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Strategy, Schmategy

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"There's no sense in being precise when you don't even know what you're talking about."
John von Neumann

Bob is unpredictable. No matter what he does, his enemies never see it coming. Now, sometimes a character might appear unpredictable, either because he's making it up as he goes along, or because he's trying to be unpredictable.

Bob has other reasons.

Strategy, Schmategy describes situations where a character's behavior is unpredictable because he himself simply has no idea what he's doing.

Subtly different from the Indy Ploy, in that the Indy Ploy is making it up as you go along. Example: Indy needs to escape. "Oh, hey, look, an open window! I'll dive through it and figure out how to safely land after I'm already committed to going through the window." Strategy, Schmategy is about doing something without any plan for it to improve things. Example: Joe is trying to beat Mastermind at a game. Joe doesn't know the rules, or the scoring system, so he's just going to move pieces randomly and hope he wins.

This may actually be an effective means to victory on rare occasions. John Von Neumann, the founder of Game Theory, said randomness is unique in having no consistent counter.

Likely to result in a Spanner in the Works if somebody is running any kind of gambit, because chaos has that kind of effect on carefully laid plans... but it might have the opposite effect.

Compare Leeroy Jenkins, which is what happens when this kind of mindset bites you in the butt, and Achievements in Ignorance, which is what happens when someone accomplishes something without knowing it was "against the rules" so to speak. It's a favored non-tactic of The Fool.

Contrast Confusion Fu (unpredictability as a strategy in itself, instead of a function of having no strategy), Indy Ploy (where a character doesn't have a plan originally, but comes up with new ones on the fly), Xanatos Speed Chess (adjusting a preexisting plan to accommodate a changing situation), Gambit Roulette (plans which incorporate a degree of randomness), Calvin Ball (in which the entire game makes no sense, as opposed to just one of the players) and Button Mashing (where someone who has no idea how to play a game attempts to batter it into submission with sheer desperate enthusiasm).

If you're wondering how come we don't have any trope page about "word, schmords" such as the title above, fear not.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Naruto did this with his first Chuunin exam. He's too honest to realize the true point of the exam (cheating without getting caught- he did consider cheating, but failed to realize that it was the entire point of the exam), and not smart enough to actually answer the questions, so his strategy during the exam is to sit around fretting. It works, because he's never actually caught cheating.
  • Saki: Kaori manages to defeat several high-level mahjong players because of the fact that she's a complete amateur. She can't formulate the long term strategies her more experienced competitors are known to do, and as a result they are completely thrown off by her playstyle because they can't think up of an effective counter to it.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!
    • Invoked in the Yu-Gi-Oh! manga as a means of countering Pegasus's mind-reading abilities. If Yugi/Yami don't know what the cards are then Pegasus won't either.
    • Jonouchi invokes this by using chance cards with random effects.
  • One Piece : Luffy has invoked Confusion Fu before, but the bulk of his ability to take his enemies off guard is a result of his wildly impulsive personality.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, during their first fight, Mashmyre thinks that Judau must be a masterful opponent. In truth, at that point, Judau has absolutely no idea how to pilot a suit and is just randomly hitting buttons.
  • In Digimon Frontier, Idiot Hero Takuya fights all his battles this way, trusting in hot-bloodedness and determination to see him through. When finally confronted with an enemy so far above his level nothing he does works, he suffers a Heroic BSoD and has to be dragged away by his friends.

    Fan Fiction 
  • The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fic Chronomistress: Out of Time. At the end, a master of the logical and calculating chronomasters states that The Ditz Derpy will make a helpful ally in their struggle against the changelings, as she will "teach [them] how to make unexpected moves". "We must count on her for one thing we timekeepers by our nature do not have—spontaneity. By following her lead, we may be able to keep the changelings guessing."
  • In Arc of the Revolution, no one can understand Jaune Arc's hidden agenda because there is none; he just has Chronic Hero Syndrome. He still manages to wind up as leader of the once again reformed White Fang and lead a successful revolution by a combination of luck and some impressive tactical skill when put on the spot.

