In game theory, a subgame perfect equilibrium (or subgame perfect Nash equilibrium) is a refinement of a Nash equilibrium used in dynamic games. A strategy profile is a subgame perfect equilibrium if it represents a Nash equilibrium of every subgame of the original game. More informally, this means that if (1) the players played any smaller game that consisted of only one part of the larger game and (2) their behavior represents a Nash equilibrium of that smaller game, then their behavior is a subgame perfect equilibrium of the larger game.
A common method for determining subgame perfect equilibria is backward induction. Here one first considers the last actions of the game and determines which actions the final mover should take in each possible circumstance to maximize his/her utility. One then supposes that the last actor will do these actions, and considers the second to last actions, again choosing those that maximize that actor's utility. This process continues until one reaches the first move of the game. The strategies which remain are all subgame perfect equilibria. However, backward induction cannot be applied to games of imperfect or incomplete information because this entails cutting through non-singleton information sets. Backward induction also requires that there be only finitely many moves. It cannot, therefore, be applied to games of infinite length.
The Ultimatum game provides an intuitive example of a game with fewer subgame perfect equilibria than Nash equilibria.
Reinhard Selten proved that any game which can be broken into "sub-games" containing a sub-set of all the available choices in the main game will have a subgame perfect Nash Equilibrium strategy (possibly as a mixed strategy giving non-deterministic sub-game decisions).
The subgame perfect Nash equilibrium is normally deduced by "backward induction" from the various ultimate outcomes of the game, eliminating branches which would involve any player making a move that is not credible (because it is not optimal) from that node. One game in which the backward induction solution is well known is tic-tac-toe, but in theory even Go has such an optimum strategy for all players.
The interesting aspect of the word "credible" in the preceding paragraph is that taken as a whole (disregarding the irreversibility of reaching sub-games) strategies exist which are superior to subgame perfect strategies, but which are not credible in the sense that a threat to carry them out will harm the player making the threat and prevent that combination of strategies. For instance in the game of "chicken" if one player has the option of ripping the steering wheel from their car they should always take it because it leads to a "sub game" in which their rational opponent is precluded from doing the same thing (and killing them both). The wheel-ripper will always win the game (making his opponent swerve away), and the opponent's threat to suicidally follow suit is not credible. In fact, having seen the first player discard any means of steering his car, the second player's rational options are reduced from "