I am working with mathematical papers and commonly encounter situations where the author designates hypothetical entities. For example:

We assume that player 1 moves first.

Should references to hypothetical (otherwise unnamed) players such as player 1 be capitalized?

  • It basically just depends on the style guide used by the paper's publisher. You can verify this by searching Google scholar for "player 1" and observing that both capitalized and uncapitalized versions abound. – Apis Utilis Apr 27 '14 at 21:52
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    I see your point, but it is somewhat unsatisfying. There should be a definitive answer either way. For example if player 1 referred to a specific person then certainly the term would be capitalized. Since player 1's identity is ambiguous it seems like a call to not capitalize the term. – Toaster Apr 27 '14 at 21:59
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    In chess, White and Black are usually capitalized. In bridge, East, West, North, and South are also usually capitalized. So I'd recommend taking your cue from that and capitalizing Player 1 and Player 2. (In card games, the dealer is usually lowercase, but that is more like the expression the first player, which I wouldn't capitalize.) – Peter Shor Apr 27 '14 at 22:13
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    @Colin, for what it's worth, I'd capitalize. One rule of thumb that many English language learners hear is, if you can put "the" in front of a word, then it's not a proper noun. Of course, this rule has about 9,001 exceptions, but it seems to apply well enough here (i.e., you wouldn't say "the player 1", so treat it like a proper noun and capitalize it.) – Apis Utilis Apr 27 '14 at 22:13
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    @Colin But why need there be a definitive answer? And who would make it definitive? – choster Apr 28 '14 at 3:29

It is extremely common to capitalize such terms in rules, commentary and studies of games. Any reference to "a player" is usually left un-capitalized but a reference to "Player 1" typically is.

Miscellaneous examples:

1) Let us assume the first player is 1.

2) Let us assume Player 1 moves first.

3) Whenever a player moves [...]

A common exception to this rule is when the players will be referred to without the word "player":

4) Let us assume player 1 moves first. If 1 moves by doing [...]

This is more apparent when "A, B, C" are used instead of "1, 2, 3":

5) Let us assume player A moves first. If A moves by doing [...]

However, none of the above is encoded in a grammatical rule. My impressions of what is common comes from having read a great many manuals and instructions for games of all sorts.

If you are concerned about your own publication, then I recommend checking with your publication's style guides or with your editor. If you are merely concerned about someone else's usage, then they apparently disagreed with your personal style. There isn't a hard and fast rule on this subject.

... which isn't to say the subject is not worth studying from a user experience standpoint. I assume the advantage in capitalizing the term is to allow for better skimming. This could easily explain why (4, 5) do not capitalize while (2) does: The capitalization is telling you what to look for in the future.

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