How to Win a Three-Way Gunfight

Truels are things guaranteed to make any Western fifty percent better — by adding a third person to a duel. Each person can choose his or her target, and the worst person might very well be the winner — provided they play it smart. Learn how to win yourself a truel, gunslinger-style.

Game theorists have thought about the problem of duels for a long time. As much as the Old West was depicted as a lawless place where anything might happen, it was also known for hanging its criminals high — which meant that the winner of any gunfight just might find himself being executed for being the fastest gun in the West. Theorists calculated whether it was better to draw fast, wait for the other person to draw fast so they used up their shot and you could wait and take good aim, and whether or not it might not be better to settle the whole thing with a coin flip, instead.

And then Martin Shubik, an economist, introduced a new element. What if, instead of a duel, people got into a truel? What if three people stood at the points of an imaginary equilateral triangle, picked their targets, and shot? Who would walk away? The fun thing about this truel is that it reworks the the entire concept, so that the least qualified person was most likely to walk away alive.

The rules of the truel are simple. Each person chooses their target and shoots. There are variants; each person shooting one at a time, each shooting simultaneously, random order, rotating order, and so on. For someone who couldn't even sling a gun over a fence, the truel seems like an even worse situation than a duel. Now there are two competitors that you have to beat. But your competitors have to contend with each other as well. Which means that they are not going to be aiming for the person who's least likely to shoot them.

So how do you win a truel, if you're the worst shooter? After all, if you aim at the best gunfighter and miss, you'll leave a very angry sharpshooter who will want to get back at you. If you hit the person, and even kill him or her, you'll have to stand still for the second best to shoot at you. In the end, the best move you can make is to drop you gun or shoot into the air, leaving the two strongest shooters to take each other out. Worst case: The situation doesn't change. Medium: At least one of the competitors is gone. Best case: You win the truel.

In fact, that's always the best move in a truel — no matter who you are. Show that you're not a threat immediately. Assuming the other people aren't going to shoot you for a personal reason, they'll go after each other, leaving you the most likely survivor and possible winner. This might be why gunfights, in movies and life, were kept to two people. If truels actually existed, they might have become races to see who could drop their gun first, not who could drawer their gun first.

Via Chronicle and CSIC.