The Plan is to stab you five times with Morton's Fork.There is a solution: Take the MacGuffin from the villain, use it to command the dragon to destroy the villain and the villain's army. The villain and his army have now been defeated and the dragon is under your control.
"The key to strategy... is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory."
A Xanatos Gambit is a plan whose multiple foreseen outcomes all benefit its creator. It's a win-win situation for whoever plots it.
At its most basic, the Xanatos Gambit assumes two possible outcomes for the one manipulated — success or failure. The plan is designed in such a way that either outcome will ultimately further the plotter's goals.
Since the Xanatos Gambit can involve an obvious goal's apparent failure, this is a convenient device in an ongoing series to let the villain occasionally win (preventing Villain Decay) while still giving the heroes a climactic pseudo-victory. The only way to escape a Xanatos Gambit once you're caught up in one is by somehow foiling all presented options and leaving the organizer thoroughly beaten.
This trope is named after David Xanatos, one of the main antagonists in the series Gargoyles, who was a master of the technique and used it consistently to serve his own ends.
If the character's plan is continually revised to bring about a winning solution no matterwhat happens, he is playing Xanatos Speed Chess. When a plan is so ludicrously complicated that it relied more on luck than actual planning and foresight, it's a Gambit Roulette. If the plan relies on misdirection rather than Morton's Fork, then it's a Kansas City Shuffle. If several people are trying to out-scheme the other in this way, you might be headed for a Gambit Pileup.
Contrast with Indy Ploy, a "plan" executed with no planning whatsoever, and Batman Gambit, a plan which relies on people doing as predicted in given circumstances. The Magnificent Bastard is a villain type likely to use these, but a particularly skilled Chessmaster, Manipulative Bastard, or Guile Hero may also pull one off.
Remember: It's only a Xanatos Gambit if all the plausible outcomes benefit the mastermind in some way. At the very least, the planner has to benefit regardless of whether the obvious plan succeeds or fails. This is not a shorthand for "any clever, complex, evil plan." You may want Evil Plan for that. Instances of this term that use "Xanatos Gambit" without the key quality of "all (or at least two) plausible outcomes always benefit the mastermind" are WRONG. Please fix them wherever you see them at TV Tropes. If you can't decide what kind of plan it is, use The Plan which is the supertrope for plans in general.
Heroes and villains and everything in between can use this trope, but most cases will have spoilers. Read at your own risk.
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Death Note: Light must have studied the works of David Xanatos because he pulls off his Xanatos Gambit masterfully. When his Dragon Misa Amane has been found out as the second Kira, he forms a plan in less than 24 hours that involves a Memory Gambit, and due to his Heel Face Turn as a result of this, he will either live his life as a free man with no connection to his actions as the Big Bad, or regain his memory with all possible threats neutralized and Misa, and himself, cleared of all suspicion. Refer to the Death Note trope page for a more detailed explanation.
Code Geass uses this trope now and then, to varying degrees. An early one is Schneizel - he faces the terrorist leader, Zero, in a chess match in which the victor will gain a valuable prize. If Schneizel wins, Zero has to unmask himself (something that would greatly disadvantage Zero). If Zero wins, he gains Schneizel's Dragon Suzaku, who up until this point has been a massive Heel to Zero. During the match, Lelouch fears this trope when Schneizel deliberately sets himself up to lose, believing that Schneizel is attempting to make this trope and that by losing, Schneizel will also gain an advantage. As a result, Zero intentionally avoids winning the game. This turns out to be his downfall, as Schneizel claims that the Emperor would have instantly seized victory, giving Schneizel some insight to Zero's true identity without even needing to win the match and forcing Zero to unmask himself.
So to summarize: 1) If Schneizel wins, he learns the identity of a super-terrorist.. If Zero won, Schneizel would more-or-less have his enemy surrounded by a number of armed guards. What happened, Schneizel baited Zero into losing and learned something about him, allowing him to get part of what he wanted and due to Nina's interruption barring Zero from his prize.
In season 2, Lelouch pulls an even more devious one (combined with a Kansas City Shuffle, see the entry on that page) to recruit Rolo to his side: He geasses a Britannian sniper to shoot Rolo, and Lelouch plans to push Rolo out of the way to show he "cares" for his fake brother. If Lelouch fails in pushing Rolo out of the way in time, he removes a threat to himself. If he does and Rolo buys it, he gains a powerful new pawn. Further, Word Of God says that if Rolo hadn't bought it and had tried to kill Lelouch or CC immediately afterwards, the sniper had already been geassed to keep shooting till Rolo was dead.
A particularly brilliant one in R2 involves an agreement with the Britannian government to let the Black Knights (Zero's organization) go unpunished and dissolve in exchange for getting Zero permanently exiled from Area Eleven. The event will be heavily publicized, and one million Elevens arrive to watch. However, Zero refuses to show himself and creates a massive smokescreen that lasts for only a few seconds. Once it dissipates, the entire crowd is wearing a Zero costume. Since the agreement is to banish Zero and there are now one million of them, the Britannians can choose to a) stay true to their word and release all one million people dressed as Zero, thus letting him keep his power base in another country, or b) go back on their promise and slaughter them all, essentially repeating the Euphemia massacre, which will not only further incite rebellion among the Elevens, but also severely damage Britannia's reputation and credibility with the world's other two superpowers. Either way, Zero wins. Suzaku allows all of the Zero impersonators to leave.
Sensui from YuYu Hakusho had a Xanatos Gambit within a Batman Gambit. He knows the heroes are going to come storm his base to stop him, so he sends Amanuma to face them. Amanuma is an eleven-year-old kid whose special power is to bring video games to life, and Sensui selects one that very clearly kills the antagonist if the heroes win, or the heroes if they give up. Amanuma's powers will make that ending a reality if that's how the game goes, so the heroes conclude that the intent was to stall them; they're stuck until they or Amanuma die. Kurama shoots the dog, but then Sensui reveals the other side of the plan: Koenma was really the only character who had the power to stop him all by himself, and Sensui needed to neutralize him. Since Koenma was the one who hired Sensui as Spirit Detective and sent him on the road to madness anyway, Sensui knows that Koenma feels extensively guilty about the whole affair, and, if the heroes killed Amanuma, he knew Koenma would drain his power to bring Amanuma back to life. Either way, the Makai Tunnel would open.
In Hunter × Hunter chapter 331, Pariston is revealed to not think of winning, though he does know how to win; neither is he thinking of losing. He's playing around with the election because he saved 5000 hybrid ants to use as a power base. Each of the hybrid ants can use nen, the minimum requirement to be a Hunter. Come next Hunter Exam, those 5000 hybrids will become Hunters almost automatically. Once they become Hunters and are added to Pariston's group of Temp Hunters, he'll have majority support and an overpowered standing army. Since according to Article 8 of the Hunter Commandments the Hunter in charge has to have majority support, if Pariston loses this election he can just force the winner out of office and set up another election under more favorable circumstances.
In Mazinger Z, Dragon with an Agenda Archduke Gorgon agreed helping Dr. Hell to destroy Mazinger-Z with his visibly more powerful Mechanical Beasts. However his true intentions were watching Hell closely and making both sides weakened each other battle after battle until one side won. Then, he would annihilate the weakened victor, and the Great General of Darkness -his real boss- would conquer the surface world without any real opposition. Consequently, he could not lose, not matter how the war between Dr. Hell and Kouji Kabuto ended. Indeed, he was successful: he betrayed Dr. Hell in the worst possible moment, leaving him to die or personally murdering him -depending on the version-. Straight after he sent several Mykene Warrior Monsters after Mazinger-Z, and they destroyed the Humongous Mecha. In one single day and from one single stroke he had looked after all his enemies. However, his plan did not cause the expected outcome due to a Spanner in the Works: Kenzo Kabuto and Great Mazinger.
Bleach's Aizen used them often. Capturing Orihime to lure in rescuers and rescuers for the rescuers. Then there's the battle in the Fake Karakura Town. He gets what he needs no matter who wins. By then, he makes a switch from gambits to Gambit Roulette.
In Mobile Suit Gundam 00, the country of Taribia declares its withdrawal from The Union, prompting a military action from America, the community's most powerful member. Taribia intends for Celestial Being to intervene in the conflict against America (who they perceived to have a monopoly over The Union), but the organization instead moves against Taribia, who they designated as the instigators of the conflict. Taribia is forced to return to The Union for America to instruct its forces to aid Taribia in fighting off Celestial Being. However, Taribia's current government is now secured with America's support, and America coming to Taribia's aid quells the anti-American sentiment within the country.
It is implied by Ms.Sumeragi's exposition after the mission that Taribia planned this from the beginning, the government wins support from conservatives in their country by taking a hard stance against America but doesn't actually have to suffer the consequences of leaving the Union. They get their cake and eat it because they expected Celestial Being to show up and intercede.
The true goal of the Houshin Project in Houshin Engi is to procure a large number of souls by harvesting them from deceased people of great power, so they can lend Taikoubou their power in the final battle. Whether Taikoubou’s many other battles result in victory or defeat is irrelevant: so long as SOMEONE dies, and someone always does, the project is working, and there’s a failsafe against his own death in the form of Outenkun.
Naruto: Itachi attempted this by setting up a few outcomes to protect his brother's innocence and to keep him away from the Big Bad's influences. This doesn't work so much as it goes wrong in the worst possible way. The only thing that goes right for him is that after being revived by Kabuto, he is freed byChekhov's Crow which he had previously planted in the titular character's body prior to Itachi's imminent death.
Hellbat pulls one towards the end of Transformers Victory, when he suggests that Deathsaurus raise Atlantis to harvest the energy and says it's Leozack's idea. If this plan succeeds, the Decepticons benefit. If it fails, Deathsaurus kills Leozack.
Fushigi Yuugi's Big Bad Nakago pulls one of these in the middle. After Ashitare's failure to kill Miaka, Nakago sends him after Nuriko as he is about to obtain the Shinzahou. The point was to get Ashitare killed in the attempt, something which Nuriko succeeds doing albeit at the cost of his life. However, unknown to the heroes, only Ashitare's human part died (he is a werewolf), while his wolf part is perfectly intact and was able to get the Shinzahou from them.
Mahou Sensei Negima!: This is a common interpretation of Chao Lingshen's plans; If she wins, magic is revealed to the world and a future disaster is averted. If Negi defeats her...then he's strong enough to avert the disaster himself.
Kurt Godel is obviously pulling one of these on Negi, but his ultimate goal is unclear. Although, it seems to have blown up in his face. Mainly because he didn't know Negi had knowledge from the future.
And on the villainous side of things, as soon as Dynamis showed up to fight Ala Alba with the Fatettes he had won. Beating them means he wins, losing meant Negi was disabled because of how it was set up, and if neither of those two worked, then Dynamis has still stalled for so long that the other three Averrunci would be awoken, drastically changing the power balance of the two sides.
In Digimon Adventure Myotismon goes into the real world, sending the DigiDestined and their Digimon back home to fight him and his henchmen in hopes of saving both worlds. Yet their absence in the Digital World during this time is what allows the four Dark Masters to take over, who, as Mega-level Digimon, turn out to be much more formidable villains than the Ultimate-level Myotismon.
Gintama, surprisingly enough (then again, maybe it's a parody as well?). The whole Character Popularity Arc? All planned by Yamazaki who was not happy enough that he got 9th place. So he started a war to get all the characters to reduce each other's ranking. Seeing as he wasn't the only one unhappy with his ranking, they almost did it without his help. The outcome of said war would help him either way.
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha: Nanoha and Fate's final battle is one for the Time and Space Administration: Nanoha's victory or defeat is irrelevant. They would prefer she won (and thereby arrest Fate and recover the jewel seeds) but if she doesn't Chrono will step in and finish off the worn-out Fate. If nothing else the battle will allow them to track Precia's location.
Phibrizzo in Slayers NEXT has a NICE one, just because of how he uses it. He wants to destroy the world by having Lina use the Giga Slave and lose control over it. To make this happen, he sets her against Gaav. If she uses the Giga Slave and it destroys the world, great. If it doesn't, he'll provoke her himself. If she uses the Ragna Blade instead, Gaav will be weakened enough for Phibrizzo to take him out himself and then he can provoke Lina into using the Giga Slave. Being the Hellmaster he has power and influence enough to make sure she doesn't die until this happens. Lina has no choice but to play right into his hands. Unfortunately, Phibrizzo forgot one thing. Summoning someone more powerful than you is NOT a good idea.
General Grumman pulls one off in Fullmetal Alchemist when he deliberately leaks plans for a terrorist attack in Central while the Fuhrer is in the east. If the Fuhrer stays, Central remains exposed for Mustang's coup. If he leaves, his train gets blown up over a ravine.
Atobe from The Prince of Tennis also uses one against Tezuka. Instead of just beating Tezuka normally, Atobe draws the match out in order to try to destroy Tezuka's injured shoulder. While that initially appears to be his goal, Fuji reveals that his true plan is to force Tezuka to attack so as to expose his weaknesses. Surprisingly, Tezuka takes on the drawn-out match, fully aware of the consequences.
Miyo Takano pulls an amazing one that not only works over all of the different arcs, and thus several different 'worlds', but also manages to have each one work slightly differently (thus moving almost into Batman Gambit territory) in each arc, always with the same results. Though, the character isn't aware that each arc is a different world and each one of them thinks it's just working in their particular world, but the effect is the same, either way.
The various gambits pulled off, along with other Xanatos index tropes (especially an I Know You Know I Know played for humour), in the various club activities. Mion and Shion's gambit in the zombie tag game is of special note, along with the combined Xanatos Gambit and I Know You Know I Know (with slight improv) that Rena and Satoko pull against each other in the water fight...
In all the worlds similar to Watanagashi-hen and Meakashi-hen, Miyo's gambit failed because Shion killed the right person at the wrong time, without the one pulling the strings knowing until it was too late.
Umineko No Naku Koro Ni, once you realise Beatrice is using a Xanatos gambit to hide another gambit and why, the meaning of the story changes dramatically. The reason that Beatrice choose Battler as her opponent is so that he may remember who she was and what he did to her, if he does remember, she will forever exist in Battler's memories, if he does not, she will be certainly destroyed by him, granting her freedom in death. Both more desirable for her then being trapped in the purgatory of half-existence. Under that gambit is the one Beatrice makes by betting her life against Battler's. No matter whether Battler removes her from existence, or she breaks Battler's mind, she will be with him for the rest of her existence, her greatest desire. Combine these gambits and you find why she tries so hard to keep Battler fighting against her for as long as possible.
In Black Lagoon, the crew find themselves a part of one such gambit. An old ex-Nazi finds out about a valuable painting from the war (one possibly painted by Hitler himself) in a sunken submarine. He tasks a Neo-Nazi group, who want his connections and funding, to salvage it and hires the Lagoon Company through an intermediary to do the same job. Neither group knows about the other. If the Nazis defeat the Lagoon Company, he gets the painting and knows the Neo-Nazi group is competent and worthy of his further patronage. If the Lagoon Company wins, he gets the painting and does not have to help incompetents. The only thing he didn't count on was for Dutch and Rock to figure out they were being played, but since the crew needs the money for the job (and because their reputation would plummet if they betrayed an employer) they can't do anything about it.
In the first season of The Story of SaiunkokuSa Enjun enacts a plot to assassinate Emperor Shi Ryuuki and replace him with his long-lost brother Seien. The second season reveals this to have been a Xanatos Gambit - if it had succeeded, Enjun would have been the power behind the throne and would have finally surpassed Grand Master Shou, but the plot's failure provided the Emperor with a reason to investigate and rectify the corruption of the Sa Clan, exactly as Enjun had hoped.
The second season also includes a neatly-constructed Xanatos Gambit on Shuurei's part when she approaches the Merchant's Guild to negotiate for their help in dealing with an outbreak of disease in her province. The Guild is reluctant to have any part of it, and their representatives remain noncommittal until a message arrives from the Emperor commanding them to do the work for free if they have not already reached an agreement; Shuurei pleasantly suggests that she's willing to pretend they'd sorted things out by the time the message got there, if the Guild will give her some extra concessions in return for the favour. The possible results of Shuurei's plan thus break down to 1) she gets what she wants; 2) she gets what she wants plus a little extra; or 3) she still gets what she wants and the Guild doesn't even get paid for it.
Vicious pulls off one in the penultimate episode of Cowboy Bebop. He allows himself to be captured after a failed assassination attempt on the Red Dragon Crime Syndicateelders, but stacks his execution squad with his own men, who free him during a distraction caused by Vicious (the distraction was his pet bird exploding in a ball of smoke right before the squad was about to fire) giving him the chance to assassinate the Syndicate elders for real during the resulting melee. This leaves Vicious as the new leader of the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate.
Astro Boy: Creating Pluto was this for Tenma. Either Astro losses or evolves and becomes stronger. He's perfectly happy either way. When Pluto instead has a Heel Face Turn, Shadow reveals he has another robot in the wing, Archeron, who has no emotions.
Skunk has one early on. He uses robots to hunt other robots and sell their parts on the black market. He hid his home base in a abandoned ice cream factory and here's where the gambit comes in. If no one finds him, he can continue unbothered but hopes Astro does find him because he has a trap set up.
Redda of Mon Colle Knights has a one. he summons Dread Dragon, who traps the real Rockna within its neck, and Redda explains to Mondo that he can either destroy Dread Dragon and take Rockna with it, or get destroyed himself trying to save Rockna without harming the dragon. In the end, Gabriolis comes just in time to help and Rockna is saved anyway, and both heroes fuse with Gabriolis to destroy Dread Dragon. Nevertheless, either way, this still provides enough time of a distraction for Redda to get away and thus, Redda still succeeds in getting all of the Monster Items, which he plans to use to revive Oroboros and destroy everything himself.
