know when to quit is good for another mission!" Subverted again,as he planted a bomb to destroy his targer anyway.
- Also The Raider knows when it's a good time to retreat. Basically it's a world of Genre Savvy characters.
- In the Yu-Gi-Oh! GX fanfic "The Ultimate School Duels", Hassleberry folds against the OC Backfire in their duel when he realized he had no way he could win against his supreme monster. However, it was due to this action of Knowing When to Fold'em that ultimately got him the position they both were dueling for.
- Oddly enough, this trope is included in The Wizard of Oz, when the Wizard points out to the Cowardly Lion that he's confusing cowardice with wisdom — running away from a situation that's clearly going to get you harmed or killed is obviously the smart thing to do. This trope is also present in Baum's original version as a subtext — the Lion is deeply afraid of the Kelidas roaming the forest, and does his best to avoid them... but the fact that they're twice his size and have the heads of tigers and the bodies of bears suggests that avoiding them might be the smart thing to do until you can find a better way of handling it, which the Lion does with the help of Dorothy and her friends.
- Duncan and Charlie in Mystery Team when they decide that they're in over their heads and that they need to grow up and stop acting like kids.
- Joe Buck does this with his dream of being a "hustler" in the final scene of Midnight Cowboy. On the way to Miami, he disposes of his cowboy outfits and later admits to his friend Ratso that his experience in New York taught him that he was never cut out to be a man-whore (at least not a successful one), and resolves to find honest work as soon as they arrive. Sadly, Ratso never hears him, because he's just died.
- Thunderball is extremely rare among James Bond films in that, after the battle at the end, the SPECTRE henchmen actually surrender and are taken into custody by the US Coast Guard.
- In many game shows where All or Nothing is involved and/or contestants have the ability to stop playing and take what they won so far, you will get people that become greedy and try to aim for the big prize, only to lose everything or to keep playing against the odds because they figure they may as well go all the way instead of quitting.
- Deal or No Deal is a big example of knowing when it is a good time to stop and take the banker's offer. Far too often there will be contestants that will keep turning down offers and keep playing, even if they knock off every big prize amount on the board. This is a common fallacy in people that believe if they already gone this far, they might as well keep going to the end and try to get the big prize no matter how much they have lost. Once in a while, you will see players that wise up and cut their losses by taking the money that is offered instead of pushing their luck.
- At the end of the final battle in Animorphs. After it becomes clear that Tom plans to kill Visser One using his own personal Blade ship, the visser essentially surrenders to the kids once they arrive on the bridge.
- Similarly, once the Controllers on board the Pool ship realize what has happened, they surrender to the kids in exchange for amnesty and a chance to acquire the morphing power (to permanently morph animals and move away from parasitism). The surrendered Yeerks got off quite well, all things considered.
- In The Capture this is revealed to be a major tenet of Yeerk psychology: Yeerks will give up when the odds don't favor them rather that fight against impossible odds as humans do. This semi-defeatist mindset is presented to explain away the Bond Villain Stupidity of Jake's Yeerk, but later books are consistent with this, as it comes up again in Visser and The Answer.
- The mountain in The Farthest-Away Mountain, which would always stay the same distance away as long as you kept going toward it. You had to turn around and go the other way to get there.
- Diana Wynne Jones's Charmed Life has a garden that stays the same distance away no matter how long you travel towards it. It is bespelled so as to be inaccessible to people trying to reach it, so those trying to enter only succeeded when they had given up on doing so.
- A Series of Unfortunate Events
- The No Ending (except for that of the main plot) of the last book. Sorry, you'll never (ever) get all the answers, just accept it as it is...
- Violet realizes that their climb to the ascending hot air balloon in The Vile Village is dangerous and forces her siblings back to the ground so they won't get hurt, even though the Quagmires are on the balloon and it is designed never to return to ground.
- This is an explicit theme of From a Buick 8: Some things just can't be explained, like that Buick 8 in the police impound that shoots lightning, makes people disappear, and causes aliens to materialize from nowhere. Then the climax completely undermines this message.
