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Fish in Troubled Waters


Disciplines > Warfare > The 36 Stratagems > Fish in Troubled Waters

Stratagem | History | Discussion | See also

This stratagem number: 20

This group: Stratagems for Confused Situations
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Take advantage of confusion and chaos.

When the enemy is dealing with uncertainty and is distraction, move stealthily up on them or attack away from their attention.

Create more chaos to make them twist and turn, becoming more confused at each moment. Then use this confusion to gain further advantage.

Be prepared and ready for confused situations, keeping resources in reserve. Also always stay alert for small changes that indicate confusion is either about to appear or that you have a window of opportunity to cause it.


This is the twentieth stratagem of thirty-six.

Group name

Stratagems for Confused Situations

Alternative names

Muddle the Waters to Catch the Fish

Gather Fish From Troubled Waters

Stir up the Waters to catch a Fish

Or even:

Take Advantage of Confusion 

Use Chaos


In the chaos after the mighty Cao Cao was defeated, Liu Bei established the kingdom of Shu taking the strategic Yangtse city of Jinzhou. He then took Yizhou while internal struggles distracted the dominant forces there.

There have always been those who take advantage of confused and difficult situations, such as the 'spivs' of World War 2 who operated a black market in desirable goods. Modern business, too, can make huge gains by managing uncertainty and change better than their competitors.


In times of confusion, people may find it difficult to differentiate between distractions and things which are really important. You can use both to your advantage, providing distractions for competitors and authoritatively telling your targets what is most important. This latter approach works particularly well because in times of uncertainty people look to others for guidance.

Causing chaos can be seen in movies where the action hero sets off alarms, creates explosions, and so on and then slips in to save the day. Ordinary people may also be shown becoming heroes as they step up to save the day in chaotic situations that range from war to earthquakes.

One of the most important factors that let you take advantage of chaos is readiness. If you have the resources and plans already in place, then you can respond quickly to opportunities. This is one of the techniques of modern risk management. For this to work you need to plan ahead, seeing possibilities and then staying alert to catch the weak beginnings of chaos.

See also

Loot a Burning House, Confusion in war, Distraction in war


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