Yami Bakura in Yu-Gi-Oh! pulls off one of these by secretly keeping part of his being in the Millennium Puzzle, guaranteeing he would have a free ride into the Memory World in the final arc no matter what happened to him. Also, in the anime, even though he ends his duel with Kaiba early, he escapes having strengthened Diabound with the power of the Blue-Eyes.
Dartz follows his example. He needs a certain number of souls, so he sends his followers to duel the heroes under the Seal of Orichalchos. Whoever loses each duel forfeits their soul. Since Dartz collects the losses either way it honestly doesn't matter to him who wins, and he admits as much before Jounouchi and Varon's duel.
Kyubey from Puella Magi Madoka Magica. His ultimate desire is extracting energy that defies Entropy, to circumvent Heat Death of the Universe. As shown throughout the main series and several related spinoffs, revelation of Kyubey's ulterior motives and rigged Witch System (the means he uses to collect said energy) instigated repeated attempts to deny him its harvesting, yet all but one attempt proved utterly disastrous for them and beneficial for Kyubey. When individuals attempt such feats, Kyubey merely scoffs at the futility of their attempt or shows genuine curiosity of how events will inevitably return to the planned conclusion. The singular successful means that stopped Kyubey, required creation of the most powerful being on Earth and complete rewrite of Laws that governed the Universe... which ironically enough, Kyubey himself granted. Yet even when this occurred, he nonetheless found a means to extract Entropy defying energy without the Witch System by creating a less efficient, though no less effective, Wraith System in the rebooted reality. The Wraith System only came into existence, because of the changes that made the Witch System unviable, but it nevertheless benefits Kyubey and screws over any humans who work with him.
A game of Chess played by two halfway decent people is truly a joy to behold due to the sheer number of Xanatos Gambits. Indeed, the very principle of the Gambit comes from the Chess practice of offering up the sacrifice of a piece in order to gain a positional advantage. It is exceedingly common to sacrifice one's own piece in order to capture an opponent's piece, or simply to break the opponent's defences. Capturing the offered piece is called "Gambit accepted", and refusing is called "Gambit declined". Since many players have multiple such gambits going on at any one time, a game can quickly become a Gambit Pileup.
On a smaller scale, the concept of a fork. I can take one of several pieces; which one will you protect?
Connect 4 is generally won through a Xanatos gambit: by setting up two sequences right next to each other, either the other player blocks your first one and allows the second, or ignores both and so allows the first.
Tic Tac Toe, capture 3 of the 4 corners to assure that you will win regardless.
While not always a board game (in fact, it's usually drawn with paper and pencil), a so-called "double-trap" in Tic-tac-toe is one of the most obvious Xanatos gambits.
Diplomacy is a game which thrives on these, as the players must secretly negotiate, manipulate, and lie to each other as a matter. For example, a clever player may attempt to offer another player support for a movement quid-pro-quo. If successful, great. If that player denies support, the first player might support him anyway - and mutter quite audibly about how he was just stabbed in the back. At the cost of one turn's disadvantage, the first player has trashed the second's reputation with the entire table.
The Chinese game of Go makes this Older than Dirt, as the game is believed to be the oldest game still being played (at least 2,500 years old), as well as having many situations where both players are doing this simultaneously.
In a situation called 'Ko', you are not allowed to take a stone that has just captured one of yours if it would lead to exactly the same board layout at the end of your previous turn. You must instead play elsewhere, and are allowed to take back on your next turn if your opponent has not played to stop that. In this case you need to make a play somewhere else that makes a threat that will cost your opponent more than he gains by consolidating the original exchange. He responds to your threat, you retake, leaving him in Ko, and so he then must make a threat for you to respond to. Both sides continue this until one player calculates the threat is not worth as much as the Ko position. Even then this may help the other player, as a dead group of stones is saved (or a live group is killed), lessening the value to the other side of winning the Ko.
A pair of possible moves is called 'miai' if it doesn't matter which one is played, because the opponent will make the move the other choice would have prevented (often at the same place), and the outcome will be the same either way. This often turns into a bit of a Gambit Pileup, as there's usually no hurry to make a miai move, and it can be saved for a ko threat.
Common sequences of moves, known as 'joseki', have become established because they are believed to be best play. Some joseki have many branches, presenting each player with several choices. No matter what they choose (unless they screw up), the player who started the joseki gets some advantage, while their opponent gets a slightly lesser advantage. Those advantages can be various combinations of territory, influence, initiative and aji, and although which combination of advantages you get depends on your opponent's choices as well as your own, a good player will steer things so that the advantages they get work well with the rest of the board. Players are advised not to learn joseki by rote, as it tends to lead to following such memorised sequences blindly, getting them Out-Gambitted by, for example, getting influence in the wrong direction.
In the Game of Thrones Board Game, the Roose Bolton card does this. He boosts your armies so you might win, but if you lose you can return him, and all your other hero cards to your hand.
Frequently the primary style behind the Scorpion Clan in Legend of the Five Rings, both in game mechanics and in storyline, consist of losing to win. Attacking them politically means they indulge in slander and blackmail; attacking them militarily means they lay horrific traps and pull you into impossible wars all the while. This has proven to be a catch-22 for the writers, as it's a Wallbanger if the clan doesn't salvage anything from a defeat, and if they're never truly defeated.
Sometimes, it's the only way to pull off a contract in Bridge. The most common variety would be the endplay (by intentionally losing a trick to opponents, you force an opponent to give you at least two more tricks due to lack of leads), but the squeeze play (where an opponent is forced to discard too many cards, allowing their good cards to be easily captured) and the coup (generally a play to force a foe into promoting one of your other cards) also frequently work like this. The defense can also pull these off, although generally not as easily.
The Supreme Intelligence of Marvel's Kree Empire is a master of this. His defeats frequently lead to sequels where he gloats that the defeat was only part of some bigger, more elaborate scheme.
Lord Malvolio, the son of a Terran woman and an extraterrestrial Green Lantern Corps member, who had his father's ring, tricked Green Lantern Hal Jordan into taking his ring. After Jordan had thought that he defeated him, Malvolio simply got back up again. While Jordan may have had Malvolio's ring through Emerald Twilight, Malvolio only returned in prose.
In Green Lantern's Sinestro Corps War, Sinestro gloats that although his Corps is losing the battle he's already won, because by forcing the Green Lanterns to use lethal force against his troops he's ensured that a more fearsome Corps will keep order in the universe: either fear of the Sinestro Corps will be keeping people in line, or fear of empowered-to-kill Green Lanterns will.
In the New Gods, Darkseid and Highfather exchanged their sons as part of a cease-fire treaty between Apokolips and New Genesis. Darkseid immediately handed Highfather's son over to Granny Goodness and ordered her to put him through twice the torture that the other orphans on Apokolips endure under her "care". Darkseid knew that the increased torment would push the newly christened Scott Free (the future Mr. Miracle) to escape Apokolips at any cost. This would violate the terms of the treaty and give Darkseid an excuse to retaliate. In the meantime, Darkseid is secure in the knowledge that his hated enemy's son is going through hell. (Unfortunately for Darkseid, he didn't count on the fact that both Mr. Miracle and Orion, his son who he had given to Highfather, would later become two of his worst enemies, and cause him more grief than he could have ever imagined.)
Darkseid hitting Batman with the Omega Sanction at the climax of Final Crisis would also count. An amnesiac Batman was sent back in time, fighting to survive as he was shunted between historical periods closing in on the present. It turned out that Batman was absorbing Omega energy with each jump, and surviving to reach the present would cause the energy to release and destroy reality.
A retcon of two different Evil Plans of Thanos that were foiled by Kazar and Thor (respectively) established them as Xanatos Gambits. Thanos was in fact using the two situations to secretly study Kazar's Heroic Resolve and Mangog's power source of a countless souls, information he would later use to devise the most effective stratagem for his upcoming showdown with the death god known as The Walker.
In one Justice League of America story, the Key traps the League in hallucinatory fake realities, with their inevitable escape being an important component of his Evil Plan.*
It's a Xanatos Gambit because having them trapped happened to be good for him but he was also countiing on their escape.
Malebolgia made sure to pull out one in his Deal with the Devil with Spawn to avert a Faustian Rebellion: if Spawn uses the powers Malebolgia granted him when resurrecting him for evil, Hell naturally becomes stronger; if he uses them for good, the souls of his Asshole Victims are sent to Hell, creating new recruits; and he uses them for nothing, he will gradually go mad from the frustration and, when it's time for him to go back to Hell, he will be more fitting as one of Malebolgia's generals. Whatever happens, Hell gains something.
Anathos in Les Légendaires pulled one about his reincarnation: he wanted to reincarnate through a living, but, for this, his future host had to bear his mark. So, when he had to mark his Apocalypse Maiden, he was careful to also mark a precious item she had in her possession as a failsafe. When the time comes, the protagonists attempted to hide her and kill her if necessary, only for Anathos to instead possess one of her friends, whom she had given her item too and as such who was technically bearing the mark as well.
In The Sandman volume The Doll's House, Dream's sister-brother, Desire, as part of its eons-long feud with Dream, launches a plot to hurt him by tearing apart his realm: during Dream's imprisonment, Desire discovered that the comatose Unity Kinkaid was a "vortex" (a mortal whose existence causes the Dreaming to break down, destroying the world unless he or she is killed,) but was currently harmless because she was unconscious. Desire secretly raped and impregnated the sleeping Unity, which, unbeknownst to Dream, caused the power of the Vortex to be passed on to Desire and Unity's granddaughter, Rose Walker. If Dream did not kill Rose, the vortex would tear apart the Dreaming, but if he had killed her then shedding the blood of a family member (even if he didn't know she was family,) would have unleashed the Furies to ravage the Dreaming anyway. Ultimately, the various players manage to Take a Third Option, but only by using a method which Dream himself didn't know was possible, and without which Desire's plan would have worked flawlessly.
Queen Chrysalis' Evil Plan as revealed in issue #3 of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (IDW) makes use of this trope. Stealing Twilight's magic would of course be her best scenario, but putting the bearers of the Elements against each other, or allowing her minions to have taken over Ponyville would have their benefits too. Further, in issues #4, she forces Twilight to either choose to go free and let the Changelings at her friends and the CMC trapped in their pods, or to have Twilight join her as her servant while letting her friends free. The catch on the latter is that Chrysalis still holds back the friends after Twilight takes this option, anticipating that once she's drained Twilight's love for them, Twilight herself would be the one to destroy them. Chrysalis' plan only fails when the magic from the comet gives a bigger boost to Twilight than it does to Chrysalis, allowing Twilight to defeat her.
The advertising industry thrives on this trope. It cannot lose. The whole point is to get the advertising for the product out in front of the consumer, if they actually buy it or not is not the advertising company's problem.
People who are frustrated by the amount of advertising in society fight a losing battle. Ignore the ads? They'll play them louder and try another tactic to shove it in your face. Complain about the ads? Advertising tells its clients that people are complaining and there's No Such Thing as Bad Publicity so long as that product name is out there being talked about on the news. Even if the product fails, the advertising company has already long-since been paid.
However, there's always AdBlock and Tivo allowing one to either get around or remove the advertisements entirely. You know they work because companies are always complaining about them.
In product surveys, choosing "I haven't heard of the product" or "I don't like X product" is the same as saying "You need to try to get to me harder."
The same is true for stock brokers: If the stocks rise or fall does not matter to them, they get paid any time they buy or sell stocks for their clients. Their only concern is that their clients feel they are doing their job well and don't take their stocks to another broker to manage.
Using the Power Of Math, insurance companies can calculate with very high accuracy how much in insurance claims they will have to pay out in a given time frame. Insurance payments are calculated to be higher than that number so the company will always come out ahead. They don't need to know what accidents happen to which of their clients at what time. For any of the trillions of scenarios that can happen during one year, the payments they'll recieve will cover for virtually all of them.
In the Firefly fic Forward, the corrupt Alliance cop Womack forces Mal and his crew into one of these by giving them an offer they can't refuse: either they take out an illegal organ-growing operation whose operator is disagreeing with Womack, or he'll have the crew arrested as the organ smugglers, as his superiors are breathing down his neck about capturing someone to blame for it all. In reality, he's also running a second con underneath it: if Mal and his crew take out the smuggling operation, it will work out fine, but if Serenity's crew fails, they'll scare the smugglers into packing up and moving shop off the planet, which gets them out of Womack's hair anyway. Either way, he wins. It almost works too, but the Operative's unexpected assault on the same organ-growing operation sent the whole thing pear-shaped.
Ultimate Sleepwalker: The New Dreams has Sleepwalker trapped in Rick Sheridan's mind as part of a larger gambit by his Arch-Enemy Cobweb. If Sleepwalker had been killed at any point during the plan, then Cobweb could have proceeded with the rest of it without any more trouble. On the other hand, Cobweb had it rigged up so even if Sleepwalker survived, it only allowed the next part of the plan to begin anyway. Cobweb puts in so many failsafes that Sleepwalker only finally manages to derail his plan at the very last minute.
Ultimate Spider-Woman: Change With The Light Jack O'Lantern launches one of these to set up his true Evil Plan. The beauty of it is that it would work no matter which crime syndicates were crippled, since destroying Philippe Bazin or Crimewave would have suited him just as well. Even if the gang war had petered out, he wouldn't really have lost anything, since he'd already covered his tracks.
The modus operandi of the Wise Prince protagonist in Dragon Age The Crown Of Thorns, although he's definitely not the only one who uses them. Notable ones include setting up safeguards to whether or not his plan to fake Trian's death works in the early chapters and building on them when dealing with the succession mess.
In the Total Drama story, Courtney And The Violin Of Despair, the only two possible outcomes in the cliff diving challenge are for Courtney to (a) jump and die; or (b) not jump, and be publicly humiliated. Both outcomes serve the interests of the Violin spirit.
Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine attempted this in the original Star Wars trilogy. There are two Skywalkers, one's already his apprentice but he's more machine than man now and the other is young and idealistic and a potential threat. So he tries to tempt Luke to the Dark Side with a duel with his father. If Luke wins, he gets an upgraded apprentice, if not, he's rid of a potential threat and Darth Vader's loyalty no longer has another possible recipient. It didn't work however, as Luke wouldn't turn to the dark side. He then tries to kill Luke but that doesn't work either because Vader is still capable of throwing the emperor off a balcony.
Obi Wan is polite enough to warn Vader that "if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine" before setting Vader up to do just that.
Sidious's plan in The Phantom Menace is a Xanatos Gambit — at the start of the film he wants the Trade Federation to hold Queen Amidala prisoner; when she escapes, he sends his apprentice, Darth Maul, to prevent her from reaching Coruscant. But Amidala does reach Coruscant, and within a couple hours she's helped Sidious become Chancellor Palpatine.
The entire prequel trilogy of Star Wars was this by Sidious: he controlled both sides in the Clone Wars (the Republic as Chancellor Palpatine, the Separatists as Darth Sidious) so whichever side won, the Jedi would be destroyed, he would become Emperor, and he would have a powerful Sith apprentice (Count Dooku or Darth Vader: this was decided - possibly along with the outcome of the entire war - by their duel at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith).
This was planned as well with Palpatine convincing Dooku to defeat Kenobi while losing to Anakin thereby allowing the two to convert Anakin to the dark side.
Obi-Wan's mission to kill General Grievous is described as one of these (as well as a Uriah Gambit) in Novelization. Obi-Wan succeeds and kills Grievous? That's one less pawn that Palpatine would otherwise have to dispose of later. Grievous kills Obi-Wan? One less Jedi in Palpatine's way. The end result of the battle is rather irrelevant; the entire point was to make sure Obi-Wan wasn't on Coruscant, where he would otherwise likely be able to stop Anakin from turning to The Dark Side.
Part A of Syndrome's scheme in The Incredibles. Whether a super succeeds or fails against the Omnidroid, Syndrome still gets to collect the data from the battle, and due to the scenario presented, no one thinks there's a need to question the droid's source.
This is used to humorous effect in The Princess Bride, where Westley and Vizzini play a game of wits: Vizzini has to guess which goblet Westley has poisoned and select one to drink, Westley being forced to drink from the other one. After Vizzini has (with much complicated exposition) made his choice and drunk, Westley reveals that both the goblets are poisoned and that he has a resistance to that particular poison. Notable in that this gambit's against a minor foe, and foreshadows that the true enemy, for all his resources, is wholly Westley's inferior.
Something similar happened in the comic, but instead of stealing their powers, Moriarty was trying to steal the cavorite from First Men in the Moon from Dr. FuManchu.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker set up several situations where either outcome would please him.
When he attacked Dent's motorcade, he won regardless - either he killed Dent or Batman, Batman killed him and broke his 'one rule', or the Joker was caught by police - in which case he had a goon with a stomach full of dynamite, and two buildings full of timed explosives ready to go.
Later, he made people choose between killing a man or restraining themselves, letting him blow up a hospital. Finally, he gave two ships' occupants the choice to choose which ship would blow up. He didn't care how they chose - either would have delighted him. He was furious when neither chose to attack the other, but he was ready for that as well and prepared to blow then up manually.
And though his ferry plot failed the Xanatos test by virtue of getting some new scars, he still had one last gambit to play: corrupting Harvey Dent which Batman thwarts with a Zero Approval Gambit. While forcing Batman to taint his own reputation is arguably win for the Joker in of itself, the fact this lie eventually falls apart in The Dark Knight Rises grants him another victory in the long term.
In the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Jack Sparrow allowed himself to be shackled in the first movie so he could use them to take Elizabeth hostage, Either they let him escape or she becomes a distraction for his escape. Or taking one of the Aztec coins? Barbosa can no longer win because he himself cannot be killed, but once Will dispells the curse, he can finish Barbosa off with his pistol.