- In Meredith Ann Pierce's The Firebringer Trilogy, the greatest and most legendary figure in the history of the unicorns is the princess Halla. Four hundred years before the events of the books Halla's people's lands were invaded by wyverns, first in secret, then in open warfare. When it becomes clear that the wyverns are too dangerous to continue fighting (they have poisonous stings and what amounts to armor under the skin), Halla orders the unicorns to withdraw and leave their lands to the wyverns until the time comes that the unicorns are capable of meeting them in more evenly matched combat. The main character of the Trilogy's been raised on her story all his life, but still can't quite stomach the part of the legend where Halla orders the retreat for the sake of survival.
- Atlas Shrugged does this with Dagny's obstinate refusal to abandon Taggart Transcontinental as a lost cause, despite all the evidence of its decline and predictions of its imminent demise (which turn out to be true). Dagny is eventually convinced to leave it all behind, but Eddie Willers never learns to leave the dying railroad/dying world and presumably dies with it.
- The Hunt for Red October: the Soviet admiral orders the fleet to avoid harassing the Americans after a heavy cruiser is subjected to a false attack. He knows the Soviet navy is wasting time that is needed to find the Red October and will be destroyed if the Americans decide to attack for real. The American admiral later says: "they make the first move, we up the ante, they just plain fold."
- Timothy Zahn has a few characters who do this. In The Thrawn Trilogy, Thrawn knows when a battle has been lost and, unlike most Imperial commanders, withdraws without wasting his men - sure, he's got reserves, but why spend them without a need? Pellaeon, back during the Battle of Endor, had found himself to be the highest-ranked survivor and had ordered the retreat. And of course during the Hand of Thrawn duology, Pellaeon was the one to look at his Imperial Remnant and decide to make peace with the New Republic, ending the war.
Thrawn: "You were expecting, perhaps, that I'd order an all-out attack? That I would seek to cover our defeat in a frenzy of false and futile heroics?"
Pellaeon: "Of course not."
Thrawn: "We haven't been defeated, Captain. Merely slowed down a bit."
- A continuing theme in Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series is that sometimes you have to abandon an ambition in order to achieve other ambitions and/or live a fulfilling life. The main character of "Bitten", the first book, spends her character development deciding which of her conflicting desires to pursue and which to abandon. In later books, the trope is more subtle, but still reoccurs often.
- This is the hat of the Raven Guard in Warhammer 40,000. In the Horus Heresy novel Deliverance Lost, Corax specifically states that because his legion is smaller than the others, they would not survive a mass frontal assault on the traitor forces, and must rely on hit and run attacks
- In the Star Trek Expanded Universe novel Kobayashi Maru, this is essentially Sulu's resolution. He decides the whole thing is a trap and elects not to enter the Neutral Zone.
- Sisterhood Series by Fern Michaels: Owen Orzell in Home Free knew that he had no chance of winning once the Vigilantes caught him. As bonus points, he reveals that he gambles, tries to be very careful not to get addicted, and so he would clearly understand this trope very well.
- A Doctor Who short story, Useless Things, involves an alien invasion arrive on Earth, notice a police box on the street corner, realize that this is the calling card of the Doctor, who has a history of soundly defeating alien invaders like themselves, and wisely decide to get the hell out of Dodge as fast as possible. It's subverted; minutes after they leave, workmen arrive and remove what turns out to be an actual police box, the last of its kind to be removed in Britain.
- A mark of a good officer in the Honor Harrington series is knowing when it's best to do this. A clear line is drawn between knowing when to fold 'em, knowing when you cant fold and must fight until the end, and doing the latter to avoid being seen as a coward for doing the former.
- A specific instance occurs in Echoes of Honor. A surprise Havenite attack catches the less than competent Rear Admiral Elvis Santino completely flat-footed. His operations officer, Andrea Jaruwalski, tries to get him to fold, surrendering the system they don't need in the face of a vastly superior force. Santino responded by relieving Jaruwalski of her position and sending her away with enough of a black spot on her record to sabotage her career, then called up his command to meet the Havenite attack. Santino's entire command was destroyed. Jaruwalski eventually had her career salvaged with the help of Honor Harrington herself.