    Film — Animated 

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Molly's Game has an example of the "amateur beats professional" variety. Among the players at Molly's second high-stakes poker game are Harlan, an expert player (as the narration says, the others were gambling but he was playing poker), and a rich businessman so terrible at poker he was nicknamed "Bad Brad". Harlan's winning steak is cut short when Brad accidentally bluffs him into folding on a crucial hand, simply by being too bad at poker to realize he should have folded. Harlan tried to read him like an expert, didn't notice any of the typical tells, and assumed his hand must have been good.
  • In The Phantom Menace Jar Jar Binks found himself assigned a generalship in the Gungan military thanks to a political appointment. He proceeds to take out a surprising number of the enemy himself by being a Lethal Klutz, and the badly outclassed Gungan army manages to last long enough in their stated purpose—being a distraction—to see the opposing droid army decommissioned.
  • The Pink Panther: This is Jacques Clouseau's trademark, to the point where people begin assuming he is a mastermind who merely plays the fool.
  • Justified in Three Days of the Condor. The men trying to kill Turner note on several occasions that he's a CIA intelligence analyst, not a field agent, and as such he won't do the sort of things a field agent would do, making him unpredictable. Add on top of that him being intelligent, creative, and Genre Savvy due to reading a lot of thrillers, action novels, and comics, and he's able to evade the highly trained killers, who themselves are CIA assassins, due to him thinking outside of the box. This actually leads to Joubert, the main assassin, respecting him quite a bit.

  • Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court has this to say:
    But don't you know, there are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do: and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.
    • The same idea is boiled down for one of Murphy's Laws of Combat:
      Professional soldiers are predictable, but the world is full of amateurs.
  • In A Face Like Glass, a slightly more serious version of this is exploited by the Kleptomancer; he periodically wipes and alters his memories. There is a serious plan, but because he doesn't know what it is and never knows what is and isn't important, it's undetectable.
  • The second Honor Harrington novel, The Honor of the Queen, finds the protagonist facing off against an enemy ship that, while far superior to her own, is crewed by people who have no idea how to use it. She paraphrases the Mark Twain quote to her subordinate: "The world's best swordsman doesn't fear the second best; he fears the worst swordsman, because he can't predict what the idiot will do." Ultimately subverted in that, while Harrington does make one tactical error in her confusion, it is not enough to offset the many errors made by her inept opponent.
  • In the Age Of Unreason series, a guy is killed by someone who cannot fence at all; he automatically assumed his attack was a mere feint, because no fencer would make such a clumsy attack. Too bad his opponent is not a fencer...
  • The Carpet People often features the heroes facing superior numbers without concern on the grounds that bigger enemies just mean that they have a greater choice of targets; at one point one character faces four enemies on his own, and observes that not only is he four times more likely to hit one of them, but when the actual fight starts the four aren't trying as hard because they're basically each holding back as they expect the other three to take the risks for them. The Deftmenes lead by Brocando don't go in for planning much beyond "charge", unlike the methodical techniques of the Dumii under Bane. Brocando later makes good use of this when he trains Ware's women to fight with spears in the final battle; they're all amateurs, which means they'll do just about anything with the weapon.
  • Quoth The Adolescence of P1: "Burke, the ultimate spy, could kill a man in three languages, with one or both hands and/or feet tied behind his back. Kung Fu, karate and ju-jutsu were child's play to him. For those reasons, he found himself at a distinct disadvantage with such an adversary as Gregory, who, unschooled in the martial arts, was merely trying to bite off an ear or jugular, or gouge an eyeball. Burke compared it later to trying to peel drunken leeches".
  • Little Myth Marker lands Skeeve in a massively high-stakes Dragon Poker game against one of the best players around. After struggling to learn the game, he instead decides to go all in on the first hand, to maximize the amount of luck involved and negate his opponent's skill advantage.
  • In The Mensa Puzzle Book, the late Mensa president Victor Serebriakoff describes how the first time he played chess he beat the Captain of the Chess Club, who was "looking for subtleties in what was simply an Idiotic Play".
  • Half the times Ciaphas Cain (HERO OF THE IMPERIUM) performs an act of incredible heroism, it was because he was trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and the previous threat and didn't see the new one.
  • Lightsong from Warbreaker is the undisputed master of an extremely complex ball game thanks to studiously avoiding learning the rules, acting entirely at random, and spouting mysterious comments like, "You have to learn to think like the ball" when anyone asks him questions.
  • In The Meaning of Liff, 'Aboyne' means to beat an expert by playing too appallingly for clever tactics to work.
  • Maxwell fits this trope in The Well of Moments. He's easy to predict except when he's in the middle of a "plan", where his tactics are anyone's guess and he never thinks ahead, but he's blessed with the luck of the stupid. Larnach the Mad Scot's behavior is radically unpredictable at all times, and he'll blithely put himself in danger even when he doesn't have to if it seems expedient.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Smart Guy episode TJ Versus The Machine, TJ beats the unbeatable chess computer Socrates by taking a lead from Mo. Mo doesn't have a clue what he's doing, and TJ realizes that a computer designed to compete against expert players won't be able to formulate a strategy against random, unpredictable play.
  • In the first episode of the Mission: Impossible remake, the target was a hitman who chose the method of assassination at the last moment, making him impossible to anticipate.
  • Battlestar Galactica (1978). In "Lost Planet of the Gods", the fighter pilots get sick so female shuttle pilots have to be hastily trained to take their place until they recover. An early success is put down by the Cylons to them attacking in an erratic and unpredictable manner.
  • One episode of Malcolm in the Middle has Hal spend A Day in Her Apron and, with no idea how to make the boys behave, keeps wildly switching approach from tough love to coddling them to making them do star jumps. His sheer unpredictability actually manages to keep them in line... until he makes up his mind to appeal to their better nature.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Trope Namer is a certain Magic: The Gathering card with a completely random (but powerful) effect. Amusingly enough, this type of behavior is guaranteed to end poorly for you unless your opponent is either very unlucky with their draws or just as bad as you are.
  • This type of behavior is sure to completely derail an entire game of Diplomacy.note 
  • This doesn't work in chess, where it's almost impossible to beat a player who's above your level. This is because if the neophyte makes a bizarre move during the opening it is most likely a bad move, and that alone tells the good player that he's not up against a strong opponent. Also, it's said that playing against someone who's way worse than you will dull your skills, and it's highly advised to avoid doing so.
    • It does work though (well, sometimes), when the master player is playing blindfold handicap: The position gets so wacky that he can't apply his chunking strategy, and a total greenhon now might fare better than a beginner who already knows standard positions.
  • Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000:
    • Many orkish units in various editions have this as a special rule. The most prominent example being the Giant. But while it's true that they do have one very basic strategy (run at the enemy to chop him up while shooting and screaming), they have extremely bizarre and potent abilities that their opponents don't know about (even in-universe).
      • In 40K, one Necron character has a special rule that gives him bonuses against every enemy army... except orks. Despite having studied the tactics of every species known to the Necrons over millenia, he simply can't predict what the orks'll do next.
    • Kids new to the hobby might have picked up whatever units they thought looked coolest (such as half-naked chicks wielding six-foot chainsaws) without having an inkling of what they're actually capable of.
  • Given the number of powers with extra random-effect rolls involved in playing a Chaos Sorcerer in D&D 4e, similar to the trope namer MtG card, this is quite likely the ONLY strategy. "Alright, I'mma blow him up! Now let's see if I blow up the guy next to him too, blow him up MORE, or turn my ally into stone.." Bonus since the Sorcerer class is specifically listed as "instinctual/force of will" magic, rather than the "Learned scholar" style of the Wizard.
  • A proverb in Go is "Learning joseki [standard patterns of play] loses two stones' strength; studying joseki gains four stones' strength." In other words, if you know the standard patterns of play but don't understand why they're used, you'll be a weaker player than if you don't know the standard plays at all and just play what comes naturally. Mastering the game, of course, requires learning not only the joseki themselves, but how to use them as part of an overall strategy for victory.