The villains' plan in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. First, Destro develops Nano-mite warheads for NATO, in order to secure their funding to build his criminal empire. He intends to use them in major population zones to scare the world into the arms of the "world's most powerful man". OK, that's a cute little Batman Gambit he has going. However the Nano-Mites themselves are the brainchild of The Doctor (not that one), who himself is using Destro (oh wait, therehe is) as a Unwitting Pawn. All The Doctor wants is to invent bizarre new methods to kill and torture (For Science!!) and needs the funding from the plan to succeed. When the heroes foil the plan and ruin his chances, he uses the chaos of the escape and Destro's sudden loss of his power base to usurp control and devote the groups actions to his scientific endeavors while assuming the mantle of Commander.
Ah, but there's more to it than that. The success or failure of the Nano-mite attack was irrelevant to the long-term plan. All that matters was that it was launched, providing an opportunity to get the President of the USA (the "world's most powerful man") into a position where he could be replaced by a doppelganger (who is probably still under the Commander's control, even if he thinks that he isn't). Now that this has been done, scaring up a terrorist threat large enough to justify seizing extraordinary powers should be child's play. Which leads on to the next stage of the plan - if Joe remain oblivious, Zartan will be in a position to cripple them, and if they find out and attempt to remove him, the attempt could easily be portrayed as a military coup, which would cause their allies to turn on them. Even if Joe succeeds in exposing Zartan, they will have suffered substantial damage and will be under a lingering cloud of suspicion; the world's governments having been driven into a crippling and eminently exploitable state of paranoia by the twin prospects of a renegade military and high officials being replaced by duplicates. Meanwhile the Commander and Destro will certainly have been freed, and the seeds of the Cobra organisation laid.
In 2009's Sherlock Holmes film, Lord Blackwood pulls a minor Xanatos Gambit in being caught by Holmes and executed by hanging so he could later demonstrate that the Powers That Be are behind him by "returning" from the grave. Holmes doesn't catch him, he's still free and powerful. Holmes does catch him, he can become even more powerful.
In The Exorcist, the demon(s) possessing Regan are actually after the soul of Father Damien...either the little girl or the priest; either way they win. Except that Damien sacrifices himself to outwit them in the end.
Actually, self-sacrifice is when you die in the act of saving someone, whereas suicide is where you intentionally kill yourself. Because Damien intentionally jumped out the window to kill himself and the demon, he actually committed suicide. Which, according to the Catholic Church, is a mortal sin... So the demons really did win
If the demon had survived in Damien's body, it would certainly have killed many people, so he did in fact die in the act of saving people.
Averted in favor of Indy Ploys in Ocean's Eleven, but played straight in Ocean's Twelve: They had already won. The heist was just window dressing.
The plan to get rid of The Pit in PCU. Either they don't get the money in time, or they try a plan that would get them in trouble, even if it's in the form of having the student body file complaints. The latter is what happened.
In Iron Man 2, Ivan Vanko's attack on Tony Stark at the race track was deliberately chosen because either outcome would achieve his goals. If he won, he'd kill Tony and get his revenge. If he lost, he'd show the world that Tony's claims that the Arc Reactor tech was impossible to replicate would be shattered, which in turn would ruin Tony's position as the world's self-imposed protector. Vanko even yells "You lose!" to Tony as the police drag him away after he's been defeated.
Furthermore, even just the act of challenging him furthers Vanko's plans. To paraphrase, Vanko tells Stark that he "bloodied" him, taking away his air of invincibility and paving the way for others to challenge him again.
In the 1972 film Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth remarks about Mary's choice of suitors and aptly describes this very trope.
"If she chooses Dudley, then we are safe from foreign Catholic princes, though I admit it will be a hard price for me to pay. If she takes Darnley, we have given nothing and she has a weak, degenerate fool as her consort. Win or lose the wager, I cannot lose the game."
In the old Armenian tale The Liar, a king offers a golden apple to anyone who can tell him a lie he won't believe. Many try and fail until a peasant enters his throne room and tells the king that he owes him money. The king calls the peasant a liar. Thus, the king is forced to either give the peasant the golden apple, or the money the peasant claims the king owes him.
The overarching plot of the Bible (at least according to mainstream Christian interpretations). Adam sinned by deciding humans could decide for themselves what was good or evil, "tainting" all future humans (which, since he and Eve were the First, is ALL humanity) with sin and death, and Jesus gives himself to counter-act this, the life of a perfect man (Adam) for the life of a perfect man (Jesus). Afterwards, everything is basically a Xanatos Gambit by God against Satan. Satan and the wicked have dominion over the earth and can (have, and will) persecute God's true followers and will attempt to destroy them. This could go several ways. 1) If the "wicked" have good hearts, no matter what, they will be called and welcomed to God's followers. Satan loses, Jehovah wins. 2) The wicked try to ignore God's people and continue ruling themselves. They are unable to successfully rule themselves, as God had predicted, and they will be removed from power. Satan loses, Jehovah wins. 3) The wicked and hard-hearted attempt to destroy God's followers. Prophesies are fulfilled, Har-magedon begins, they are destroyed, the good-hearted are heralded into an eternity of happiness in a paradise earth, Satan and his demons are imprisoned and eventually destroyed, resolving the issue of sovereignty once and for all and ending in the destruction of all evil for all time. Satan loses, Jehovah wins.
In Andre Norton's Victory on Janus, THAT WHICH ABIDES executes a Xanatos Gambit to weaken its age-old enemies, the Iftin, by deploying android duplicates of specific Iftin and human individuals in staged "attacks" outside human settlements. If a staged attack succeeds in persuading a human settlement to open its gates to let in a "human fugitive" pursued by "Iftin", the settlement can be wiped out, thus depriving the real Iftin of potential recruits and allies; if the tactic fails, the Iftin are made to look like monsters, and the humans are likely to wipe them out.
The UnseenEvil Overlord Arawn of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles pulls at least one of these (and probably more than that) near the end of the series when he sends King Pryderi, his war leader, to dispatch Dallben, the greatest enchanter in Prydain. Arawn likely knew that Pryderi harbored traitorous intent towards him, and therefore manipulated the situation to his favor; If Pryderi succeeded, Arawn was rid of Dallben, and if he failed, he was rid of a future rival. Arawn won either way.
In Life, the Universe and Everything, Hactar either counts on, or at least anticipates, the failure of his original plan to manipulate the people of Krikkit into detonating the supernova bomb and destroying the universe. While describing My Brilliant Evil Plan to Trillian and Arthur, he completes a gradual replacement of Arthur's belongings that's been happening throughout the book by planting a second, disguised bomb on him, then manipulates the situation further so that, after they've destroyed him, the heroes proceed to go back in time several days, putting Arthur in a position where he'll trigger the bomb by accident, not only destroying the universe but erasing their original victory. Hactar even gloats for a split second when Trillian asks him how he feels about having failed with Krikkit by whispering "have I failed?", which goes unnoticed until later. The universe ends up being saved only by the craziest of blind luck: Hactar hadn't foreseen Arthur learning how to fly, which turns out to be the one monkey wrench that breaks an otherwise unstoppable chain of events.
In the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold, the main antagonist of The Vor Game, Commander Cavilo, defines this trope with "Don't choose a path that leads to victory, choose so that all paths lead to victory" (the page quote). She ruins it by trying to double-cross everybody, including all four sides of what was previously a promising Mexican Standoff.
And then ends up being Out-Gambitted by Gregor Vorbarra. The Emperor of Barrayar was well-taught in chess.
In Siege of Darkness, Lolth orders an attack on Mithral Hall because Menzoberranzan having to control such a remote territory will result in a lot of chaos in the city - and this is what she wants. When the attack fails, she seems to be even happier, because with all the losses and failures, there will be even more chaos.
Several gambits are pulled off in the literature surrounding Warhammer 40000. In the Eisenhorn trilogy, the lead character is given a covert message from what appears to be one of his closest allies. He then goes off to meet said ally only to be confronted by a minor villainess who appears to have him utterly cornered by a group of well armed mooks. Eisenhorn then manages to get the information he required from the villainess, only to reveal that he knew it was a trap all along and is physically controlling a dead body remotely. He then wipes out the entire group in a massive psychic explosion. The villainess had lost the moment she stepped into that meeting, giving up the information just made the victory sweeter. By now, Eisenhorn has sauntered into the Magnificent Bastard Camp.
Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts novel Sabbat Martyr. Saint Sabbat reincarnates on the otherwise unremarkable planet Herodor. If Chaos forces are diverted to attack the planet and kill her, it takes pressure off the overstretched main forces of the Imperial Crusade. If they do not, the Imperials still get a large, possibly table-turning morale boost from her presence. Either way, the good guys benefit.
In the Michael Crichton book Prey, the hero puts a virus in the fire sprinkler system, which will kill the villains when activated. The villains respond by deactivating the safety systems, so the sprinklers won't go off. Turns out that's exactly what the hero was counting on — turning off the safety systems never ends well.
The reverse is true in William Marshall's Sci Fi. A trap is due to be set off by the sprinkler system therefore the villain starts a fire.
The terrorist plan in Frederick Forsyth's The Afghan. A seemingly straightforward attempt to use a fuel tanker to kill the G8 delegation is stopped - but the idea was to form a fuel-air mixture and detonate that when the ship bearing the G8 delegation passes by. Either way, the terrorists nearly manage to get their hit off.
In The Dresden Files ninth book, White Night, Lara Raith, acting leader of the White Court of Vampires, pulls one of these. Essentially, she comes up with a plan to wipe out the White Council of Wizards and usher in a new age in which vampires would rule supreme. She then leaks this plan to the heads of Houses Malvora and Skavis, who proceed to put it into action, only to be foiled by series' titular wizard. However, Lara later admits to Harry that she intended all along for him to defeat Malvora and Skavis, as doing so removed her greatest potential rivals and cemented her hold over the White Court.
That could be seen as payback for how Harry played Lara in Blood Rites. He (along with Murphy and Thomas) had been captured by Lara's father, tried to fight their way out, and were finally overcome by him. Harry then got Papa Raith to monologue about how he cared nothing for his children and to reveal that he'd been cursed to be unable to feed and so was losing strength...because Harry knew that Lara was in the cave, listening. Harry saw two outcomes: One Lara's father defeats her but the fight allows him to escape, or two, Lara defeats her father, which also allows for their escape. It also puts Harry's client in the book out of danger in one fell swoop. Lara congratulates him on his manipulations, which means something from someone who's part of a species of chessmasters.
Nicodemus of is also good at this. In Small Favor, he kidnaps Marcone, ostensibly to gain control of his criminal empire. Harry plays by the rules, treats it as a conflict between two recognized members of the supernatural community and brings in the Archive to act as arbitrator, but that's what Nicodemus wanted all along so he could both capture her incredibly vast power and discredit Harry to his allies because he got Ivy into that mess. Harry offers Nicodemus custody of Fidelacchius in exchange for both of them, but when they are to make the exchange, Nicodemus shows Harry that he has been having them tortured to set off Harry's Berserk Button so he would use Fidelacchius in anger, negating its holy powers enough for Nick to destroy it. Harry sees through it only because he's made that mistake once before. After the successful rescue, Nicodemus consoles himself that his minions who did most of the work were incompetents and/or suspected traitors anyway, so he doesn't mind that some of them were killed in the fight or that Ivy now bears a grudge against them personally...Pity he made two mistakes. 1. His 'no-save' mind control on Harry is no longer valid, and 2. Harry knows how to kill him. Nicodemus is still alive, but it was a close thing..
Harry even mentions that, if Nicodemus is really on the ball, he'll be able to kill both of the remaining Knights of the Cross and take their Swords (thus removing a major source of good from the world and preventing any successors from showing up to challenge him) as well as Harry himself, AND regain possession of the denarii that the good guys have captured. Harry knows that Nicodemus is going to use the exchange as a trap, and Nicodemus knows that Harry will be prepared for one, but the potential benefits are so huge that he just HAS to give it a shot. Especially since Nicodemus thinks that Harry is being influenced by a Fallen himself...
And in the following book, Harry pulls one himself. He invites the White Court vampires and the White Council of wizards to an island, each for different reasons. He knows that a third, mysterious group will also attack, but he's set things up beforehand so that the Council and the White Court can put aside their antagonism just long enough to gang up on the third. Even working together they might have been beaten by the third if not for Harry's newfound spirit friend. The third faction's mole on the White Council escapes, but Harry later reveals that he had hired a private investigator to take pictures of everyone on the way to the meeting, identifying The Mole for the first time.
Subverted some when Harry realizes his target had an alternative way off of the island, rendering his plan a Gambit Roulette where he simply got lucky the person took the path he had under surveillance. Injun Joe assures Harry that, by enacting his plan, he made his own luck.
Firstly, he uses the communication crystal, that he normally uses to co-ordinate operations with the various servants he planted in the palace, to taunt, distract and goad new king Lief into destroying it.
The crystal is rigged to spit out the plot of the Four Sisters, essentially the reasons why the people seem to be starving. Knowing that the king would set off to destroy them, the Shadow Lord also planted a map to the first Sister, underneath the crystal, and maps to the next Sisters, near the previous Sister.
On the off-chance that all the Sisters would be destroyed (nearly impossible since they're apparently only vulnerable to fire from the [now-extinct] dragons), a giant near-indestructible blob of evil goo, placed in the dead center of Deltora, was set to awaken and start to expand and devour everything.
Therefore, if the Sisters were destroyed, the blob would eat everything in sight and the land would belong to the Shadow Lord, on account of the fact that nothing else could live there. If the Sisters were not destroyed, then everyone would starve to death and the Shadow Lord could just march in and take over. Either way, he wins.
Of course, he still doesn't win. All seven dragons working together are able to destroy the goo. The Shadow Lord was probably banking on Lief being unable to get the notoriously territorial dragons to cooperate. As mentioned above, they were supposed to be extinct.
Sauron pulls one of these against Ar-Pharazôn of Númenor in The Silmarillion. By goading Pharazôn into assembling the largest army in history and setting out to make war on the Valar, he sets up his defeat nicely by pitting him against opponents far beyond his league. In the unlikely event that Pharazôn actually wins, Sauron's still ahead, as the Valar are his enemies as well. Overall, things go very smoothly (sure, Sauron loses his physical body when Ilúvatar destroys not the the fleet, but the entire island of Númenor, but it was just an avatar, so Sauron's spirit survives and most of the Númenóreans die). Pity for him that not all the Númenóreans were dead, though...
Voldemort's plan in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: If Malfoy succeeds in killing Dumbledore, then Dumbledore is dead. However, if he dies in the attempt, as Voldemort expected him to, then Lucius Malfoy is punished for his failure in the Department of Mysteries, Snape (or one of the other Death Eaters there to witness it) kills Dumbledore, and Dumbledore is dead anyway, meaning a massive blow to La Résistance. However, Voldemort didn't know that Dumbledore arranged his own death with Snape as part of a counter plan to kill Voldemort.
A lesser version: During Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore shows Harry a memory of his with Voldemort trying to get a job at Hogwarts in the past. They ultimately draw the conclusion that Voldemort had used his time in the castle to try and get hold of an item owned by a Hogwarts Founder for use as a Soul Jar. In Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Harry realizes they had it backwards, and Voldemort had used his time in the castle to hide one of his Soul Jars. Harry reasons that Voldemort had still honestly wanted the job. Getting hired would've left Voldemort in a position of influence and potentially let him get the item he sought later. However, not getting hired was by no means a setback since it still allowed him to do what he planned on in the first place.
H. Beam Piper uses this in "Ministry of Disturbance". The emperor notes a couple of times that when you have a few problems, you're in trouble, but when you have a lot of problems, they end up solving each other.
Grand Admiral Thrawn generally relied on the Batman Gambit, and was a master of it, but used this one once by launching a staggered attack against many New Republic worlds - if they failed to send backup to the places he attacked, he captured planets without a fight; if they did send backup, they left his true target undefended.
A similar strategy was stated in Isard's Revenge, though this time it was a New Republic fleet forcing tough decisions on a splinter of the Empire.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu advises that if your enemy is attacking one of your areas, you should respond by attacking his weakest ally. Your enemy will thus be forced to lift his siege and come to his ally's aid. Oh sure, he could ignore the plea for assistance and keep up the attack, but then all his allies will desert him.
In The Merchant Princes by Charles Stross, the hidden enemies in the first book set assassins against both Miriam and Olga (and a hired rapist at the latter) with the intention of destroying The Clan by restarting a civil war. If Miriam is killed and her death can be blamed on one half of the Clan for inheritance-related reasons, that starts up the civil war. If Olga (Miriam's boyfriend's fiancee) is killed or raped (and forced tomarry her rapist), and it looks like Miriam arranged it to get her out of the way so she could marry Roland, the war starts up again for a different reason. For bonus Xanatos points, the rapist was given evidence that implicated Miriam to Olga, and Olga's an Action Girl who didn't take that well; she would have killed Miriam if Miriam hadn't been convincingly and completely befuddled about the whole situation.
Lord Vetinari pulls one in the Discworld book Guards! Guards!, when being overthrown and imprisoned does not, as Sam Vimes begins to realise, prevent him from still being in control thanks to his well-laid plans.
"He [Vimes] wondered what it was like in the Patrician's mind. All cold and shiny, he thought, all blued steel and icicles and little wheels clicking along like a huge clock. The kind of mind that would carefully consider its own downfall and turn it to advantage."