- Conflicts with the Solarian League, in which the Manticoran forces are so much more advanced technologically they can Curb Stomp vastly more numerous Solarian forces with ease, often feature the Manticorans trying to get the Solly commanders to realize they need to do this. The success rate varies depending on how Too Dumb to Live the arrogant Solarian commanders are.
- However, Manticore is under no illusions of what would happen if the Solarian League decided to play their numbers and resource advantage to the hilt.
- The Diane Duane novel Spock's World, combined with the story to which it is a sequel, teaches this lesson. Due to an inability to stop brooding about things not going according to plan, the Big Bad undoes all her accomplishments from the last time and ends up in prison.
- In Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough for Love Lazarus Long ascribes his survival for over 2300 years largely to the practical application of this kind of common sense, and the one time he fails at it is the time Death nearly catches up to him.
Live Action TV
- The Parsian poet Archilochus wrote an elegy on the subject, possibly in response to the popular Spartan saying of "come home with your shield or on it".
One of the Saiôn in Thrace now delights in the shield I discarded
Unwillingly near a bush, for it was perfectly good,
But at least I got myself safely out. Why should I care for that shield?
Let it go. Some other time I'll find another no worse.
- Most heels, when faced with a situation they can't overcome, will try and employ some method of escape, such as intentionally getting themselves counted out or disqualified. Especially if they're defending a title, as normally they can't lose the title that way.
- A possible Aesop in the classic play, Death of a Salesman, where Willy Loman is told in so many words that he should give up his misguided dream of being a popular salesman and find a better life. This is further reinforced by the fact that the play makes it obvious he would have been far more happy and successful as a construction tradesman.
- In Electra, the main character is told by every character but Orestes to give up her mourning, to behave meekly and submit to the will of stronger people because she is only digging a deeper grave for herself. Instead, by the end of the play she becomes determined to kill her step-father herself rather than accept death with no hope of salvation.
- In many ways the Fatal Flaw of the villain of Tales of Symphonia, being a deconstruction of the Determinator.
- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: Lord Bulbin eventually realizes that he can't beat Link. He explains he always fights for the strongest side (with the implication that Link is now that strongest side), before he hands Link a key and leaves. Particularly surprising, as Bulbin had been the definition of a Recurring Boss up until that point.
- Portal 2: GLaDOS decides that she is so sick of Chell that she doesn't want to kill her anymore, just get her out of her life. So she grants Chell her freedom in the hope that she never comes back.note
- Parodied in Poker Night at the Inventory. When The Heavy is knocked out of the tournament, he will occasionally reference a well-known song from his homeland: "You must know when to hold on to your cards, and you must know when to burn them in fire. Because if you lose, you bring insufferable shame to Republic, and are sent to a work camp in forest."
- In Shin Megami Tensei IV, one option during demon conversations is simply to stop the conversation. Often times this will yield better results than allowing the conversation to drag on, which could result in thing such as the demon leaving without giving you what you wanted (e.g. Macca, an item, joining you) or getting a free turn, and this being Megami Tensei, enemies getting free turns is a very bad thing. That said, ending a conversation can also lead to those things happening anyway, and it's impossible to tell when is the best time to do so, making demon conversations, especially recruitment, largely a Luck-Based Mission.
- Fallout: New Vegas has this as the central theme in the Dead Money expansion. Everyone has an obsession that drives them to the Sierra Madre, and only in letting go do they find relief.
- Christine's sole goal is to kill Elijah for what he did to her and The Brotherhood of Steel.
- Dean Domino has been trying to break into the Sierra Madre for over two centuries.
- Dog and God just want to control the body that both personalities inhabit.