    Video Games 
  • In Dynasty Warriors, Lu Bu is usually portrayed as being like this and scoffing at any sort of strategy. His raw brute power simply makes it unnecessary, and many of his enemies are taken by surprise at how completely lacking in thought his attacks can be. Likewise, Yuan Shao's massive armies and vast resources have him dismiss the idea that strategy is even necessary, since he can simply steamroll over his enemies.
    • It should be pointed out that while both Lu Bu and Yuan Shao are major threats, once they go up against someone who actually knows what he's doing and is aware of their weaknesses (like, say, Cao Cao), the strategies they dismiss wind up causing their downfall. To be exact, Cao Cao starves Lu Bu's forces into submission (because even the mightiest warrior needs to eat) before executing Lu Bu himself, and devastates Yuan Shao's massive army with surgical strikes before destroying their main supply depot and sending the Yuan army reeling in defeat.
  • In League of Legends, this sort of behavior is likely to make your team hate you. It can be effective if you know what you're doing or playing against weak players who are merely copying what stronger players are doing without understanding it, but in reality there IS a reason for the most common strategies, such as 1-1-2 + jungler - it simply is that much stronger than anything else which is available.
  • Snow from Final Fantasy XIII, for much of the game, adheres rigidly to this tope.
    Snow: Since when have heroes ever needed plans?
  • It's this basic principle that occasionally lets inexperienced button mashers beat experienced players in fighting games (and other games) at least a few times. Skilled players and the AI are generally predictable, but it can be tricky fighting a flailing foe whose moves are often the worst in a normal situation.
  • This also applies to multiplayer First-Person Shooter games, where a random Johnny New-Game can confound an experienced player because all the things that the experienced player is used to seeing don't happen. For instance, in Team Fortress 2, there might be various places on any given map that are the expected locations for sentry guns... but if someone doesn't tell this to the new player who just picked Engineer, they can put a gun in a strange place that can stymie more experienced opponents (at least until it's destroyed). The unaware newbie can keep placing their guns down in weird places, which can make the other team antsy or at the very least leave them confused as to what's going on.
    • This also applies at more basic levels. A professional-level player can easily be thrown off by a complete newbie, who can dodge and juke the professional's shots by sheer force of obliviousness or panicked keyboard mashing. When the game expects quick reactions and predicting the enemy's moves, the worst enemy is the unpredictable.
  • It's not uncommon for a highly skilled player of Starcraft 2 to accidentally lose a match or two against someone with only the basic understanding of the game. This is mainly because a skilled player focuses on build order, timing, and meta. They'll never expect an opponent do something weird like mass ten marauders and no marines, or immediately go for a Mothership with no other present units, and certainly not if said player is just walking their units around the map and just happens to repeatedly destroy the workers for the skilled player (with the skilled player assuming they must be scouting).

    Web Comics 
  • Fighter of 8-Bit Theater is the living embodiment of this trope, as he's too stupid to know whether he's supposed to fall for a crazy plan or not. He bends the Theory of Narrative Causality by his very existence, making him a meta-example of this trope.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Elan's tendency to act like this sometimes helps, and sometimes causes even more problems.
    • Xykon is most decidedly not an example, despite expressing disdain for strategy. In practice, he is very strategic in making creative use of every resource at his disposal, often catching opponents off guard. His philosophy is that when things are serious pure power will overwhelm a clever strategy, and part of that is systematically correcting his own weaknesses.

    Web Video 

    Western Animation 
  • In the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "The Warriors of Kyoshi," Zuko is freaking out about his inability to track the Avatar, due to him being "a master of evasive maneuvering." Cut to the Gaang flying on Appa and Sokka saying to Aang: "You have no idea where you're going, do you?"
  • Batman: The Animated Series: In "The Man Who Killed Batman", Sid the Squid's frantic and clumsy attempts to escape from Batman appear (to his fellow crooks on the street below) like he's actually putting up a decent fight. The confrontation ends with Batman accidentally falling off the roof toward his apparent death in an explosion.
  • In Ducktales 2017, during the Alien Invasion:
    Scrooge: You were prepared for our best, but not our dumbest.
    Flintheart: And I'm the dumbest you'll ever get! *laughs maniacally* *Beat* Wait...
  • A common action of Shaggy and Scooby Doo in almost every piece of Scooby-Doo media. Nearly always, Fred comes up with a calculated plan to defeat or capture the monster they're facing, and near universally it fails. When it does, Shaggy and Scooby are forced to just run around panicked in a desperate effort to avoid the creature (since they're often the bait), and the creature usually fails to catch them as they're caught in the trap anyways by Scooby and Shaggy's complete freakout. It's also worth noting that the two never have a backup plan. When Fred's plans fail, they just run like hell and it works out.