Granny Weatherwax pulls one in Wintersmith when one of the old witches die and there's an opening for her old cottage. She backs the trainee witch Tiffany Aching, who is for all purposes her own student, for the cottage and ends up turning it into a choice between Tiffany or another trainee called Annagramma (who is a student of a rival witch with an alternate view on witchcraft). If Tiffany gets the position, she will do a good job and will showcase to all the witches how well Granny's methods work. If Annagramma gets the position she will fail and will make Tiffany help her, showing the other witches that Annagramma's methods don't work and how well Granny's methods work by helping her back on her feet. Tiffany sees through the first half of Granny's plan, to get Annagramma the cottage so that everybody can see her, and her mentor's, methods fail, and so Tiffany organizes a campaign to assist Annagramma, so that she at least doesn't fail. Then at the end Tiffany realizes the full plan; get Annagramma the cottage, because the responsibility will do her good, let the trainee witches assist Annagramma, because she could do with humility and sense, and then let it be known that Annagramma's teacher is no good, Granny's the best, and Annagramma's on her way to being a competent witch. The only one who suffers anything is Annagramma's mentor, everybody else gains.
Then there's her plan in the short story The Sea and Little Fishes. Granny keeps on winning the Witch Trial festival year after year because she's the best. The new head for the Trials' planning committee (who later becomes Annagramma's teacher) thinks this is unfair and asks Granny to step down and just help the festival without competing. Granny... Does exactly that and is nice about it, which drives all the other witches insane thinking about what horrible vengeance she's planning behind her Obfuscating Niceness. If the witches hadn't all gone paranoid about it it would have led to a fine Witch Trial, shown that Granny could be humble, and shown that the committee head was slightly petty. But, as everyone 'sees through it', it ends up completely wrecking everyone else's day, especially the committee head's, and underlining that Granny is able to out-fox the entire rest of the witching community (including Nanny Ogg) without even trying.
In Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 2: The Sea of Monsters, Luke reveals near the end that he planned to let the good guys have the golden fleece in the end, anyway. At the end of the book, the tree is healed, the camp is saved, and Thalia lives again, giving Kronos a second chance to convert a child of Zeus, Hades, or Poseidon to his cause.
"It's just business, Jack."
Caesar pulls an impressive gambit in Area 7. He has the president trapped in a secret base and put a satellite uplink connected to his heart so that half of America will be blown up if he dies. If the president escapes, then the bombs are on a timer that can only be reset from inside the base so he still wins. If the president's bodyguard somehow kills his entire personal army, then he has another uplink connected to his own heart and can set the bombs off anyway.
Caesar: "Cross my heart and hope to die"
The short story "The Lions in the Desert" by David Langford revolves around a gambit started by the long dead Jasper Trent who once caught a glimpse of a shapeshifter and wanted to expose their existence to the rest of the world. Jasper set up a foundation that would set elaborate traps disguised as mythical treasures. The narrator/protagonist, who is indeed one of the shapeshifters, is about to escape from the trap using his powers to avoid being examined when he realizes that his escape would also expose the existence of his kind — the traps are designed in such a way that only a shapeshifter like the one Jasper saw would be able to escape without leaving any trace of evidence. He solves this problem by murdering his best friend and leaving his crushed body in the trap.
In Matched by Ally Condie, Cassia's seeing Ky on the Matching screen is revealed to be an experiment to prove that Matching indeed makes people fall in love, since without it she would never have known Ky. If she had picked her actual match, Xander, then they would have known that she was willing to obey what was expected of her. Either way, the Society would get what they wanted.
This is Ardneh's modus operandi throughout The Empire of the East trilogy by Fred Saberhagen. First he manipulates Ekuman into seizing the Elephant so that Rolf can drown him with a fire extinguisher in accordance with prophecy, but if Ekuman hadn't seized the Elephant, well, the free folk would have had an invincible super-weapon. Then he manipulates the demon Zapranoth to bringing his life force to Som's fortress so he can guard it and keep it safe, but that's exactly how Ardneh plans to destroy it. But if Zapranoth had just left it where it was, unguarded, Ardneh could have destroyed it there. Then he gains a massive amount of power, the culmination of a plot that had been in motion since the very beginning of the story, to trick Wood and John Ominor, the rulers of The Empire into releasing the demon-king Orcus, the only entity powerful enough to stop Ardneh now. This is exactly how Ardneh destroys the entire Empire in a single stroke. If they had not released Orcus, Ardneh would have crushed them with his overwhelming power. Ardneh always wins.
In Beowulf's Children by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes, Aaron Tragon's theft of the transport ship Robo was a Xanatos Gambit. Aaron Tragon's primary goal is to force everyone to leave the island and colonize the mainland. If the theft was successful, good. If one of the adults died in the conflict, then it's hardball and Aaron gets a war — also good. If one of Aaron's friends is killed, then he gets sympathy from the other colonists and he has the leverage he needs to start colonizing the mainland — very good. The third outcome is what happens. Justin is horrified when he realizes this, because it meant Aaron actually took into account the possibility of a friend being killed and that he already planned how to take advantage of it. Even his "friends" are just pawns in Aaron's mind.
In The Wise Man's Fear, the Maer of Alveron pulls this on Kvothe by sending him on a journey to take out some bandits. Kvothe realises that if he suceeds, the Maer's lands are safe, but if Kvothe fails, he would need to return to the Maer in shame, weakening his position in the court and reducing the obligation that the Maer had on helping Kvothe. Either way, the Maer wins.
In Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, an anarchist bomb-maker boasts that he will sell explosives to anyone who wants them, and he wears a vest of explosives everywhere he goes as protection. If the police ignore him, he can keep supplying bombs to terrorists. If they try to arrest him, he'll blow up himself and at least one cop and gain huge publicity. If they shoot him from a distance, the police will have compromised their principles by killing him without trial, and he'll have proven that the law doesn't work.
Artemis Fowl in the first book. An instance where Xanatos Speed Chess leads to a Xanatos Gambit. After abducting Holly he notices she has a tracker on her wrist so he does some quick soldering and gluing to place a small camera inside. His plan is to use the camera to lead any pursuers in the opposite direction and communicate with them without showing himself. If it works then great, but if it doesn't, it's still off Holly and all he loses is 'an advantage he never expect to have in the first place'.
Terok Nor and Dukat's plans to annex Bajor. Manipulating the Bajorans into accepting closer ties with the Cardassians (achieved through whipping them into a paranoia about the Tzenkethi) is a sort of Xanatos Gambit, in that his "winning" does not truly depend on its success - and this because Bajor is weakened either way. He fakes Tzenkethi attacks and manipulates communications to construct false accounts of Bajoran/Cardassian/Tzenkethi encounters in space. Finally, he hijacks a Tzenkethi marauder, using it to bomb Bajor before the Cardassian fleet "heroically" responds. The Bajorans end up rushing gratefully into the arms of their Cardassian "saviours". Even if the plan "failed" (and the Cardassians' duplicity revealed), Bajor would still have been crippled and vulnerable; the Cardassians were in a position to take over no matter what. The success of Dukat's Tzenkethi scheme only makes his ultimate plans unfold with less resistance, and with less Cardassian bloodshed. Indeed, even as the plan unfolds masterfully, Dukat reflects that Bajor was an easy target for outside forces.
Tortall Universe has a kind of layered one in Emperor Mage. Early in the book, a stormwing gives Emperor Ozorne a steel feather and says that if he's ever in peril he could cut himself with it and "rise from your enemies as if winged with steel, and escape beyond the Black God's reach for all time." In context this suggests this will turn him into a stormwing. Later Ozorne has been cornered and injured by The Heroine, who has set zombie dinosaurs rampaging through the palace, but has him more scared by hyenas, since it was prophesied that they would end his reign. He's offered the chance to surrender and abdicate, when he refuses he's told the hyenas will kill him. So he takes a third option and uses the feather - turning him into a stormwing and thus falling under ''their jursidiction'', and reducing him to the kind of creature he kept in cages. Unfortunately he does still escape to cause trouble, but he is then out of the picture as the Emperor Mage.
Not uncommon in Dune. To take one example, in Dune Messiah the Tleilaxu create a ghola of Paul Atreides' deceased friend Duncan Idaho, named Hayt. A ghola is essentially a clone made from reanimated dead flesh, but lacking any memories of the original—something which prevents the Tleilaxu from using gholas to create functional immortality. As part of a plot with the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild, Hayt is told to kill Paul. Either he will do it and fulfil the plot, or forcing him to go against the loyalties of his former life will cause a shock that will restore the former memories, solving the immortality problem for the Tleilaxu. The second option is what occurs, allowing the ghola resurrection trick to be used constantly over the rest of the Dune series.
Jeeves rarely organizes a Zany Scheme without taking measures to ensure that there's something in it for him, even if the scheme falls through.
In Michael Flynn's In the Lion's Mouth, a discussion about retrieving Donovan hits on if the agent doesn't bring him back, does bring him, or does not return herself — each one will solve a problem.
In the historical novel Wings Of Dawn: Half of the gambits executed by both conspiracies are to figure out just whose side Thomas is on - i.e. "If he's against us, he'll do this and we can get rid of him, but if he's a free agent he'll do this and we can either convince him to join us or use him to lead us to the cache of books."
In the Inheritance Cycle, Galbatorix uses this to great effect. He makes a secret deal with the Urgals (who are responsible for the death of his dragon), and sends them to attack the Varden. Either outcome suits his interests. Either the Urgals wipe out the Varden, and thus, the Urgals are weakened, or the Varden wipes out the Urgals, and thus, the Varden are weakened. In both cases, this allows him to step in and finish the job after the massive fight between the two. The only think he didn't count on was the possibility of his lieutenant Durza, who was in command of the Urgals, being killed. When it happened, the Urgals turned tail and fled, leaving the Varden weakened, but still in fighting shape, and the Urgals desperate enough to make an alliance with the Varden, which later turned out badly for Galbatorix.
And on a lesser scale, the tactic of extending your mind equally and touching other peoples' minds. Normal people cannot sense the touch of a magician in most cases, and thus you will have free access to their thoughts, allowing you to sense malicious intent freely. However, a magician can sense your touch, and will likely shield his mind from your touch. Either you will sense the malicious intent among the normal people, and/or the magician(s) will shield their minds from you, allowing you to follow those minds and eliminate them physically. The only danger lies with one of the targeted magicians being stronger than you mentally and forcing his way into your mind at your touch.
Live Action TV
Law & Order: Criminal Intent: Eames proposed one in "Semi-Professional." They suspected a judge of hiring a small-time crook (that he had previously given probation to) to commit a murder. They arrest the crook on a probation violation, which brought him back before the same judge. If the judge rules it isn't a probation violation, they have further evidence that the two were in collusion. If he rules it was a probation violation and sends the crook to jail, the crook now has a reason to turn on him. He rules it was a violation, and the crook gives them evidence that allows Goren to manipulate the judge into incriminating himself.
In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Amok Time," Spock's bride-to-be T'Pring manages this by forcing the infamous "mating fight" between Spock and Kirk, naming Kirk rather than her preferred partner Stonn as her champion with the expectation that if Kirk won, he wouldn't want her, and if Spock won he would call off the engagement out of shame over killing his friend — and if he didn't, his duties as a member of Starfleet would keep him busy out in space most of the time anyhow, leaving her free to have an affair with Stonn in his absence.
It should be mentioned that there are two outcomes which T'Pring's confession does not address: That Kirk might win the fight and choose to keep her, and that Kirk might simply refuse to fight for her at all (which he is explicitly told is a valid option). However, these two scenarios also fit perfectly into her Gambit: In the case of the first, Kirk would (again) be off in space leaving her to be with Stonn; and in the second, the combat would have defaulted to Stonn, who very likely would have defeated Spock soundly.
One of the few villains to survive from the first series of Bugs, Jean Daniel, used a Xanatos Gambit to escape prison in the second series. He got privileges for good behaviour in the prison in order to be allowed to invest the prison's funds to help raise money for a swimming pool, in the process funding several plots which the Bugs team got wound up in, making investments that required the team to succeed in stopping the various plots to make a profit. He then used the funds he raised in excess of the swimming pool target to buy the prison.
Explosively used in the episode Automatic for the People of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, where it turns out that anything Action Mom Sarah does regarding the nuclear plant results in a victory for Skynet. Stop the dangerous nuclear power plant test? Skynet wins; then the Resistance can't use that plant as a base in the future, as it will be shut down. Ignore the dangerous nuclear power plant? Skynet wins; thousands of people die in the ensuing explosion. Prevent the rigged explosion? Skynet wins; the TerminatorCorrupt Corporate Executive waltzes in and takes it over. (Or that was how it appeared at the time: things are more complicated given that Weaver isn't working for Skynet but is an independent third force.)
Cromartie also shows his manipulative planning skills in "The Mousetrap", in which he kidnaps Charley's wife to lure Sarah and Derek out to an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. The trap was designed to lure them out to isolate John, and it was made blatant so that Sarah would call John and warn him. That allowed Cromartie to tap into their cell phones, get the Connors' safe code, and direct John to a place where Cromartie could ambush him. Then Cromartie triggers the actual bombs at the abandoned house. Just as planned.
In Doctor Who, the Doctor uses these. e.g, in 'Remembrance of the Daleks', the seventh Doctor seems to be trying to keep the Daleks from getting hold of the Hand of Omega (plan A) but when they do get to use it, he reveals that he rigged it so that when the Daleks tried to use it, they'd blow up their own sun (plan B). A few weeks later, he pulled the exact same trick on the Cybermen.
The Master and especially the Delgado Master, who plays for every possible team just in case (see Frontier in Space). Then there was the magic gun subplot in The Last of the Time Lords, and the backup plan of the LazLabs ring... Even when he is seemingly defeated, he will find some way of coming back.
The Slitheen's plan in "Boom Town", which was designed in such a way that anyone capable of actually stopping it to begin with would ultimately put it back in motion anyway.
Michael Scofield of Prison Break is amazingly good at these, though he keeps getting caught up in the Gambit Pileups of those around him. A major example is in Hell Or High Water, when his plan succeeds in helping him escape Sona and ridding himself of Bagwell, Bellick, and Lechero. It doesn't work out completely, unfortunately.
Don Self uses one in the episode ''Just Business" when he and Gretchen attack the hideout of Michael's True Companions to retrieve the missing component of Schylla. The attempt masked their secondary objective, which was to secretly plant a surveillance device within the hideout, enabling them to know where the component is hidden (which they later retrieve).
Virtually every episode of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister features at least one Xanatos Gambit conducted by Sir Humphrey and/or Hacker.
Of all people, Rita Repulsa of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers has one of these. In the season 3 two-parter "A Ranger Catastrophe", she carries out a typical "separate Tommy from his teammates, send down a Monster of the Week" plot, but the real aim of the plot is not necessarily to destroy the Rangers, but to ingratiate her spy, the brainwashed girl Kat, into the Rangers' social circle.
Done on a series-long basis in Power Rangers Ninja Storm and Power Rangers RPM. In Ninja Storm, Lothor sent Monsters Of The Week one at a time - knowing that the monsters would become Sealed Evil in a Can, and that the can had a specific limit on how much it could hold before it broke and everything got out at once - and he intentionally kept sending monsters just long enough to reach that limit. In RPM, the weekly monsters were just a decoy to prevent the Rangers from noticing him filling the city with cyborg Manchurian Agents. In both cases, if the monster succeeds, great, they win. If the monster failed, oh well, Plan B is now one step closer to fruition.
In Power Rangers Samurai episode Dayu is kidnapping brides on their wedding days. The Rangers take one bride into safety and replace her at the altar with one of the female Rangers. The bad guys don't fall for it, capturing the Ranger and kidnapping the real bride from the safehouse anyway. Then it's revealed that the protected bride had been replaced with the other female Ranger, so they got a Ranger behind enemy lines whichever one the monsters snatched.
The Sopranos: Tony Soprano is quite good at pulling these. It is lampshaded by the restaurant owner Artie Bucco after he has fallen into debt with Tony and he agrees to let Artie help pay by forgiving his enormous restaurant tab. Artie notes Tony's ability to "analyze all the possible scenarios and outcomes," and figure out that "worst case scenario, you eat for free." The problem with this Gambit is that, according to Tony, it wasn't a Gambit, and he had no ulterior motives or plans when he started it, he was just trying to help out a friend. When Artie "compliments" him on how well he had it all figure out, Tony is... a bit miffed.
It's quite possible that he was only acting mad because Artie was right, however. In an earlier season, Tony ruins one of his other friends through debts that the guy had incurred gambling at Tony's poker games. When the guy asks why Tony continued to let him play even though he was losing so badly, Tony reluctantly answers that he knew the guy had a business he could take as collateral, so no matter whether his friend won or lost, Tony would ultimately win.
In that instance, though, it wasn't much of a gambit on Tony's part since he tried several times to prevent the guy first from even getting into the poker game and then from continuing to play after he lost all his money.
In the Torchwood episode "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang," Captain John Hart manages to use a Xanatos Gambit to get the Torchwood team to find several radiation cluster bombs that hid pieces of a hologram device that would tell him the location of an Arcadian Diamond, an incredibly rare jewel. But it turns out that his selfishness is his downfall, as he was the Unwitting Pawn of a gambit by the woman he thought had the diamond: there was no Arcadian Diamond—just a bomb that the woman had created to latch onto her killer, who turned out to be Captain John, and attach itself to the person's DNA. But Captain John pulls one last trick: he handcuffs himself to Gwen and swallows the keys, forcing the Torchwood team to save him.
Jessica Pearson pulls one in the third episode of Suits.
Harvey: If I win, I look good. If Louis wins, he looks good. Either way, you look good.