- Elijah wants all the technology in the Sierra Madre Vault to rebuild and rule the wasteland. (You have the option of granting his wish - by permanently sealing him in the vault.)
- Even The Courier can run into this, as the Vault is filled with ammo, arms, armor, and gold ingots worth a fortune; but taking too much will slow you down so that you can barely move - while the timer on your explosive collar ticks down.
Elijah: "Getting in isn't the hard part..."
Christine: "...it's letting go."
Dog: "...it's letting go."
God: "...it's letting go."
Dean Domino: "...it's letting go."
Elijah: "...it's letting go."
- Showing that he is the kind of villain who actually learns from his mistakes, Archibald Ironfist of Heroes of Might and Magic and Might and Magic does not wait to be deposed a second time (he managed to rise to the throne of Deyja in the aftermath of the Restoration War) in Might & Magic VII: realizing that his Dragon with an Agenda (Kastore) seems liable to usurp power, Archibald uses the time of power he still has left to set up a place to evacuate to with his most loyal followers (under the guise of acquiring valuable resources, and with defences that would keep him safe ready to be re-activated). When Kastore makes his move, Archibald gets out and so can continue to scheme in safety, unlike the last time.
- Komato Assassins in Iji are the only non-robot enemies the player can "kill" without it getting added to their kill count, because instead of dying, Assassins just throw in the towel and teleport away.
- Goblins - When facing down Mr. Fingers, Dies Horribly is perhaps better equipped to make a strategic determination than Grem.
- The Order of the Stick - A recurring theme
- Hinjo gets the Aesop - delivered using this exact phrase. His city has fallen, and he'd rather stand and go down fighting, but, as the leader of the city, he could better serve his people by surviving and retaking the city later.
- The Sunk Cost Fallacy is the one that binds Redcloak. He refuses to give up, however many times he suffers personal losses and enables far more evil villains to prosper. If he did it would all be for nothing.
- Redcloak's younger brother Right-Eye figured this out too. He went so far as to renounce the goblins' god the Dark One, believing that the god's plans for revenge and blackmail aren't worth the deaths of so many of their people.
- Xykon has also learned this. When he is killed by Roy, he orders Redcloak and the Monster in the Darkness to retreat with his Soul Jar, rather than try to recapture Dorukan's dungeon. The reason is that there are other gates he can find that presumably don't require a person with a good alignment to activate them
- Vaarsuvius runs out of spells during the battle for the city, and instead of fighting, he opts to turn invisible and retreat to the ship. He doesn't regret this decision, as he believed that it was the smart thing to do, and he had nothing more to contribute, but he does regret that it had to come down to it, as he feels he wasn't strong enough to continue defending, and is haunted by the fact that so many died.
- More recently, Haley names this trope when she is asked by Roy whether or not he should destroy the second to last Gate, with not one, but two stronger enemy groups closing in on their position.
Haley: You know me. This is when to fold 'em. And when to run.
- After learning how many spells Vaarsuvius has remaining, and comparing it with her remaining supply of Power Points, Laurin blinks out of the battle.
- For all the problems his ego and plans cause him, Nale is at least smart enough to realize when a scheme has gone south and make his retreat- or tries to, anyway.
- In Homestuck, Tavros suggests to Vriska- after the two have died and gone to the afterlife- that they give up and accept their status as minor characters.
Vriska: I think it's time to start fucking some shit up.
Tavros: Oh, no.
Vriska: More like oh yes!
I'm sick of this shit. I'm sick of being dead
and useless and bored
, and I'm not going to take it anymore.
Vriska: You're with me, right?
Tavros: No way.
- Phase, of the Whateley Universe, handles power mimic Counterpoint by avoiding fighting him, so the power mimic doesn't get Phase's powers. It turns out in another book that Phase does have a way of fighting a power mimic, but it's lethal.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender does this a lot:
- The Gaang convince La Résistance after Omashu fell that living to fight another day would be better, and they help get the civilians out of the town.