    Real Life 
  • Here are some thoughts about how this applies to sword fighting:
    • Mark Twain was a little off the mark when he described the threat to a Master Swordsman posed by an unpredictable dunce with no training. In styles of swordsmanship based on the principles of a martial art rather than a sport, the context for which the techniques are designed is a Duel to the Death with no holds barred. Preserving your own life is more important than defeating your opponent no matter what, so there should be no Taking You with Me. You should try to win the fight quickly, since the longer the fight goes on the more it will be affected by variables outside your control, but you should never abandon your defense in your haste to make your attack land first. Beginners tend to leave themselves wide open without even realizing it, and once in a fight tend to either go completely on the defensive so that their opponent is able to keep attacking them until they get lucky, or to attack with no sense of self-preservation so that an opponent who knows what they're doing can run them through without much hazard to themselves. Most of them are bad, and an expert familiar with beginner weaknesses will be able to take them apart.
    • In Olympic rules fencing, the people who run most afoul of this are beginning fencers against first-timers, since they want to play by the rules and do things properly, but don't have the technique and reaction time yet. Epeeists in particular are notorious for finding first-timers more challenging than neophytes since epee has no rules of Right of Way. Right of Way defines a dynamic where you can not score on an attack if you have not defended yourself from an opponent's attack, and the wildly flailing new fencer often runs afoul of those rules. Epee lacks those rules, and new fencers often do unpredictable, senseless things than can almost accidentally result in touches. After some practice, they end up doing worse because they begin learning what they're doing, though that's a necessary step to mastering the weapon. This is why epee is not traditionally the first weapon a fencer learns.
    • There are also the modern pentathaletes. Fencing matches are generally to 5 or 10 hits whereas fencing in the modern pentathalon uses one-hit. Even if predictable in the long run, as long as they are unorthodox enough to get the first hit, they win.
  • "Beginner's luck" may sometimes come from this — in a game of moves, counter-moves and counter-counter-moves, sometimes the correct move against a professional is the most basic one. Until he figures out that his opponent IS a beginner and crushes them. It can also result in wasted effort. In Magic: The Gathering, for instance, there are a lot of mind games which are possible, but many of them will only be picked up on by sufficiently skilled opponents, making a new player Too Dumb to Fool.
  • In sports or martial arts, a completely untrained person relies upon natural athleticism, even if they don't know what they're doing. This grants them a fluidity and lack of hesitation that beginners have to surrender and relearn. One becomes an expert by perfecting the technique and practicing how to apply it in all kinds of situations, so that when the moment comes they will do the correct thing without hesitating.
  • A martial artist often hates sparring against rank beginners, since their wild flailing is more likely to result in unintentional injury to someone than a somewhat skilled opponent's controlled movements.
  • Likewise, a completely untrained fighter relying on instinct and athleticism is often better than a beginning martial artist or boxer. When the training takes effect, the reverse is true — becoming good means passing through a phase of drilling basic movements — and that makes a beginner highly predictable to an expert. This can be a difficult problem for an instructor. "You're really improving" sounds hollow when they did "better" their first time.
  • Professional Poker players can sometimes be thwarted by novices and amateurs, who make plays that no professional would be stupid enough to attempt and end up short-circuiting the professionals' expectations.note 
  • The above comment about Poker is also is true for billiards players.
  • Fighter pilots during the World Wars remarked that "experienced" pilots were easier to shoot down, as they were in greater control of their motions, making them predictable, while greener pilots tended to skid and flail all over the sky.
  • Maurice "Rocket" Richard was once asked in an interview how he planned his shots on goal. He answered along the lines of "If I don't know what shot I'm going to make, how will the goalie?"