In The Outer Limits, cyber-terorist Zig Zag lives in a world where everything is controlled by about eight super-servers. People are identified by DNA-reading chips implanted in their hands. Zig Zag fakes his death reprograms his chip to set himself up as a pro-establishment guy working for the company that maintains the servers, even working under the very guy that was trying to catch him. Four years later it reverts to the proper setting, and the opportunity is used to steal Zig Zag's files. Zig Zag rejoins the movement and holds the building hostage, threatening to blow it up. At the end, it looks as if he's foiled. His explosives are disarmed, his boss takes the detonator, and he's surrounded by armed men. He reveals that by downloading his chip data into the servers, they will overload and explode, blowing up the city, as soon as his former boss uses the detonator "in his hand." Naturally the boss swipes his DNA chip to prevent this. Turns out Zig Zag was being a bit more literal than they thought. His chip is the detonator. Cue Oh Crap moment.
Actually, this is how every New Outer Limits episode went.
The Cabal in Sanctuary. They engineered a plague that would wipe out abnormals so that Magnus and her buddies would get vampire blood to cure it. They take Magnus' daughter hostage in the middle to brainwash her and activate her inherited teleportation powers to steal said blood once it's been retrieved.
In Blake's 7, Big Bad Servalan practically eats and drinks the gambit. In several episodes she tallies the score at the end: win or draw (she never loses). In episode Gold her opponent Avon suspects a trap and plays the game so that he can stay on top. Instead of being killed by Servalan's troops, he manages to take off with her money, only to find out that a week earlier Servalan had gained control of the central bank that issued the bank notes he just got, rendering them useless.
In season three of The Wire, City Councilman Tommy Carcetti pulls one of these on Police Commissioner Evin Burrell. He offers Burrell help with securing resources for his department, presumably in exchange for a few favors down the road. When Burrell refuses, telling Carcetti that the only ally he needs is the Mayor of Baltimore, Carcetti calls the media during a hearing on the sharp increase in crime Baltimore has been experiencing, and castigates Burrell in front of the cameras. This scheme, and the trope itself, is summarized by Stan Valchek during a meeting with Carcetti.
Valcheck: "This is a win-win for you, ain't it? He won't play, you beat the shit out of him because crime is up. Press loves it, and you score. Flipside is that if he caves, you get yourself a snitch in the Mayor's inner circle."
The serial killer Howard Epps of Bones utilized such a plan to delay his execution. Pleading innocence of murder as his execution was pending, he manipulated his defense lawyer into getting a final, last-ditch investigation into the murder for which he was convicted. While he had in fact killed the woman, the investigation led the authorities to the site where he had buried his other victims. Epps was delighted that they had found the bodies, as the legal proceedings would keep his case in court, and him alive, for years to come; with the added bonus of having them know that they just saved the life of a serial killer. Upon discovering the bodies, Booth realizes that this was his plan all along
The plan kind of fell through when Epps fell off the balcony. Although before that, he did manage to escape from prison, and he almost succeeded in killing Cam and Zack. He also successfully killed several other people. So all in all, his plan did work for him, allowing him to have quite a bit of screwed-up "fun."
Used in an episode of the 90's Flash series. A crime boss appears to gather a team to steal a rare mask. The police place their forces around the mask only to find out his men were there to loot the city. Later it's discover to be a double fake as their only distractions so he really could steal the mask.
In the 2004 Spartacus, Crassus pulls one when he recommends an obscure and unimpressive colleague to lead the army against Spartacus, instead of leading it himself. Slave rebellions are not prestigious wars, so if his colleague wins, he'll have only a minor victory and he'll owe Crassus a favor for recommending him. If he loses, the Empire will be so frightened by the rebellion gaining power that Crassus will be able to assemble a much larger army with himself at the head, and gain much greater political power.
On the Burn Notice episode "Dead to Rights," Anson sets up one of these. If the plan succeeds, he's rich. If it fails, then he can blackmail Michael into doing whatever he wants. If Michael is killed in the process, he doesn't have to worry about him anymore.
Klaus manages to pull one off in Season 2 of the Vampire Diaries. He first kidnaps Tyler and Caroline to use as part of the sacrifice, when Damon rescues them, he captures Jenna and turns her into a vampire along with Jules. He even had a backup witch if he first one was killed.
In the next episode he pulls one again. Damon was bitten by Tyler while rescuing him. So he offers his blood which can cure a werewolf bite in exchange for Stefan's servitude. Either Damon dies or he gains an apprentice.
And few can do it better than Once Upon a Time Rumplestiltskin. The Curse that sends to them all to our world? Well, he invented it. He trains Cora (who turned out to be an even bigger case of Magnificent Bitch than even he bet on), then helps corrupt Regina into Mommy's Little Tyrant by playing on her powerlessness, so that one or the other will cast that curse. Once it's cast, the whole things on The Chosen One. She'll either break it, and further his plan. Or, if she dies trying, the curse still breaks...and he wins. The only character he hasn't' managed to manipulate or strong-arm in some way? Balefire, his son, who got sent to our world to get away from him, and who all this planning is about in the first place.
In rock opera Act II - The Father of Death by The Protomen, Dr. Wily sets out to ruin Dr. Light. He uses a machine they both built to murder Light's girlfriend, and as soon as the news of it goes public, Wily starts slandering Light to the presses. Light actually receives a not guilty verdict, but because of Wily's words the public believes Light did it and that the court system is broken. He is forced to flee town before they take justice into their own hands.
Lay Cool pulled one in their big match against Melina to unify the titles at Night of Champions. They had Michelle McCool face Melina. Michelle was called a co-champion but Layla was the legal champion with Michelle allowed to wear and defend the belt as well. So if Michelle won (which she did), Lay Cool would be legally allowed to wear the unified title while if Michelle lost, Layla could turn around and say Melina had won doodly-squat since she hadn't technically pinned or even faced the actual Women's Champion.
At the end of 3rd edition, Mephistopholes provides incredible amounts of power to mortals (through control over Hellfire) for almost nothing, but Devils in the D&D universe draw their power almost exclusively from the torment of damned souls, so if/when heroes defeat these evil cults, Mephistopholes reaps their souls and receives a massive boost in power.
The Fourth Edition splatbook Martial Power introduces resourceful warlords, an alternative to inspirational or tactical warlords, who are fond of small-scale versions of these. Most resourceful powers offer benefits for successful attacks and different albeit modest advantages upon missing or not using an offense maneuver that round.
The Threats supplement of Shadowrun said that the Great Dragon Lofwyr always has multiple plans in motion, all of which will succeed regardless of what you do.
Everything that has ever happened in the universe and beyond is the result of Tzeentch's plans. Including those plans of his that have been foiled. In fact, if you try to help him, he benefits, if you try to hinder him, he benefits, and if you do neither, he benefits.
Though the C'Tan Deceiver and the Laughing God aren't exactly slouches in this department either. The occasional Chaos lord, Eldar or Dark Eldar will pull one off in the books.
And all of their schemes are part of one of Tzeentch's plans or another.
Tzeentch is the gambit personified, since he would cease to exist if his gambits stopped. As long as one of his gambits exist, he has already succeeded. This leads into his ultimate Achilles Heel: he doesn't have one giant plan, but multiple, mutually-exclusive ones, so every victory for him is also a loss, and vice-versa*
W40K is the type of 'verse where Summon Bigger Fish applies to everything, up to and including plans; Tzeentch has a bad habit of Summoning Bigger Gambits against himself
Someone writing for White Wolf must be a troper — the Seers of the Throne Sourcebook for Mage actually presents an antagonist with a listed ability of "Xanatos Gambit!"
That'd be (or is very likely to be, considering tropes are lampshaded by name in his games) Dave B, writer of both The Broken Diamond and The Soul Cage Actual Plays, which now have articles on this wiki.
The Scorpion Clan in Legend of the Five Rings actively cultivates a reputation for these, so as to convince people that everything the Scorpion do is a Xanatos Gambit. Even their genuine failures are often played up as having occurred "according to plan."
The Computer manages a brilliant one by sending Troubleshooters on missions. If the mission succeeds, the plans of The Computer's enemies are set back. If it fails, it was clearly due to sabotage by Commie Mutant Traitors the loyal team members will happily point out to Friend Computer; these traitors can then be executed. If a team doesn't come back at all, then they were clearly incompetent and The Computer is better off with a new team. The Computer always wins.
Similar to Chess, Bridge can involve these. With the number of different varieties of coups, endplays, and the like, it's quite possible to make sure you make your contract (or your opponents lose their contract) no matter what is played, despite said contract appearing to be hopeless (or completely solid).
Shakespeare's Iago wouldn't be the infamous Magnificent Bastard of Othello if he couldn't pull this off, which he does when convinces Roderigo to kill Cassio. If Roderigo succeeds, Iago gets his revenge on Cassio (for being promoted instead of him). If Roderigo fails and Cassio kills him, Iago doesn't have to worry about paying his Unwitting Pawn back all the money and jewels he's lost on the enterprise so far. So, as Iago muses in soliloquy, whatever the outcome, he wins.
In Bionicle, Makuta put the Great Spirit Mata Nui to sleep and on the verge of death while he took over in the power vacuum - but if some heroes would arise to heal Mata Nui and wake him up again (something which Makuta was Genre Savvy enough to expect would happen), then he could usurp the revival process and commit Grand Theft Me, essentially becoming the Physical God of that world. Eight years of storyline passed before this was revealed.
The Nod Prophet Kane is an uncontested master of these, and in Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars and Kane's Wrath pulls of an absolutely staggering one. Short version: the entire Third Tiberium War was orchestrated start-to-finish to bring the Scrin aliens to Earth and allow Kane to steal their technology. Longer version: by Playing Both Sides he can have the two weaken each other and make both of them more vulnerable to Nod while he steals their technology and the two Macguffin. The Scrin, if they want to invade successfully, have to fight GDI, and if GDI doesn't fight back, that's more propaganda for Nod and its Dark Messiah. While they're doing this he can do all the stealing he wants.
Red Alert, specifically. The endings of both sides have Stalin assassinated and Kane going away as a victor and the future ruler of the world.
In BlazBlue, this is Hazama/Terumi's ace in the whole. Just about every plan of his, ends up with him ahead no matter what.
In the fourth case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Manfred von Karma pulls one of these off when he allows Phoenix to get a Not Guilty verdict for his client in the trial at hand — causing that client to confess to a different crime, allowing von Karma to prosecute him for a more personal reason.
In the second case of the third game, Phoenix manages to prove that his client, Ron DeLite, didn't commit a theft by proving that he was at another place and showing proof that Detective Atmey did it. However, as it turns out, a murder took place at the exact place and time of DeLite's alibi, and as a result Atmey, the real murderer, is given an alibi from Phoenix proving he was the thief while DeLite becomes the prime suspect in the murder.
In Kingdom Hearts 358 Days Over 2, Organization XIII has two keyblade wielders in their ranks, Roxas and Xion. They need at least one to kill heartless, release hearts, and create Kingdom Hearts. As it turns out Xion is a Replica made with some of Sora's memories. Because of her origins, either Xion will eventually absorb Roxas and his powers/memories, or the opposite will happen, whatever the two actually decide to do. Either outcome is favorable to the Organization, and they even have plans for the worst-case scenario, that being whoever is left being returned to Sora, because if Sora wakes up, all they have to do is let him do what he always does, which is kill heartless and release hearts, and it will further their goals. Sora turning his keyblade on the Organization itself, and winning, probably wasn't something they planned for.
Master Xehanort from Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep pulls one off. In fact, much of the entire series could be seen as one massive Xanatos Gambit. Master Xehanort attemps to summon Kingdom Hearts and have his assistant, Vanitas, forge the X-Blade with his other half Ventus. If the heroes of the game failed to stop him, Xehanort would have gained control of Kingdom Hearts, and remade the universe with its power. If he lost, as he did, he was completely prepared to steal Terra's body to gain a younger, stronger body than his old, crippled one. Although he didn't expect Terra's will to fight him once more, and Xehanort lost his memory, his plans still resulted in the situation above for his Nobody Xemnas in 358/2 Days, allowed his Heartless, Ansem, to profit from Maleficent's actions (which Master Xehanort originally implanted in her mind ten years previously) in the first game, and as of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, allowing all the various versions of Xehanort to team up together to take on Sora and his friends in preparation for a final battle. In Birth By Sleep's secret movie, Blank Points, Master Xehanort straight-out tells Terra that what happened was "one of many roads (he) could have taken", and that he had others planned out.
In Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance], it's revealed that due to the mechanics of time travel, the actions of the various Xehanort incarnations, and essentially the entire plot of the entire series, Xehanort has another major one. He needs 13 Seekers of Darkness, and Seven Lights to make the X-blade and restart the Keyblade War, so he has made a new Organization XIII (the first having this having been its point, but having failed for numerous reasons in most cases) composed entirely of himself and has set out to fight the Princesses of Heart, necessitating that there be Seven Lights to protect them. No matter how you slice it, the Keyblade War seems inevitable, and even Yen Sid is freaked out.
There's one in Paper Mario The Thousand Year Door. Knowing that Mario was heading for the last Crystal Star, the game's Big Bad, Grodus, puts it inside his main base. The gambit plays out one of two ways: if Mario were to successfully take the final Crystal Star, he would return back to Rogueport and open the Thousand-Year Door. On the other hand, if he was beaten, the X-Nauts would take the 6 stars he already had, and open the door themselves. Either way, Grodus now has access to the Shadow Queen, whom he intends to use to Take Over the World.
In Disgaea 3, Super Hero Aurum's gambit to fight Mao at full power is one of these: He either obtains more power and rids the world of another 'monster', or obtains a worthy honourable death. This gambit is foiled in one ending and backfires very badly in the Human World one.
Ludveck from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn has one of these: a classic 'anticipating one's own failure' type. tries to kill queen Elincia to usurp her power, and willingly goes to prison when he fails. This imprisonment is a signal for his men to pretend to flee the country in a panic, Elincia not being the type to kill a fleeing enemy, and abduct Elincia's sister and hold her ransom for Ludveck's freedom and taking over the throne. Either outcome of the assassination, he wins. Too bad for Ludveck and that Bastian planned ahead.
The Divine Crusaders War qualifies, due to the simple fact that, no matter who wins, Earth will be protected. If the player fails to defeat the DC, it's implied that the DC will defend Earth when the real threat (it depends on the timeline) arrives. If the player beats the DC, it's leader will mention that the heroes are strong enough to take over the defense of Earth (whether the player is skilled enough is another matter entirely...).
In 2nd Original Generations, Euzeth Gozzo's plan looks like a Gambit Roulette, because it contains elements of prediction that are quite difficult to believe. It qualifies as a Xanatos Gambit, however. Should Euzeth be defeated, all of his memories are immediately transferred to another Euzeth in one of the many existing alternate universes. This Euzeth then continues the scheme where the last one left it. This has happened a few times already, which is the reason why he knows so much about the people and events he manipulates to carry out his plan.
In Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, Prince LaCroix runs one of these. You play a fledgling vampire, who, for some reason, is the only agent LaCroix has available and gets sent into dangerous situation after dangerous situation. The kicker comes when you realize LaCroix is actively trying to kill you. Your very existence flouts his own laws, but he can't kill you publicly without seriously pissing off a very large, powerful political sect of Vampires. So instead, he sends you on suicide missions. If you die, he wins, because the symbol of his weakness is gone. If you survive, he wins, by eliminating his enemies and advancing his own agenda.
And after all that, it turns out LaCroix is actually a XanatosSucker for Smiling Jack and Caine's Gambit Roulette manipulation of both him and the player character. The plot relies on splitting the game's MacGuffin, which LaCroix really wants, from its key. The MacGuffin itself goes to LaCroix, while the key goes to the Kuei-Jin, his mortal archenemy. The Camarilla and the Kuei-Jin go to war and get weakened over LaCroix's ambitions, and whoever side wins is still weakened and leaves the Anarchs in a stronger position. The MacGuffin's contents aren't all they're cracked up to be...
In Mega Man Zero 4, Dr. Weil's real plan is to shoot Area Zero from space; the Eight Warriors are nothing but a diversion, so that the Resistance is stuck fighting the wrong battle. If the Eight Warriors' individual plans worked (acid rain generators, scorching the earth with an artificial sun, etc.), Area Zero is destroyed, and the Resistance with it; if they all fail, there would still be time for Weil to fire his Kill Sat, leaving Area Zero destroyed, and the Resistance with it. In either case, Weil becomes the undisputed ruler of all humanity by wiping out freedom's last hope.
Caius of Final Fantasy XIII-2 only wanted to end the cycle of Yeul's premature, future gazing deaths. How does he do that? He plans to destroy Cocoon, ending millions of lives. This would allow Etro's gate to open to let in the souls of the departed, but also let out the time-eating Chaos to devour Gran Pulse, turning it into the timeless Valhalla, where every Yeul can exist. If there's no future, there's nothing for Yeul to see that can kill her. Our heroes, Noel and Serah, ain't having dat, and set out to defeat Cauis. But not to worry, inside Cauis is the heart of Etro. If it were to stop beating, Etro would die (duh), destroying the only thing holding the Chaos back. It was almost foiled when Noel refused to kill him, but Cauis takes Noel's hand and stabs himself. And to top it all off, the secret ending reveals that in a timeless world, Caius is still alive and well, able to see his plan come to fruition.
Even better when you realize that Caius's plan still would have eventually succeeded even if he hadn't been in position to force Noel to stab him. If his plans are not thwarted he wins. If you kill him he wins. If you thwart his plans without killing him, he is still The Ageless, meaning that he can keep trying for all eternity until one of the the two conditions for victory are met.
Before the final mission of Ace Combat X: Skies of Deception, Intrepid Reporter Albert Genette notes that Leasath commanding officer Diego Navarro was playing one of these: Although his primary goal of conquering Aurelia fails, he still succeeds in increasing arms exports for the military-industrial complex. You as Gryphus One prevent him from succeeding fully by busting up his Fenrir superfighters before he can profit from selling them off too.
