In Game of Thrones, you win, or you die. How do you win? By outsmarting everyone around you. In the brutal world of this high-fantasy HBO series, things can change at a moment’s notice for anyone. You may wake up king one morning and fall face-first, dead into your plate at dinner that evening. The only way to stay alive is to put yourself several steps ahead of everyone else, and that takes a lot of intelligence.
While dragons, magic, and intense battles may be at the forefront of the series, the characters who made it the longest didn’t survive on brawn alone — they used their wits, charisma, and cunning to sway the game in their favor. With all the excitement over the House of the Dragon prequel series, now is a great time to look back on the characters who changed the Realm forever. Here’s our ranking of the most intelligent players in Game of Thrones.
10 Ser Davos Seaworth
The Onion Knight had a rough upbringing; born into the slums of Flea Bottom, he was illiterate at the start of the series and often looked down on for his former life as a smuggler. Despite this, Davos showed an impressive understanding of the game and even persuaded Melisandre to resurrect Jon Snow before seizing the opportunity to align with House Stark. He’s one of only a few characters to meet a relatively happy end, as he now serves as Master of Ships for King Brandon Stark.
9 Lady Olenna Tyrell
Cunning, charming, and outspoken, Lady Tyrell was the Matriarch of her house and used her position of power to dismantle the Lannister family from the inside. After successfully poisoning King Joffrey, she secured her granddaughter’s position as Queen Consort to Tommen Baratheon. Following the deaths of her grandchildren, Olenna partakes in a council meeting for Daenerys Targaryen and personally offers her advice. Even in death, Olenna was victorious: she revealed her hand in Joffrey’s death to Jaime Lannister as one last spiteful jab toward Cersei.
Though he didn’t ultimately survive the game, Petyr Baelish had an unparalleled way of manipulating the world around him. Early in the show, he took advantage of Sansa Stark and groomed her to improve his standing with her house. He built alliances with many of the Realm’s leaders, and most characters struggled to uncover his true intentions. He served as a confidante for powerful players like Ned Stark and Cersei Lannister, and he married Sansa off as a pawn to gain favor with the Boltons. Truly, Baelish played to his strengths for the entire series.
7 Daenerys Targaryen
The Mother of Dragons started from the very bottom and clawed her way to the top with ruthless ambition and passion. Initially distraught at being married off to Khal Drogo, she learns to use her position as Khaleesi to win over the Dothraki as a beloved queen. Over time, she overthrows the hierarchy of Qarth, claims an Unsullied army, overtakes several major cities, and eventually leads a full-on assault on King’s Landing. She nearly achieves her dream of claiming the Iron Throne and is only defeated when Jon Snow chooses to betray her.
6 Samwell Tarly
A sleeper hit in the series, Sam comes off as unremarkable and an easy target for other, more powerful players. As the show progresses, we see displays of his vast intelligence and understanding of the game; his knowledge of the Realm’s history serves him well, and he even proves himself a fairly formidable soldier and leader. His dedication, wit, and compassion earned him the title of Grand Maester, and he secured a happy ending with his lover, Gilly, and their children.
5 Arya Stark
Formidable right from the start, Arya is a brilliant fighter and a fearless leader. She showed little interest in being married off as a child, and she was able to flee King’s Landing after her father’s death and become a Faceless Man. She takes it upon herself to eliminate the male heirs of the Frey bloodline and helps turn the tide of the Great War by slaying the Knight King. Her companionship with The Hound armed her with the survival skills she needed to make good political decisions, and she used them to explore the unknown world at the end of the series finale.
4 Tywin Lannister
Tywin personally ended the rebellion against his family as a young man, ultimately reclaiming House Lannister’s seat of power before he ever became its patriarch. He was Hand of the King for 20 years, marched his army to secure countless victories in wa,r and used his impressive political knowledge to win his children seats of power via marriage. His no-nonsense attitude and ability to make good judgment calls took him far — until he met his death at the hand of his son, proving that it takes a Lannister to destroy a Lannister.
3 Cersei Lannister
Vicious and undeniably powerful, Cersei Lannister rose, fell, and reclaimed her imperial status several times over the show’s progression. She fought viciously to protect her children and kept close tabs on everybody around her, trusting no one and spreading information in whatever way best suited her. Even after she’s forced to take the Walk of Atonement, she comes full circle and takes her place as the first reigning Queen Regnant in the Seven Kingdoms.
2 Sansa Stark
One of the few original characters to make it to the finale, Sansa evolved from a timid, ignorant child into a wise and influential woman. Her comfortable life was turned upside down when her father was executed, and she spent much time as a hostage in King’s Landing. After being freed (and manipulated) by Petyr Baelish, she’s married off to the cruel Roose Bolton, prompting her to make a daring escape with Theon Greyjoy. She gradually separates herself from the manipulation of Baelish, witnesses the gruesome murder of her husband, and finally stakes her claim as Queen in the North.
1 Tyrion Lannister
Almost everyone underestimated Tyrion at the beginning of the series, but he overcame all obstacles and saw the game to its end. Unphased by the relentless harassment from others and ridiculous behavior of his nephew Joffrey, he used his unassuming position to become an advisor for some of the most formidable people in the Realm. From Bronn and Jaime to Daenerys and Sansa, Tyrion masterfully crafted his alliances and even took part in some of the Realm’s largest battles. By killing his father Tywin and becoming the last remaining Lannister child, he earned the coveted title of Lord of Casterly Rock.