Contingency genes are common in pathogenic microbes and enable, through pre-emptive mutational events, rapid, clonal switches in phenotype that are conducive to survival and proliferation in hosts. Antigenic variation, which is a highly successful survival strategy employed by eubacterial and eukaryotic pathogens, involves large repertoires of distinct contingency genes that are expressed differentially, enabling evasion of host acquired immunity. Most, but not all, antigenic variation systems make extensive use of subtelomeres. Study of model systems has shown that subtelomeres have unusual properties, including reversible silencing of genes mediated by proteins binding to the telomere, and engagement in ectopic recombination with other subtelomeres. There is a general theory that subtelomeric location confers a capacity for gene diversification through such recombination, although experimental evidence is that there is no increased mitotic recombination at such loci and that sequence homogenisation occurs. Possible benefits of subtelomeric location for pathogen contingency systems are reversible gene silencing, which could contribute to systems for gene switching and mutually exclusive expression, and ectopic recombination, leading to gene family diversification. We examine, in several antigenic variation systems, what possible benefits apply.