In the original Dawn of War game, Blood Ravens battle the Chaos Marines on Tartarus. However, when the Chaos Forces are seemingly defeated it turns out that Tartarus was in fact a gigantic altar and the blood spilled by all combatants was an offering required to awake the powerful daemonic entity — the only way the daemon could have lost would have been by there not being a war at all, which would only happen by all the factions leaving Chaos alone to turn Tartarus into their own private playground.
Prototype. Cross convinces Mercer to attack the Bloodtox blowers. This doesn't make much sense later on, because the Bloodtox blowers are stated as important, so a Blackwatch agent asking you to attack them seems...odd. Until Mercer is then tasked with escorting the Bloodtox injector into the heart of Manhattan, where the Blackwatch soldiers do an admirable job of ignoring Mercer's presence until after Greene is exposed. It isn't until this happens that the actual Xanatos Gambitbecomes apparent: If Mercer went after the blowers and was killed in the process, Blackwatch eliminates Mercer and maintains the Bloodtox airborne deployment, cleaning Manhattan's surface and leaving things clear for them to use the injector. On the other hand, if Mercer destroys them, he trusts Cross enough to follow his suggestion to go protect the injector, ensuring that Blackwatch's nastiest enemy is on their side for when Greene appears. Either way, Blackwatch wins.
In World of Warcraft, the Lich King has two rather impressive ones. First, he sends a massive army of Death Knights to attack the Argent Dawn's base in the Plaguelands to assassinate Tirion Fordring. If they succeeded, that would be that. If they failed (which he actually anticipated), then they would have at least weakened Fordring significantly, allowing him to waltz in and finish him off. The only reason this doesn't pan out for him is that the Death Knights didn't take kindly to their master's deceit. The second being that he can kill anyone instantly with the "Fury of Frostmourne", and in order to activate the teleporter that allows one to reach him you have to kill all of his generals. If you defeat them and don't face him, he can just just bring them back; if you defeat them and face him then he will just kill you and raise you as his new generals; if you fail then it means the opposition is dead and he has nothing to worry about. This too fails because Tirion's desperate prayers smite the ice block he's trapped in, allowing him to shatter Frostmourne while the Lich King channels.
Warcraft III sees a nice couple of these from the original Lich King, Ner'zhul. In the first - well, regardless of who takes Stratholme, he wins since Arthas winning means his ideal knight's on the road to insane-o-ville and Mal'Ganis winning means the Scourge's army gets bigger and he can rez Aethas- the latter is less ideal but still workable. The second is the more eerie one, since, well, it's Death Knight Arthas who tells Illidan where to get his power-up; Illidan then cheerfully turns his newfound power on the Lich King with intent to smite, weakening both LK and Arthas and setting up the situation that leads to Arthas becoming the new Lich King. While he probably didn't intend to lose mojo at the rate that he did, in the end it all worked out to his benefit.
Yuri from Red Alert II could be seen as this. If the Soviets win, he gets to command the world from behind the throne of the puppet Premier. If the Allies prove victorious, then they have just taken the Soviet army out of the way, spreading their own forces thin in the process, allowing Yuri a good shot at taking charge directly. In the Soviet campaign he is Out-Gambitted by the Thanatos Gambit of his puppet Premier (apparently he is better at mind control than at mind reading) and ends up defeated and executed by the Soviets' most talented field commander when on the brink of victory. Not even a Xanatos Gambit is immune to a Spanner in the Works.
A domination-mesmer in Guild Wars will often employ this. Casting a spell on the enemy that punish the target if he doesn't use a skill can be combined with spells that punish him if he does, or with a build filled with interruption spells. Mostly happens in PvP though, since in PvE enemies will not respond to the punish-if-idle skill, although an AI update did prevent them from killing themselves under a punish-if-not-idle spell.
In Resident Evil, Wesker's plan after the Code VeronicaRetcon. It was revealed that he had been given this special virus that, upon death, would not only resurrect him, but give him super powers to boot and have everyone believing him to be dead, thus providing the perfect cover for his exit from Umbrella, and thus allow him to sell his information to anyone who wished for it. BUT if his original plan (destroy the mansion, kill the remaining STARS members, leave Umbrella, and sell/give information/bio-weapons to Umbrella's competition) had worked out, then he'd still make a profit in the end.
In a minor example from Resident Evil 4, bonus content from the game shows that at one point, Wesker, who's the "shadowy third party" involved in the game's story, passively takes advantage of a Xanatos-Gambit-type situation arising. Though he originally orders Ada to kill Leon, he changes his mind when Leon proves himself to be far more resilient than Wesker originally thought. Wesker then decides to take advantage of Leon's apparent skill and simply let him duke it out with the Big Bad Saddler, since he wants both of them dead anyway. No matter which one loses, he wins (if they kill each other, he wins twice as much).
Hylden Lord: You pathetic creature - you haven't got a clue. The seduction of the Circle and possession of Mortanius; Ariel's murder; the corruption and collapse of the Pillars: all orchestrated as a prelude to this moment. We sought an incorruptible vessel, and you provided one. We required the blood of our ancient enemy, and you delivered Janos Audron - having first been lured to the Heart of Darkness. Best of all, you murdered the Scion of Balance to get it. We've already won.
The Metal Gear Solid series is infamous for sticking the hero in lose-lose scenarios where he plays right into the hands of the Big Bad. Ocelot's plan in number four includes no less than three scenarios that will allow him to destroy the Patriots, depending on what Snake does.
The Big Bad of Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal does this when she plays the main character up against the Five. The main character loses, she's rid of one of the more powerful Bhaalspawn with a reputation for Cutting the Knot and the cold war between the Five will eventually lead to them wiping each other out anyway. The main character wins, the Five are dead much faster and the Big Bad now has enough Bhaal essence to ascend directly to Godhood without even having to antagonize the protagonist. Win-win... If not for the fact that the main character learns about this plan and becomes powerful enough to challenge the Big Bad directly as a result.
The Chessmaster who pulls off a series of Xanatos gambits in Tsukihime is Kohaku. First she encourages SHIKI to fight Makihisa— if SHIKI wins, Makihisa is dead, Akiha will become the head of the Tohno family and Shiki will come back to the mansion; if he loses, SHIKI dies and will no longer abuse her to use her synchronizer power. Then she begins to make Shiki think he's a killer through drugs. He will start walking the streets, and either kill SHIKI, or be killed by SHIKI, which will drive Akiha to murder SHIKI since then she will have more power because she doesn't have to keep him alive anymore. If neither of those happen, then there will likely be a showdown between Akiha and SHIKI. SHIKI will try to target Kohaku first to stop her from synchronizing with Akiha, so either Akiha will sacrifice herself to save her, or SHIKI will kill her, which will let her give Hisui's true persona back to her. If Akiha dies, Shiki will finish off SHIKI, and then her revenge will be complete. And she can kill herself to let Shiki live with Hisui. The only problem is when someone else becomes a Spanner in the Works.
Sigma's master plans in Mega Man X 4 and X5 count as this. In the former, he manipulates the Hunters and Repliforce into fighting each other in order to take control over Repliforce's Kill Sat and wipe out whoever won. In X5, his sabotage of Eurasia was a distraction for his true goal: spread the Sigma Virus until it evolved into the Zero Virus, then use it to "revert" Zero back into the weapon of destruction Dr Wily had intended him to be.
In Jak II: Renegade, the Metal Head Leader Kor, disguised as a Cool Old GuyMentor to Kid Jak lets Jak go on missions to weaken the Baron, making his armies have an advantage over the city. If Jak fails and dies, the Metal Heads lose an enemy. If Jak gets the Precursor Stone, then Kor can use his connections with the underground to get hold of it. When the Baron gets the Stone, the Metal Head Leader uses the confusion to imprison Kid Jak at the Metal Head Nest. In the final battle, either the Baron gives him the stone to save the city, or Kor kills him and the Metal Heads search for the Stone. Even if Jak beats the armies to finding it, Kor knows Jak will bring it to the Metal Head Nest to power the huge gun to blow it open. If Jak dies trying to open the nest, Kor gets the stone. When Jak does manage to get inside the nest, only Kor not taking Dark Jak into account prevents him from killing Jak with a single blast and getting the Precursor stone.
This seems to be the whole purpose behind the events of Deus Ex Human Revolution. No matter what outcome Jensen chooses, it furthers the plans of the Illuminati at least slightly and advances the agenda of Bob Page and Majestic 12 considerably.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. is a rare case of a subversion. Its revealed that the foundations of The Rebel Alliance were orchestrated by the person the group is dedicated to opposing. If creating this group failed, the planner benefits because they are weaker as individuals. If creating this group succeeded than the planner would know who all his remaining enemies are and be able to wipe them all out at once. Then it backfired because group's founder not only manages to save the rest via Heroic Sacrifice but becomes an inspiring martyr. The first movie demonstrates the plan still worked pretty well regardless.
In Soul Calibur 3's mode "Chronicles of the Sword", Chester pulls off one of these. By enticing the factions to fighting each other, he manages to oust the king of one, taking his place. The truth of the matter is that he would have won, having manipulated much more than just one faction, and managing to deprive you, the main advancing force who is one of the best, of reinforcements and rest from your own king without actually having him outright try to kill you, but because you were such a good fighter, you overcame EVERY enemy that he threw at you to prevent you from becoming a wrench in his plans, and he still manages to take the place of a king despite you being better than expected.
You can actually do this in Fallout New Vegas, at least in certain endings. If you side with Mr. House (or just yourself), but also have a high enough reputation with the NCR, you can fight most of the Battle of Hoover Dam as though you were allied with them. If your NCR "allies" fail to break through to the Legate's camp, your Securitrons and other assorted allies will still finish off the Legion. If the NCR succeeds, the Securitrons will then be turned on the NCR.
Honorable Mention goes to Vault 11's Katherine "Kate" Stone. After her husband Nate is unfairly targeted by the Justice Block to be elected as Overseer (a one year term that ends with death by gunfire, typically held by the worst ne'er do well the vault can muster that year), she wages a one-person assassination campaign against them. If she had gotten away with it, she could whittle down their numbers until they were no longer the dominant voting block, but by getting caught and revealed as a multiple murderer she becomes the shoe-in candidate for Overseer, which allows her the authority to abolish the election in favor of a lottery, also destroying the power of the Justice Block. Unfortunately, Justice Block's attempts to seize power in spite of the rule change kicks off a total party kill inducing civil war. Nice job breaking it, Kate.
In The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim backstory, Ulfric Stormcloak pulls one of these on the then current High King of Skyrim. He challenges him to a duel, using a rarely used nordic tradition. If declined, the High King would be shamed and would quickly lose power and influence, allowing Ulfric to step in. The High King accepted the duel. Ulfric then used his power to disarm people with his voice in order to ensure victory. Ulfric did not get the throne since many people viewed using the voice in a duel dishonorable, but he did gain a considerable following for his rebellion.
The Skyrim civil war is also one for the Thalmor; The ideal result for them is for the civil war to be dragged out as long as possible, exhausting both sides. While a quick and decisive victory for one side isn't quite as useful, a victory for the Stormcloak rebels results in the empire being further destabilized, and a victory for the Legion leaves the Thalmor with pawns throughout Skyrim who can continue to advance their agenda.
In Kid Icarus: Uprising Hades successfully pulls of a Xanatos Gambit in Chapter 10: The Wish Seed. Firstly, he created a myth about an all powerful wish granting item under the protection of the phoenix atop a great volcano long ago. Then he sends the Underworld Army to attack the phoenix and 'retrieve' the wish seed, which prompt Palutena and Pit to counter them. By the time the heroes realize that the wish seed was a hoax, it is too late. If they leave the Underworld Army alone they will defeat the phoenix leading the humans to believe that the wish seed is now obtainable and triggering mass warfare to get it. If they defeat the Underworld Army but leave the Phoenix alone then it will go on a rampage because the Underworld Army provoked it and kill many innocent humans. If Pit defeats both the Underworld Army and the Phoenix then it will be the same as if he let the Underworld Army kill the Phoenix. No matter how it ends up thousands of people will die and that is more business for Hades.
In the penultimate mission of Saints Row 2, Ultor CEO Dane Vogel pulls off an excellent one: having been threatened by the board of directors with being fired (or worse) if he can't kill the Boss and break the Saints, he anonymously leaks the location of the board's upcoming gala fundraiser to the Boss, then tips off his security men that the Boss is coming. That way, if the Boss gets killed, he gets credit with the board for destroying the last major obstacle to their plan; and if the Boss wipes out the board, Vogel ascends to the chairmanship. Either way, he comes out ahead.
In 8-Bit Theater, this is mentioned, though not by name, during a lengthy discussion between Black Mage and Red Mage on who would win in a fight between Batman and Dr. Doom. After Black Mage points this out, Red Mage begrudgingly gives doom the point. Happens in issue #342 and #343
In The Last Days of FOXHOUND, the spirit of Big Boss temporarily possessed the body of his clone "son", Liquid Snake when he felt Liquid incapable of fulfilling his plans to free the world from the grip of an Ancient Conspiracy. As long as Big Boss has Liquid's body, he can move his plans forward himself. If the experience serves as a wake up call that motivates Liquid to wise up, become more capable, and win his body back from Big Boss earlier than expected... well, that just means that Liquid is better equipped to carry on Big Boss' legacy than he was before, and Liquid goes on to do just that until the end of the comic.
Okay, technically it's the same plan as in the game, but the rehash of Psycho Mantis's scheme to activate Metal Gear contains almost every feasible Gambit based trope (including pileups and Spanners mixed with dramatic irony for the reader).
Employed by Nale in The Order of the Stick when he lures the Order to Cliffport by kidnapping Roy's sister Julia, then has his new Linear Guild attack. The Guild eventually gets defeated, but while they were distracted, Nale swapped places with his good twin, Elan — leading the Order to think they had won, when in fact the outcome was exactly what Nale had been seeking (his brother shipped off to jail and him safely undercover in the Order). Though wiping out the Order would have been a nice boast to his ego except it would mean that he could only defeat them when that wasn't his primary goal.
Redcloak outlines a much higher stakes Xanatos Gambit in the prequel story Start of Darkness: he intends to capture one of the five Gates that holds back the world's Sealed Evil in a Can so his god, the Dark One, can use it to blackmail the other gods into giving the goblins equal standing among the player races (human, elf, dwarf, etc.). If he should accidentally unleash this Eldritch Abomination and unravel all of Creation in the process, the gods can then remake the world — but this time around, the Dark One would have a say in how the goblins were treated.
Tarquin: Their every move makes my victory more complete.
Charles, head of Charlescomm (one of the sides in Erfworld) is quite fond of the Xanatos Gambit as seen by the discussion of the principle in this strip◊. "I got paid to turn it into a no-lose situation."
Weirdly enough, the titular amorph of Schlock Mercenary pulls off a minor one of these while investigating a mysterious human-cannonball-related death at a circus in this strip. Schlock's plan here hired reinforcements or sent Jud Shafter to an early death. His friend considers both a plus.
Joel Calley from Concession has his plan deconstructed. Some aspects of the plan have failed but not all of them and has back up plans.
Heather in Misfile and the race she set up between Logan and Ash. If Logan wins, then Ash gets humiliated by losing to an opponent who had never raced before. If Ash wins, she winds up looking like a bully who took down a newbie.
It goes wrong when Logan, in his inexperience, tries to pass on a curve and crashes.
In a chapter of Pearl of Mer, one of the Big Bad's lackeys shows he hates the group he is working with. He agrees to help the mermaid in getting her inside to take them down. But he also mentions if she does get caught, he ultimately did his job and brought them a mermaid.
Parodied in The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, in "Revenge of the Hundred Dead Ninja": "If this works and we survive, that will be great, but if not, it will easily win in America's Funniest Home Videos."
Neopets: In the Faerie's Ruin plot Xandra's second plan. The heroes try to get a special artifact to reverse the spell that transformed the faeries into stone. It doesn't matter if they succeed or not, either way Fairy land is screwed. The artifact is useless by itself and is just a power amplifier. Even if the heroes get the artifact on time Xandra will simply use the artifact to transform the heroes into stone too.
In Ayla and the Networks, in the Whateley Universe the principle is lampshaded. In the middle of a Gambit Pile-up, the main star gets a smirk. "Xanatos Gambit?" "Xanatos Gambit."
Recently given a bit of insight in "Ayla and the Birthday Brawl" chapter 11, Ayla tells a minor character the truth on a detail. He then gives a little inner monologue on how this helps. Either it disarms the person, or he gains crucial details. Whatever happens, he gets out ahead.
Supervillain Dr. Diabolik uses this in all his Evil Plans. His MO is to use his 'mind web' to take over a mid-sized city. If the heroes fail to defeat him, he walks off with all the goods of the entire town. If the heroes break through the power of the mind web, he still gets everything his forces have stolen by then, plus he achieves his real goal: he 'awakens' thousands of ordinary people and makes them more 'aware'.
Played with in The Defrosters. In episode 9, Pixel Girl implies that she is working on a plan to stop Pixel Boy from playing World of Warcraft. She and James even mention TV Tropes.
In Kickassia, Kevin Baugh uses Obfuscating Stupidity to convince the usurpers of his government to let him stay around. He then walks around spreading seeds of dissent throughout the government, and then smiles whenever a major event happens, since no matter what the end result of his actions are, he'll be facing a significantly weakened opponent.
PZ Myers of Pharyngula was winning a charity fundraising race against a number of other blogs when his rivals tried to drum up support by agreeing to carry out a series of forfeits if they won. PZ's immediate response was to tell his readers to donate via the other blogs: if he won he would get the bragging rights of single-handedly beating a large team, if he lost we would get to watch the others carry out the penalties, and either way the last-minute game changer encouraged additional donations.
