Vizzini’s Strategy

The Princess Bride is one of my all time favorite movies. Adventure, Swordfighting, Sports, True Love….. it’s got it all. One of the most memorable scenes is when the Man in Black catches up to Vizzini played by Wallace Shawn after besting Inigo and Fezik.

So it is down to you and it is down to me

Vizzini has kidnapped the Princess Bride, Buttercup and intends to kill her to start a war between Florin and Guilder. The Man in Black has inconceivably pursued him despite having to face Vizzini’s hired muscle, a master swordsman and a giant. Knowing that he can no longer outrun the Man in Black, Vizzini awaits him with a modest picnic spread out in front of him. Vizzini doesn’t realize it but the Man in Black is Westley, the true love of the Princess Bride. Westley is intent on rescuing Buttercup. As Westley approaches, Vizzini makes it clear that he will kill the Princess Bride if he attempts to free her. An impasse ensues. Vizzini describes it best saying “I can’t compete with you physically…and you’re no match for my brains.” You can try and use a little game theory to understand the stalemate but it’s not really necessary or very helpful. It’s closest to a first strike/mutual assured destruction situation where the outcome of “defecting” is so horrendous that it “deters” either from taking the drastic measure of carrying out their threat…. Vizzini killing the hostage means he himself will die. The death of Buttercup is the equivalent for Westley of his own death because of True Love.

The impasse is broken when Westley suggests a game of wits for the princess… the death. Vizzini is confident that this is a game he can win and agrees. What is not immediately apparent is that the game is rigged. Vizzini pours two goblets of wine and Westley pulls forth a vial of deadly Iocaine powder. He shields the goblets from Vizzini and puts the poison into both then bids Vizzini to pick which one does not contain the poison and drink from it. Westley, having gone off to seek his fortune, has acquired some impressive abilities. Among them is an immunity to Iocaine that he has built up over that last few years.

The Iocaine Challenge

Vizzini has made the fatal assumption that the game is exactly as Westley has described. But you have to admire his quick thinking. He has seemingly taken what was a weak position and turned it into a situation where he can win and keep the princess. He has a plan as well. Perhaps not at first. He delivers a long paradoxical monologue expounding on what information he can divine from his opponent to tell him where the poison is. As he is talking he hits upon a plan. He will distract Westley and switch the goblets then suggest they each drink from the one in front of them. If Westley proceeds then obviously the poison was in Vizzini’s goblet and now having switched them he is free to drink and Westley is dead.

The Old Switcheroo

What is really ironic is that as Vizzini is delivering his longwinded analysis on where the poison is, he actually stumbles upon the truth. He tells the Man in Black “You’ve beaten my giant, which means you’re exceptionally strong, so you could have put the poison into your own goblet trusting on your strength to save you.” What’s interesting is that the camera switches over to Westley and you can see him squirm a bit. He clenches his hand and his throat moves ever so slightly. These are “Tells” that Vizzini has stumbled upon some of the truth for this is in essence his plan with the addtional twist that both goblets are poisoned. Remember that if you are watching for the first time at this point the rigged nature of the game has not yet been revealed. Here is a shot of Westley and his “Tell.”

The Tell

Both Westley and Vizzini drink from their goblets. Elated that he has bested the Man in Black, Vizzini explains that he has fallen for one of the classic blunders….. “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line” and then promptly falls over dead.

Lessons Learned:

1. Never assume that information conveyed to you by your opponent is true.

2. Look for hidden or hard to detect information from your opponent that might shed light on their strategy.

3. Nothing is inconceivable!

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