Minimax is a decision rule used in artificial intelligence, decision theory, game theory, statistics, and philosophy for minimizing the possible loss for a worst case scenario. When dealing with gains, it is referred to as "maximin"—to maximize the minimum gain. Originally formulated for two-player zero-sum game theory, covering both the cases where players take alternate moves and those where they make simultaneous moves, it has also been extended to more complex games and to general decision-making in the presence of uncertainty.
In general gamesThe maximin value is the highest value that the player can be sure to get without knowing the actions of the other players; equivalently, it is the lowest value the other players can force the player to receive when they know the player's action. Its formal definition is:
- is the index of the player of interest.
- denotes all other players except player.
- is the action taken by player.
- denotes the actions taken by all other players.
- is the value function of player.
For example, consider the following game for two players, where the first player may choose any of three moves, labelled,, or, and the second player may choose either of two moves, or. The result of the combination of both moves is expressed in a payoff table:
For the sake of example, we consider only pure strategies. Check each player in turn:
- The row player can play, which guarantees them a payoff of at least . Hence:.
- The column player can play and secure a payoff of at least . Hence:.
The minimax value of a player is the smallest value that the other players can force the player to receive, without knowing the player's actions; equivalently, it is the largest value the player can be sure to get when they know the actions of the other players. Its formal definition is:
The definition is very similar to that of the maximin value—only the order of the maximum and minimum operators is inverse. In the above example:
- The row player can get a maximum value of or , so:.
- The column player can get a maximum value of , or . Hence:.
Intuitively, in maximin the maximization comes before the minimization, so player tries to maximize their value before knowing what the others will do; in minimax the maximization comes after the minimization, so player is in a much better position—they maximize their value knowing what the others did.
Another way to understand the notation is by reading from right to left: when we write
the initial set of outcomes depends on both and. We first marginalize away from, by maximizing over to yield a set of marginal outcomes, which depends only on. We then minimize over over these outcomes.
Although it is always the case that and, the payoff vector resulting from both players playing their minimax strategies, in the case of or in the case of, cannot similarly be ranked against the payoff vector resulting from both players playing their maximin strategy.
In two-player zero-sum games, the minimax solution is the same as the Nash equilibrium.
In the context of zero-sum games, the minimax theorem is equivalent to:
For every two-person, zero-sum game with finitely many strategies, there exists a value V and a mixed strategy for each player, such that
Equivalently, Player 1's strategy guarantees them a payoff of V regardless of Player 2's strategy, and similarly Player 2 can guarantee themselves a payoff of −V. The name minimax arises because each player minimizes the maximum payoff possible for the other—since the game is zero-sum, they also minimize their own maximum loss.
See also example of a game without a value.
ExampleThe following example of a zero-sum game, where A and B make simultaneous moves, illustrates minimax solutions. Suppose each player has three choices and consider the payoff matrix for A displayed on the right. Assume the payoff matrix for B is the same matrix with the signs reversed. Then, the minimax choice for A is A2 since the worst possible result is then having to pay 1, while the simple minimax choice for B is B2 since the worst possible result is then no payment. However, this solution is not stable, since if B believes A will choose A2 then B will choose B1 to gain 1; then if A believes B will choose B1 then A will choose A1 to gain 3; and then B will choose B2; and eventually both players will realize the difficulty of making a choice. So a more stable strategy is needed.
Some choices are dominated by others and can be eliminated: A will not choose A3 since either A1 or A2 will produce a better result, no matter what B chooses; B will not choose B3 since some mixtures of B1 and B2 will produce a better result, no matter what A chooses.
A can avoid having to make an expected payment of more than 1∕3 by choosing A1 with probability 1∕6 and A2 with probability 5∕6: The expected payoff for A would be 3 × − 1 × = −1∕3 in case B chose B1 and −2 × + 0 × = −1/3 in case B chose B2. Similarly, B can ensure an expected gain of at least 1/3, no matter what A chooses, by using a randomized strategy of choosing B1 with probability 1∕3 and B2 with probability 2∕3. These mixed minimax strategies are now stable and cannot be improved.
MaximinFrequently, in game theory, maximin is distinct from minimax. Minimax is used in zero-sum games to denote minimizing the opponent's maximum payoff. In a zero-sum game, this is identical to minimizing one's own maximum loss, and to maximizing one's own minimum gain.
"Maximin" is a term commonly used for non-zero-sum games to describe the strategy which maximizes one's own minimum payoff. In non-zero-sum games, this is not generally the same as minimizing the opponent's maximum gain, nor the same as the Nash equilibrium strategy.theory of repeated games. One of the central theorems in this theory, the folk theorem, relies on the minimax values.
Combinatorial game theoryIn combinatorial game theory, there is a minimax algorithm for game solutions.
A simple version of the minimax algorithm, stated below, deals with games such as tic-tac-toe, where each player can win, lose, or draw.
If player A can win in one move, their best move is that winning move.
If player B knows that one move will lead to the situation where player A can win in one move, while another move will lead to the situation where player A can, at best, draw, then player B's best move is the one leading to a draw.
Late in the game, it's easy to see what the "best" move is.
The Minimax algorithm helps find the best move, by working backwards from the end of the game. At each step it assumes that player A is trying to maximize the chances of A winning, while on the next turn player B is trying to minimize the chances of A winning.