The page image can be used to illustrate a common problem with this trope: how far must one stretch all outcomes for it to count as a Xanatos Gambit? Just as many of the other gambits on this page, it has a failure condition, but a low-probability one that only applies in certain outcomes: in this case, the hero could defeat the villain, his dragon, and his army in succession, leaving the son without the means to take over the world.
Narcissa Richmond manages to pull off one of these in Grandmaster of Theft. Deus manipulates her to challenge the Grandmaster to steal Undine's Tear from her. Just in case his plan didn't work and she lost, she brought a replica. By having the real one on her, she then claims to have fought off the Grandmaster and get the exact same fame she wanted in first place through challenging.
It's not at all surprising that there are a lot of examples from Gargoyles.
One of the best examples is in the episode "Leader of the Pack", where Xanatos sends a robot double of himself to break the Pack out of prison (except for Fox, who refuses), and sends them against the Gargoyles. The Gargoyles destroy the robot and defeat the Pack, but Xanatos' plan all along was to get an early parole for Fox: her refusal to escape with the others made a big impression on the Parole Board. In addition, Xanatos was also able to test his new tech. project (the robot double), who made recurring appearances throughout the series.
This was done in the series premiere, where Xanatos uses the clan to steal some tech. When they find out that he's a Magnificent Bastard, he then utilizes the opportunity to test out his new robots, using the tech they stole. Even though it winds up in defeat, he considered it a victory because he A) got the new technology, and B) gave his new toys a field-test against the most physically powerful beings out there, so he'll be able to make adjustments for down the line.
Also subverted in Gargoyles itself, with the episode "Eye of the Beholder". Xanatos' plan to save Fox is made of interlinking gambits where the failure of one triggers the activation of the next. Once he determines that Fox might be the werewolf creature, his first two plans involve getting the Eye of Odin away from her, Plan A just by asking and then Plan B by forcefully trying to take it from her. Goliath and Elisa witness Plan B, deducing that the werewolf must have been human and that Xanatos is after the "jewel" that it had. Returning back to Castle Wyvern, Xanatos admits Plan B has failed but that Plan C was now active, which is letting the Gargoyles' hatred of him fuel their want to get the Eye from Fox before he does, and then he'll steal it from them. Unfortunately, they anticipated it and stuck around for the exposition. "I don't suppose you have a plan D?" (As it turns out, he does. He just asks nicely.)
And then the heroes pull one on him so hard it spins the whole show on its ear. At the end, Xanatos gets what he wants (as expected), but self-pityingly announces that the heroes have discovered his weakness; he cares about Fox enough to submit to his enemies to save her. Goliath notes that that just means he's not as amoral as he thinks he is, meaning perhaps they don't have to be enemies at all.
Goliath: Only you would regard love as a weakness.
A "consolation prize" version was when he donated the Eye Of Odin to a museum, then sent out his team of robot gargoyles (the Steel Clan) to accompany him in a Powered Armor to steal it back. Goliath and company intervene and it ends with the entire Steel Clan being destroyed, but Xanatos explained that he still improved public relations with the city, retrieved the priceless magical Eye of Odin and was able to fight Goliath toe-to-toe, helping his own self-esteem. "I'd say I've still got the edge."
He gets so good at this, it comes back to sabotage him when Thailog escapes by hiring Sevarius to kidnap him via communication supposedly from Xanatos. Sevarius had no problem believing Xanatos would arrange a kidnap of his own experiment/son/partner in a convoluted, Machiavellian scheme to achieve some unseen goal.
Thailog continued to outmaneuver everyone. When his plan to steal $20 million dollars, and kill Xanatos, Goliath, and Sevarius went belly up, Thailog moved to his backup plan. Make it appear that he and the money were destroyed in an explosion. However Xanatos considers this possibility, as that's what he would do.
One of most amazing parts of the real Xanatos's Xanatos Gambits is that the "Plan A"s, where the heroes are defeated, are generally never the actual preferred outcome (since that takes away a potential Unwitting Pawn for a later Xanatos Gambit). The "Plan B"s run completely independent of the big fight and often are resolved before the fight even happens. For example, in the episode Legion. Xanatos wakens the cyber-Gargoyle Cold Stone and has the cyborg try to steal files off of an advanced computer system that uploads a virus into his cybernetic parts, then is confronted by a police experimental robot that tazes him. The Manhattan Clan confronts Cold Stone, there is a police chase to the Statue of Liberty, some virtual reality is involved; but none of this matter to the Xanatos Gambit since Xanatos's plan was to use the experimental robot that, his company developed and he "generously" lent the police, to download the virus from Cold Stone's computer system. The rest of the episode may appear as though it was spoiling Xanatos's scheme, but in reality it was completely irrelevant to his actual goals. And that's how a him Gambit is properly played.
There's also Titania in "The Gathering" who display a grand mastery of this gambit. When she manipulates Oberon to attempt to abduct Alexander, she has set herself to win either way: if Oberon managed to get the baby, he could be raised in the magical nurturing environment of Avalon, and if the fight progressed enough, it would have likely have pushed her daughter, Fox's, latent magic power to come to the surface in Mama Bear fashion and show that Alex could be adequately trained on Earth after all.
Demona's first attempt at a Xanatos Gambit was a failed one. It happened during "A Long Way Till Morning". Demona confronts Elisa in her apartment and shoots her with a poison dart. She tells her that if she wants the antidote, then tell Goliath to meet her at a location. Goliath takes the bait, but brings Hudson along with him. Once he arrives, Demona attacks, planning to kill the gargoyle leader so she can take over. She even gives Hudson a chance to side with her. But Hudson is able to protect Goliath until sunrise. The following night, once it's clear Demona's plan to kill Goliath has failed, she reminds them of the reason they showed up in the first place - to save Elisa from a poison that has no antidote. Of course, she doesn't know that the poison dart never hit Eliza's flesh, but hit her police badge instead.
Demona manages a minor one in "The Mirror"—while trying to steal the eponymous artifact from a museum, Goliath and Elisa find her and chase her outside of the building. Once all three are gone, some hired Mooks of Demona's break in and steal the mirror for her.
Demona and Macbeth steal a comatose Coldstone from the Gargoyles' lair and bring forth the Iago persona. The gargoyles defeat them. However, this was not important because the gargoyles had focused so much on the theft of Coldstone that they didn't notice the missing Eye of Odin, Grimoirum Arcanorum, and Phoenix Gate (the actual targets of the robbery). This was masterminded by the Weird Sisters, who were controlling Demona and Macbeth. Being the Weird Sisters, they likely knew the trouble the Manhattan clan could cause them later, and so would have been happy if their pawns had killed them.
Tale Spin. Shere Khan always finds victory, even in apparent defeat.
In the season 4 finale of Jackie Chan Adventures, Tarakudo reveals that he's been running a gambit for the entire season. If his minions get ahold of the Oni masks and gain control of their respective Shadowkhan armies, that's great. If the heroes get them all instead, that's fine too, seeing as having all nine masks in the same place causes them to shatter and release the demons inside anyway.
W.I.T.C.H. (a series whose second season was done by Greg Weisman, creator of Gargoyles) also uses and abuses this trope to no end, as it seems the villain always has one of these up their sleeve. Prince Phobos pulled two (one in the first season and one in the second), while Nerissa... well, let's just say she's a master at it, shall we?
"There is no Trill. There never was."
During an episode of The Avengers: United They Stand cartoon, newly introduced villains the Zodiac hijack a series of nuclear weapons satellites, which our heroes believe are being used to hold the world hostage and promptly destroy. Turns out, they wanted the satellites destroyed, as they were obstructing their view of a celestial convergence needed to turn their giant astronomical key and bring them one step closer to universal domination.
In the Superman The Animated Series 2-part finale "Legacy", Darkseid finally makes good on promise to Superman that "if he won't be [his] knight, he will be [his] pawn", by having the Man of Steel kidnapped, brainwashed by Granny Goodness into believing he is Darkseid's son, and sent to lead a campaign on Earth. When Superman breaks out of the brainwashing, he is captured by the army, and he is facing execution for treason. He manages to escape and make his way to Apokolips, and personally challenge Darkseid, which he barely wins, and overthrows him. But the Lowlies try to help Darkseid, and nurse him to recovery. Ultimately, in the end, the damage was done: The trust of the people of Earth had been severely damaged, with the Man of Steel wondering if he can ever fully earn it back again. Whether he took over the Earth, or was executed, or personally defeated by Darkseid, or even defeats him and returns to Earth, either way, Darkseid wins!
That said, he truly never considered the possibility that Superman could actually defeat him; he was enraged that Superman even so much as punched him. This plan was very nearly subverted as Superman won by turning Darkseid's own Omega Beamns against him which nearly killed both of them- Darkseid only survived because his slaves spared his life. Had Superman known that, he might well have opted to kill Darkseid with his own bare hands.
The Joker managed to pull this off in the Justice League episode "Wild Cards". He sets up a series of hidden bombs all around the Las Vegas strip, daring the League to defuse them all within 25 minutes. In addition, he's seized control of several TV feeds and sent his own superpowered team against the League (the Royal Flush Gang) to make their job harder. The League defuses all the bombs, but then the Joker reveals that his real plan was to get enough people watching his show so that they would all be turned insane by the Gang's most powerful member, Ace (a Tykebomb who can alter perception by looking at someone).
Lex Luthor also pulls one off in Justice League Unlimited when he hacks the Justice League's Kill Sat: Cadmus could be completely wiped out, removing a threat to himself. Heavy hitters in the Justice League could turn themselves in to the government, removing a threat to himself. Justice League and Cadmus could go into allout war, destroying one side, and removing a threat to himself. If all that is somehow avoided, he still buys time to complete his Amazo clone and become a god. Batmanunfortunately ruins it.
Luthor pulls off another gambit in the episode "Clash": he built a beautiful low-income housing project/neighborhood for families in need, inviting Superman to the charity fundraiser marking the opening. Understandably suspicious, Superman uses his X-ray vision to discover a device deep in the sub-basements, assumes it's a bomb, and prepares to destroy it. Luthor claims that the device is an experimental fusion generator to provide free power to the community. Superman doesn't believe Luthor and has to be restrained by Captain Marvel, leading to a brutal fight between the two heroes that destroys not only the device, but the entire community that Luthor had constructed. Afterwords, the League determines that the device was exactly what Luthor had claimed. Luthor's plan was doubly brilliant because everything he had said was true: if Superman had done nothing, Luthor would have improved his tarnished public image. If Superman simply destroyed the generator, he would make himself look bad and improve Luthor's image even more. By fighting Marvel and wrecking the new community, Superman made the League look so bad that Captain Marvel quits in disgust, and Luthor comes off looking far better than Superman does.
While its writing seemed to be aimed at preschoolers, Challenge of the Super Friends attempted a few of these. In one episode, the Legion of Doom pretended to shrink the U.N. building down to briefcase size and hide it on an island surrounded by lava and guarded by a lava monster at the center of the Earth. This was only to trick the Superfriends into defeating the lava monster so that the Legion could abscond with the monolith that was really on the island.
In Avatar The Last AirbenderHama, when teaching Katara to bloodbend, made it so that Katara had to use bloodbending to stop Hama from impaling Aang on Sokka's sword. So, either Hama won the battle, or Katara learned the forbidden art. With the latter outcome, the knowledge of bloodbending was passed on, which is what Hama wanted. This may not seem like a big deal until The Legend Of Korra, where three of the main antagonists are bloodbenders, and damn good ones too!
In The Legend of Korra, Amon goes over the radio and demands that Republic City's council shut down the pro-bending tournament and close the stadium. If they do it, he wins a symbolic victory, showing that he can intimidate them into doing what he wants. If they don't do it, he gets to start exactly what he's wanted all along, a war between benders and non-benders.
Tarrlok also does one against Korra. After she refuses to join his Anti-Equalist task-force, he convinces the council of Republic City to pass harsh non-bender laws, creating a police state for those civilians. He also has Korra's friends arrested after they tried to help the non-benders. Knowing Korra's personality, he waits until she confronts him. He gives her one last chance to join the task-force, knowing that if she says yes, he wins. If she says no, he has a trump card that can remove her as a threat to his plans. She says no and is shocked when Tarrlok reveals he can bloodbend, even without a full moon.
Megabyte from ReBoot returned in real style and a few dangerous new upgrades. First he pretended to be a copy of Bob and that threw everyone off guard, especially Dot (who almost married him). But even when he was discovered, he then lured them to capture a copy of himself (an alias) which was simply a distraction as he got inside the Principle Office and took over within moments, infecting a half-dozen new soldiers and ending with a Psychotic Smirkfor the series.
In the Kim Possible Movie So The Drama, Dr. Drakken actually manages to pull one of these off against Kim, allowing her to find and disable the first of his Diablo generators to allow his dragon to capture her boyfriend and demand her surrender. He then does it again by correctly predicting that she'll try and rescue him and allowing her to do so, safe in the knowledge that Eric is a synthodrone allowing Kim to be captured.
In the Legion Of Superheroes, Imperiex carries out a preempted strike against the Legion to pave the way for the bigger invasion to come. With his friends in the ropes, Brainiac 5 gives in to his Enemy Within and uses his hidden powers to single-handedly defeat Imperiex's forces, forcing them to retreat. However, Imperiex then informs his Dragon that this was the outcome that he preferred all along, as it further molded Brainiac 5 into being an ideal ally.
In Teen Titans, H.I.V.E. offers Slade their three top-students, Gizmo, Mammoth, and Jinx, to eliminate the Teen Titans, but, as anyone could predict, they get beaten. At the end of the episode, Slade says that he knew this would end this way. He also predicted that one of them would say that they're working for Slade, which was his true purpose. From this moment he started his Mind Screwing Games with Robin.
Xanatos Gambit is more or less Slade's MO; another example is from part one of the Season 1 finale, in which the gang minus Robin finds and disables Slade's Chronoton Detonator, only to discover that it's a decoy, designed to lure them within range of some sort of life-energy-draining-nanite-generating energy beam.
Which leads up to a rather magnificent one from Robin himself, as he intentionally infects himself with the Nanites after the others show up and reveal that they are perfectly aware of the danger they're in. Robin, knowing Slade still considers him to be valuable... investment, leaves him with two choices: Let Robin die, or let the rest of the Titans live. Robin either gets to keep his friends or deprives Slade of his victory, and more importantly, his control over Robin. Either way, Slade loses out.
Slade pulls off another successful gambit in "Titan Rising". He attacks the Tower with giant mechanical worms that form a massive drill. If the Titans failed at stopping the drill, the Tower would be destroyed and the heroes would have no place to live. If they succeeded at stopping the drill, no biggie, he's just successfully ingratiated his apprentice Terra into the Titans to act as a spy so he can take them down from the inside later.
And indeed, the Titans officially take Terra in as a member after she "helps" them save their Tower.
Another episode has Slade show he planned for death, as a neural agent in his mask (in the form of dust) was remotely activated by an unknown third party. This caused Robin to see Slade, and his fights with Slade began leading to Robin effectively destroying himself and his trust with everyone else. It was ended as Robin riddled out his way to end the problem, but it shows that Slade had assumed he would die at one point
Done a few times in Cyberchase by Hacker. One particularly weird example was the episode where Hacker was bidding on the Encryptor Chip at an auction, while the kids tried to raise enough money to outbid him. Hacker knew that the kids would beat him anyway, so he just kept bidding to keep everyone else from getting it. Turns out the Encryptor Chip would infect Mother Board instead of curing her and replace her personality with a copy of the Hacker's.
Parodied on The Powerpuff Girls: After the Girls destroy the killer piñata Him planted at their birthday, Him claims his true plan was for everyone at the party to get tooth decay from the candy, but Princess and the other villains just think he's being a Sore Loser who can't admit defeat.
Vlad — a.k.a. Plasmius — of Danny Phantom is satisfied even when Danny defeats him because a) he sees the boy as his apprentice, and b) it further proves how they're Not So Different.
Plasmius: Using your opponent's weaknesses against him... I am teaching you something after all.
Plasmius: Sneak attack — very good, Daniel. You're getting more like me with every battle.
One of the above quotes is made after Danny pulls one off in the first episode Vlad appears in; either a) he stops attacking everyone and leaves the Fentons alone or b) Danny exposes both of them as half-ghosts to everyone, including two ghost hunters (one of them being the woman Vlad is in love with).
A more classic example occurs during Reign Storm: After an immensely draining battle, Danny is saved in the nick of time by the entire cast of his ghostly enemies, led by Vlad, who steals the main villain's source of power.
Danny (about to pass out): I - I don't… understand…
Vlad: What? That I used two fourteen-year-old pawns to turn a knight and topple a king? It's chess, Daniel, of course you don't understand! But then… you never really did.
The previous battle's outcome didn't matter to Vlad; the class is his use of the 'finish off the winner' trick.
In the Nick cartoon El Tigre the episode Eye Caramba has a member of the Flock of Fury (the main family's arch-nemesis') trick the titular character to put up the source of his power as a bet knowing he'd stink at darts without it. Then after using lasers to guide her dart she accidentally throws it backwards, and is visibly distraught about losing her glass eye. That was just a plan for him to take home her glass eye, knowing he would give it to his father to wear, so the Flock could spy on him through the eye's built-in camera and be able to both get away from crime scenes before he arrives but also destroy his confidence and make him eventually give up.
In an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants Mr. Krabs manages to pull off an uncharacteristically complex Xanatos Gambit with Spongebob and Patrick. He tasks the two to prevent Plankton from stealing the Krabby Patty Formula from its safe place in his vault in a James BondAffectionate Parody type of clandestine operation. Ultimately, they fail and Plankton actually makes off with the formula, but it doesn't really matter - the Plankton Spongebob and Patrick were trying to foil was, in fact, Mr. Krabs in disguise, and the entire thing was the result of a bet between the real Plankton and Krabs to see if Krabs could beat Plankton at his own game. If he succeeds, then he wins. If he fails, it still means the real Plankton can't get in either
In the second season, Father sends Cree to attack Sector V's treehouse. They defeat her and send her to the Moonbase Prison. When Number 5 next runs into her, she reveals that this was the intended result. Once she was on the Moonbase, she could escape from jail and execute her plan to send the whole base drifting into the sun.