Omashu itself fell so quickly because Bumi surrendered immediately, figuring they were in no position to accomplish anything by fighting back. He even willingly remained in a prison he could break out of until he thought the time was right. When that moment comes ("An eclipse. That'll do it. ") he sure as hell seized upon it.
- When the invasion during the eclipse fails, the troops decide that Aang and his friends should flee with Appa, while the rest of them surrender instead of fighting a battle that has become impossible to win.
- Same goes for the Firelord himself, who knows that an invasion is planned and that he and his guards will be severely weakened during the eclipse. So he decides to not be in his throne room. And not in his secret bunker either. Instead he hides in a second secret bunker and sit the whole thing out.
- Also, when Aang comes to the conclusion that he won't be able to fully master his abilities before the day of the comet, he decides to let the enemies use their trump card and sit it out. But it turns out he doesn't have the luxury.
- Used occasionally in the Jumanji animated series. In one instance, the main characters met a man who was trapped in the game and couldn't escape until he accepted the fact that he was stuck there forever ("Try as you might to escape your fate/You'll never pass through the gateless gate"). Once he gave up on getting free, he was freed. The kids once got a similar clue ("There's one way out, the price you know/Save yourselves and let it go"), which they solved when they chose not to obey it.
- Winx Club
- A textbook example of the dissonance between going down fighting and Knowing When To Fold Them: Timmy is threatening the Trix (pillaging a Codex from Red Fountain) with his weapon... until he realizes that the Trix are much more powerful than he is, and decides that he's better off figuring out a way to defeat them later. Tecna sees this and calls him a coward for not fighting. However, 4K simply discards this issue and replaces it with an anti-violence spell. Video.
- Another episode sort of touches on it, by which we mean, we literally get one line that only kinda hints at it:
Tressa (daughter of said queen): I failed as a warrior and as a daughter. My friends were fighting to protect the queen. And I froze with fear!
Layla: Well, fear is a part of courage.
- Again, 4K removes this (Layla's line now becomes "No one blames you"), and actually plays up the "Tressa is a coward, and it hurts her more since she's the queen's daughter" angle. Thankfully (maybe), this summary calls this version of the story out on it.
- Hey Arnold! plays this card a few times:
- "Phoebe Takes the Fall" has Helga making Phoebe throw the qualifier for a citywide academic bowl so she can get a chance to one-up her much-accomplished sister for once. After long and hard studying, mostly with Phoebe, she has a nightmare where Arnold confronts her during the quiz to ask her why she's competing instead of Phoebe. She lampshades the dream before dismissing it... but ends up feeling guilty for nipping Phoebe's chances in the bud and has Phoebe compete anyway. Despite being training-free, Phoebe wins, and on the very same question Helga's sister had missed, too.
- "Harold vs. Patty" has Harold training with Patty, who had humiliated him in arm-wrestling, twice, in preparation for an arm-wrestling tournament. Guess who meets who in the finals? Patty beats Harold yet again, but this time, Harold stands up to the classmates who'd heckled him for his earlier two losses. Did we mention that Patty is a girl?
- When in a non-stop contest against his wife. Coach Jack states he first got to date his now wife by forfeiting the game and letting her win. He later does this at the end of the episode and they get back together. It repairs their relationship, but his wife still calls him out on letting her win and demands a proper rematch, which he accepts.
- In Batman Beyond, Jerk Jock Nelson is bullying Willy Watt. When Terry steps up to defend him (Nelson has witnessed Terry kicking the asses of a Jokerz gang), Nelson considers it for a moment and backs down.
- Transformers Prime gives us Silas, head of the terrorist organization M.E.C.H. He's made no secret his desire to obtain Cybertronian tech for his own ends. However, if it looks as if the tide of battle is turning against him, he has no problem ordering a strategic withdrawal, happy to use what information he's gleaned for the next encounter. It's notable that Optimus Prime compares him to Megatron.
- In Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman. A goon walks in as Batman is snooping around. When all the other mooks would attack Batman and get their butts handed to them, he brilliantly decides to just close the door and pretend that he did not see him.