Minimax algorithm with alternate movesA minimax algorithm is a recursive algorithm for choosing the next move in an n-player game, usually a two-player game. A value is associated with each position or state of the game. This value is computed by means of a position evaluation function and it indicates how good it would be for a player to reach that position. The player then makes the move that maximizes the minimum value of the position resulting from the opponent's possible following moves. If it is A
A possible allocation method consists in assigning a certain win for A as +1 and for B as −1. This leads to combinatorial game theory as developed by John Horton Conway. An alternative is using a rule that if the result of a move is an immediate win for A it is assigned positive infinity and if it is an immediate win for B, negative infinity. The value to A of any other move is the maximum of the values resulting from each of B
This can be extended if we can supply a heuristic evaluation function which gives values to non-final game states without considering all possible following complete sequences. We can then limit the minimax algorithm to look only at a certain number of moves ahead. This number is called the "look-ahead", measured in "plies". For example, the chess computer Deep Blue looked ahead at least 12 plies, then applied a heuristic evaluation function.
The algorithm can be thought of as exploring the nodes of a game tree. The effective branching factor of the tree is the average number of children of each node. The number of nodes to be explored usually increases exponentially with the number of plies. The number of nodes to be explored for the analysis of a game is therefore approximately the branching factor raised to the power of the number of plies. It is therefore impractical to completely analyze games such as chess using the minimax algorithm.
The performance of the naïve minimax algorithm may be improved dramatically, without affecting the result, by the use of alpha-beta pruning.
Other heuristic pruning methods can also be used, but not all of them are guaranteed to give the same result as the un-pruned search.
A naïve minimax algorithm may be trivially modified to additionally return an entire Principal Variation along with a minimax score.
PseudocodeThe pseudocode for the depth limited minimax algorithm is given below.
function minimax is
if depth = 0 or node is a terminal node then
return the heuristic value of node
if maximizingPlayer then
value := −∞
for each child of node do
value := max
value := +∞
for each child of node do
value := min
The minimax function returns a heuristic value for leaf nodes.
Non leaf nodes inherit their value from a descendant leaf node.
The heuristic value is a score measuring the favorability of the node for the maximizing player.
Hence nodes resulting in a favorable outcome, such as a win, for the maximizing player have higher scores than nodes more favorable for the minimizing player.
The heuristic value for terminal leaf nodes are scores corresponding to win, loss, or draw, for the maximizing player.
For non terminal leaf nodes at the maximum search depth, an evaluation function estimates a heuristic value for the node.
The quality of this estimate and the search depth determine the quality and accuracy of the final minimax result.
Minimax treats the two players separately in its code. Based on the observation that, minimax may often be simplified into the negamax algorithm.
ExampleSuppose the game being played only has a maximum of two possible moves per player each turn. The algorithm generates the tree on the right, where the circles represent the moves of the player running the algorithm, and squares represent the moves of the opponent. Because of the limitation of computation resources, as explained above, the tree is limited to a look-ahead of 4 moves.
The algorithm evaluates each leaf node using a heuristic evaluation function, obtaining the values shown. The moves where the maximizing player wins are assigned with positive infinity, while the moves that lead to a win of the minimizing player are assigned with negative infinity. At level 3, the algorithm will choose, for each node, the smallest of the child node values, and assign it to that same node. The next step, in level 2, consists of choosing for each node the largest of the child node values. Once again, the values are assigned to each parent node. The algorithm continues evaluating the maximum and minimum values of the child nodes alternately until it reaches the root node, where it chooses the move with the largest value. This is the move that the player should make in order to minimize the maximum possible loss.
Minimax for individual decisions
Minimax in the face of uncertaintyMinimax theory has been extended to decisions where there is no other player, but where the consequences of decisions depend on unknown facts. For example, deciding to prospect for minerals entails a cost which will be wasted if the minerals are not present, but will bring major rewards if they are. One approach is to treat this as a game against nature, and using a similar mindset as Murphy's law or resistentialism, take an approach which minimizes the maximum expected loss, using the same techniques as in the two-person zero-sum games.
In addition, expectiminimax trees have been developed, for two-player games in which chance is a factor.
Minimax criterion in statistical decision theoryIn classical statistical decision theory, we have an estimator that is used to estimate a parameter. We also assume a risk function, usually specified as the integral of a loss function. In this framework, is called minimax if it satisfies
An alternative criterion in the decision theoretic framework is the Bayes estimator in the presence of a prior distribution. An estimator is Bayes if it minimizes the average risk
Non-probabilistic decision theoryA key feature of minimax decision making is being non-probabilistic: in contrast to decisions using expected value or expected utility, it makes no assumptions about the probabilities of various outcomes, just scenario analysis of what the possible outcomes are. It is thus :wikt:robust|robust to changes in the assumptions, as these other decision techniques are not. Various extensions of this non-probabilistic approach exist, notably minimax regret and Info-gap decision theory.
Further, minimax only requires ordinal measurement, not interval measurements, and returns ordinal data, using only the modeled outcomes: the conclusion of a minimax analysis is: "this strategy is minimax, as the worst case is, which is less bad than any other strategy". Compare to expected value analysis, whose conclusion is of the form: "this strategy yields E=n." Minimax thus can be used on ordinal data, and can be more transparent.
Maximin in philosophyIn philosophy, the term "maximin" is often used in the context of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, where he refers to it in the context of The Difference Principle.
Rawls defined this principle as the rule which states that social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that "they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society".