The above plan at first seems to have backfired when the prison transport breaks down, leading to Number 5 seemingly beating Cree in a battle, trapping her in a garbage pod, and shooting her into space. Cree's shown in the end to have done this on purpose; she hacked into the pod's controls, slowly driving it towards the Moonbase to continue with the first gambit.
Sector V retrieves the stolen KND Code Module from Father at the beginning of "Operation GRADUATES." Later, Tommy realizes he let them take it back because they would hook it back up to the KND Super Big Computermabob. Father had already linked the Code Module to his Involuntary Transformation ray, which could now affect every Kids Next Door operative in the computer's database.
Father also figures out how to turn Tommy's defeat of him in that episode into a temporary victory in "Operation IT."
Santa Claus in the Phineas And Ferb Christmas special has a impressive one because it incorporates Doofenschmirtz's Evil Plan of the day to make itself work. He gives Doofenschmirtz a machine that brands the Tri-State Area as 'naughty' so the presents won't be delivered. This motivates Phineas into taking on Santa's role for the day, which was his Christmas Wish. Since Santa knew the city wasn't actually naughty he could step in at anytime.
On Xiaolin ShowdownJack Spicer gets one in a Not-So-Harmless Villain moment: he creates the Chameleon Bot, a robot can change shape and uses it to replace Kimiko. At that point, every outcome helps him. If the monks don't realize the switch, it can sow division within the Good Guy's ranks and help him win showdowns by sabotaging them. If the monks do realize the switch, the bot can try killing them. If they realize the switch and defeat the bot. Jack can use the diversion to steal all their Shen Gong Wu. The third option is what happens.
Cartman pulls one off in the season 3 episode "The Red Badge of Gayness" (The one with "S'more-flavored Schnapps") - He makes a bet with the others that he can make it so the South won the civil war, and the agreed stake in the bet is that the loser(s) must act as the winners' slaves. When he loses the bet, he (successfully) argues that he can't be a slave because the South losing the civil war resulted in the abolition of slavery.
On Invader Zim,Zim actually manages to pull one of these off in the unfinished episode "Simon Sez Doom." He volunteers at an orphanage for some unknown reason, so Dib volunteers too to find out why. Dib abandons his job (watching a volatile diaper-changing machine) to investigate Zim's plan, which turns out to be brainwashing all the kids to serve him through Simon Says. Dib manages to stop that, only to find out the real plan was to distract Dib so the machine would blow up. Dib manages to stop that, but the machine has to be turned off, and Dib has to change the kids' diapers himself now. Andthatwas Zim'srealplan all along.
Constantly seen in Young Justice. Even after almost every defeat of their operatives, "The Light" manages some sort of victory and one step closer towards their endgame. This show is run by the man who created David Xanatos, after all.
The team went to Bialya, disrupted their scientists' experiments, and went home with a metallic sphere that is some kind of advanced technology. It's not a big loss for The Light. They'll get more technology down the road. The main goal was to test their new partner's transportation system: a Boom-Tube.
The team stops Black Manta from stealing Starro's body from Atlantis. We later find out that Black Manta resorted to Plan B and destroyed the Starro, leaving only a small sample which would be sent to the surface world and can be obtained later.
There is a gambit that is put into action since the pilot episode and culminates in episode 11. The ice-based villains were quickly defeated in episode 1. This is part of their plan as each of them manage to get sent to Belle Reve, before carrying out their plan: Break every supervillain out of there.
What's impressive is that this itself was part of another Xanatos Gambit. The team stops the supervillains from breaking out. However, this attempted escape causes Amanda Waller, the warden, to lose her job to Hugo Strange, who is an agent of The Light. Now they have control over what is practically an army of supervillains.
In "Revelation", the Injustice League launched an attack on various cities using mutated giant plants, but were ultimately captured by the team and Justice League. The Injustice League's mutant plants were actually provided by The Light, who was able to monitor their effectiveness as a weapon. More importantly, the Justice League mistakenly believed the Injustice League to be the secret society who were working behind the scenes. Now The Light can continue to work their schemes more easily.
On a smaller scale, Bane pulled one by stampeding Young Justice towards his enemies in KOBRA. Either they destroy KOBRA (and Bane wins) or KOBRA kills them and the Justice League destroys KOBRA to avenge them (and Bane wins).
The Team Beat Them at Their Own Game in "Summit". They'd taken so many steps that no matter what the Light and Reach did, they were screwed. Summit continues? They're recording everything for an Engineered Public Confession to wreck the Reach's Villain with Good Publicity act. Artemis and Kaldur's Fake Defector act is uncovered? Miss Martian already replaced Deathstroke and fakes their deaths, Kaldur triggering what seems to be a Dead Man Switch that reveals the Light was playing the Reach and shatters their alliance. Vandal Savage calls in an army of Mooks to kill them? The rest of the Team has already disguised themselves as mooks and turns the tables. The end result is the Ambassador, Black Manta, and the Brain captured, their alliance obliterated, the Reach exposed as the invaders they really are, and Vandal Savage having a Villainous Breakdown.
Beast Machines inverts this trope near the finale, when the Maximals take over Megatron's base. The base's shield cuts Botanica off from the planet's organic core, causing her to wilt. If they drop the shield, Megatron's drones will overrun them. If they don't drop the shield, Botanica will die. Either way they lose.
This is Dr. X's plan in episodes 25-26 of Action Man. He kidnaps Alex's friends, and puts them in deadly situations that will force him to use his AMP factor. If Alex succeeds in rescuing them by using his AMP abilities, then X will gain enough insight into it that he can replicate it on himself and become superhuman, and further his plans to create neo-humanity. If Alex fails in rescuing them, X will have killed Alex's friends.
In one episode of the Spider-Man 1994 TV series Wilson Fisk states this trope is why he's the Kingpin.
Unsurprisingly considering its name, XANA from Code Lyoko is often fond of using such trick. As a matter of fact, to an extent, any of its attacks involving major damages or witnesses can be seen as this: even if the Lyoko Warriors stop the attack, they have to cancel its effect by using the Return to the Past, a process that make XANA stronger each time it's used. This result in an amazing inversion of Villain Decay, as XANA takes advantage on its numerous defeats to become gradually stronger and more dangerous.
It also pulls an impressive one in Season 3 episode Sabotage, where it sabotates the Supercomputer, causing the device to nearly destroy itself. When the Lyoko Warriors finally find a way to repair it, it turns out there's not enough energy to initiate it. The only way to get enough energy is to erase part of Lyoko, meaning XANA gets closer to destroying Lyoko as a whole, erasing the protagonists' only way of fighting it.
Winning strategies in games simple enough to be completely "solved" are like this: your opponent is usually left with several options, but none that allow them to stop you from winning by following a preset rule each turn.
One of the most basic Chess strategies is this. Forcing your opponent to either save one piece or the other.
In the casino business they say that the house always wins, and indeed, it's true. When gamblers lose all their money, the house gets rich, but when someone has a lucky streak and wins big, this only serves to encourage others to take more risks, which means the house will actually get even richer in the long run for having "lost" some money to a big winner. The law of large numbers is on their side, after all.
The only game that the player has is even theoretically on equal grounds with on the house is craps, and even then that is only when a player plays perfectly.
Chief Justice John Marshall pulled one on President Thomas Jefferson with the historic Marbury vs. Madison case by claiming the power of judicial review and subsequently using it to give Jefferson exactly what he wanted. This left Jefferson in the position of either accepting Marshall's power grab or hand Marbury the job that he was so intent on withholding in the first place.
"Marbury vs. Madison: A politician covering his ass, or the most masterful usurpation of power in the history of America?"
Nowadays many would say the concept of judicial review is one of the bedrocks of an independent judiciary, which actually does more to prevent executive power grabs.
Similar to the above, the Lawyer paradox, of no relation to the Liar paradox. A teaches B in rhetoric and the law, payment to be given when B wins his first case. B finishes his teachings and goes into politics. A gets upset and sues B for his payment. A argues:
If I win, then B must pay me for teaching him.
If I lose, then B has won, and must still pay me.
Contrariwise, B argues:
If I win, then I do not need to pay A, for I have won.
If I lose, then I have not won my first case, and need not pay him.
The creators of lonelygirl15 tried to pass it off as a real girl's videoblog; when they were caught, it was a firestorm of free publicity.
This could equally apply to every effort any individual or organization makes to discourage people from watching a movie, reading a book or playing a game; the controversy resulting thereof causes a huge spike in sales (which is just fine by the creator(s) of said movie/book/game). See Streisand Effect for more examples.
Worked like a particularly obvious charm for promoting Grand Theft Auto. The UK publicists told the tabloid The Daily Mail which whipped itself up into a frenzy quicker than you can say "BAN THIS SICK FILTH!" Result: publicity you couldn't buy.
Also in sports, the "pick and roll" play in basketball, where a player moves up from the post to set a screen for his teammate who has the ball, separating that teammate from his defender. The defender is then forced to make a decision: guard the screener, leaving the ballhandler with an easy drive to the basket, or get around the screener to stop the ballhandler, leaving the screener to move into shooting position and receive a pass for an open shot.
Samsung's Galaxy Pad faced down the iPad 2 at launch. Apple sued Samsung to stop selling Galaxy Pads. Samsung makes the chipsets for iPads.
Israel's "Galantgate" scandal of Summer 2010 played out as one of these. While the minister of defense was trying to choose the next Chief of General Staff (Ramatkal), a memo was leaked to the media describing an elaborate PR campaign to show the incumbent Ashkenazi in a bad light and promote positive media coverage of one candidate, Galant, so that he would be the one chosen for the job. Police investigation revealed that the document was a forgery, and that Ashkenazi had actually held a leaked copy of this document for several months without blowing the whistle, probably because it would have made him out to be a paranoid nut. When this came out it showed Ashkenazi in a bad light, promoted positive media coverage of Galant and led to the latter being chosen for next chief of general staff. No matter what Ashkenazi would have chosen to do, this would have blown up to reflect badly on him and positively on Galant. To be clear, the police had found Galant to have no connection to the whole ordeal, but you can't help but wonder.
Speaking of PlayStation, back when Sega was introducing their Sega CD to the US, Sony Imagesoft came out as a big supporter of it (Sega even helped produce some of their games). At the same time Sony was working with Nintendo to make their own CD based add-on for the SNES called the "Play Station". Sony was developing games for the Sega CD to gain experience, before turning around and backing Nintendo. Unfortunately, Nintendo (which also had a deal with Phillips for the exact same thing) backed out of the deal, and Sony went ahead with the PlayStation, dominating the market for the next decade. So, if Sega won they'd have a spot as one of their big developers, if Nintendo won, they'd be the creator of their own CD-based game system, and would have quite a profitable partnership, and if Nintendo turned their back on them, they'd use everything they learned from both Sega and Nintendo, and crush them both. Neither of them saw it coming.
Possibly unintentional, but Microsoft's 360 being a jack-of-all/master-of-none means it still mildly succeeds in places the PS3 falters, and if Sony does succeed they just buy the devs away anyway. Sony typically compartmentalises so few if any of those making Vaios and the like worked with the PS3.
Related to the above, what does nearly every sophisticated electronic gadget have in common? They all use the ARM architecture. Granted, ARM doesn't actually make chips, they just design them and license it to people who can build them.
This is actually a fundamental component of combined arms warfare. The entire point of using combined arms is to confront your opponent with more than one type of weapon, and forcing your opponent into a position where defending themselves from one kind of weapon exposes themselves to another. For example, pinning an enemy behind a wall with small arms fire and then following up with an artillery barrage to that area. Either the enemy moves from cover to escape the artillery and exposes himself to direct fire, or he remains in place until the artillery zeroes in and wipes him out.
Also the idea between self-propelled artillery, though Rommel infamously inverted this, turning what was supposed to be specialised AA into effective artillery and anti-tank weapons. Look, it's a tank! Now it's a tank destroyer! Now it's anti-infantry! Now it's shelling! Now it's a tank again! Pz H 2000 anyone?
The Battle of Cannae was this for the Romans. They kept pushing back the Carthaginian line until they went past its flanks. Suddenly, they're cut off in every direction. Hannibal wanted them to push his line back. Sphere of Destruction but with soldiers.
One has to wonder if AMD buying ATI was one of these. Since one is a processor company, and the other a graphics chip company, if one or the other loses to the competition (Intel and NVIDIA, respectively), not only do they still have a product lineup they can produce, but it also effectively means neither company can do anything about beating AMD. Beating AMD means they would have an effective monopoly, which the US and EU (especially the EU) don't take kindly to. Any sort of "exclusive" practice that NVIDIA will do with Intel can be decried as a trust by AMD. AMD effectively secured itself a place in the computer world because nobody can do anything to destroy each other.
Intel and NVIDIA eventually found a way out: mobile devices. Both of them have a hand in the mobile system-on-a-chip market (which competes with Apple, Samsung, and Qualcomm), which AMD has yet to enter.
Malware and malicious popups that appear to give a "Yes" and a "No" option, when in reality both count as "Yes". Take a Third Option if possible.
In March, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper tried to get a budget passed: either he gets his budget passed, or an election gets called where he wins more seats. He won a majority this year.
The Norwegian terroristAnders Behring Breivik appears to have tried to pull off his own twisted version of this. Either he would be arrested by the police and use the ensuing trial and media storm to preach his beliefs, or he would be killed and become a martyr for the far-right, his message conveyed through his manifesto. As he lived, Norwegian police are now working to prevent him from spreading his message through the media. "Unfortunately", he underestimated the damage reality TV and twitter did to the public mindset, even for those that swear off it. Much like a congressional law, it's too long foranyone to consider sitting down to read. Also, there is quite a bit of disappointment it wasn't 777,777 words long when it was so close to being so. (Numerology is very big amongst either far-fringe movement.)
Additionally, people who lost their loved ones might get their revenge (either personally by committing similar acts or indirectly through police or military actions), giving the terrorist a possibility to present themselves as victims to get the favour of more pacifistic audiences.
If a country accuses a person for being a spy (regardless of whether or not he or she is one), then the country representing the accused cannot get a convincing argument otherwise. The defending country cannot disclose the person is a spy and denying it just makes it all the more suspicious. Thus the defending country cannot win in this situation.
Richard Nixon going to China can be seen as one: his goal being to 'open it up' to the west, but a secondary goal achieved regardless of the first is fanning Soviet fears of a China-America alliance, which he exploited in later summits.
Penn & Teller managed to load every card in a standard 52-card deck while performing on a beach. Some were hidden on their persons, some on nearby sunbathers' possessions, one in a potted palm tree...
In Baseball contracts, there is a stipulation called a player option. If the player thinks he is worth more than the option, he can decline it and get a better deal. If the option exceeds the player's value, he exercises and gets maximum profit. This is the main reason why the option is rarely given out.
Psychics, mediums, and other such frauds use a technique known as 'multiple outs' where they phrase their statements in such a way that they can be made to seem accurate no matter how the sitter responds. For example:
Turn a question about the past into a prediction for the future ("Does the name Bob mean anything to you? No? It will")
Phrase the question so it's ambiguous whether you're making or discounting a claim ("You don't have a blue car, do you? No? I thought not/Yes? I thought so")
Turn a literal statement into a metaphor ("Is it your father? No? But he was like a father to you, wasn't he?")
Polls are notorious for asking questions in such a way that your true intention can be twisted to the opposite.
Any well-designed, successfully-executed scientific experiment should teach you something of value, whether it winds up supporting its underlying hypothesis or disproving it.
Attempted by Josef Stalin, according to a French biography of the dictator. The author explains that in 1939-1940 Stalin viewed the conflict between Germany and the French-British alliance (in which he was officially neutral - actually, USSR was a kind of informal ally of Germany at the beginning of the war) as a gift for the USSR, since whichever was the victor would be too weakened by a long war to turn against the USSR. This plan happened to be a huge failure when Germany overwhelmingly crushed France and repelled Great Britain from continental Europe in a few weeks, keeping most of its military potential.
There was nothing informal about it. The USSR partitioned Poland and the other middle-european nations according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact together with the Reich, as well as sending them resources until 1941. Barbarossa was such a massive initial succes because Stalin didn't believe that Hitler would be stupid enough to break the pact and cut off one of the Reich's major supply lines.
Although, by the end of the war, the nations of western Europe were militarily and economically thrashed to turn against the USSR's rise to power. However, the problem was that the US was now the world's superpower, and had just developed a weapon that made all other forms of military power irrelevant.
In game theory, this is known as a dominant strategy, a strategy by one player that yields the best possible outcome regardless of what the other player(s) do.
Barack Obama and the American Democratic Party pulled one during the 2010 lame duck Congress. At the time, a major issue up for vote was renewing the Bush tax cuts, which Democrats wanted to let expire, and Republicans wanted to renew. After a lot of wrangling, a deal was worked out where the Democrats voted to extend the tax cuts for another two years, in return for the Republicans giving way on several other issues, including the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", allowing Obama to get a lot of other things done. Had the Republicans refused the deal, the tax cuts would have expired, and Obama would still have won. Even more cleverly, the extension was only for two years, putting Obama in a position to do the same thing again in 2012...
When comedienne Lisa Lampanelli heard that the Westboro Baptist Church planned to protest her show, she pledged to donate $1000 to the Gay Men's Health Center for each protester that showed up. So the WBC could either cancel the protest or donate money to gay people. She ended up donating $50,000 dollars.