The Big Throwdown

Is rock paper scissors the next poker? A writer seeks the truth, and a league championship, in Sin City

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Over the past few years, competitive rock paper scissors leagues have been popping up around the country--mostly in bars, on college campuses, or in bars on college campuses. Those who have played RPS, also known as roshambo, think they know the game: Two combatants square off and deliver one of three legal throws: rock, paper, or scissors. Rock smashes scissors, scissors cuts paper, and paper covers rock. Street-style play calls for anything from a single-throw death match to a marathon best-of-500 series, but tournaments usually follow a format in which the first player to win two best-of-three sets takes the match.

For the novice or the uninterested, the game never rises beyond the superficial notion that it is a game of chance. 'It's just random,' the naysayer might say, perhaps adding a dim-witted comparison with a coin toss. But according to Douglas and Graham Walker, authors of The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide (Fireside, 2004), tossing a coin is a passive act, simply letting fate take its course; during the 'dance of hands' that is rock paper scissors, players influence the outcome not only by their choice of throws, but also by their ability to interpret or ignore the signals provided by an opponent. Like poker, rock paper scissors involves 'tells,' subtle body-language-based clues that can tip off a player's intended throw.

While some players can track tells (like the nervous twitching of fingers preceding a scissors toss) over the course of a match, there's a wealth of information to be gleaned about an opponent before even stepping into the ring: Is he standing with shoulders slumped, staring down at his loafers? Do you suspect he still lives with his mother? This guy is textbook paper, so have your scissors locked and loaded, my friend. Is your adversary wearing a do-rag or muscle T-shirt and prone to high fives? Chances are this douchebag is gonna favor rock, the most aggressive (and common) of the three throws. Finally, are you playing someone you once slept with, a filthy liar who won't return your calls? Look out for scissors--the go-to throw of devious bastards.

Beyond archetype recognition, advanced players employ specific psychological strategies, like baiting a throw via visual or verbal cues (masking a throw of paper as rock until the very last second, or simply yelling 'Here comes rock!'); some rely on probability to track tendencies and keep a mental tally of a challenger's throws. One up-and-comer I spoke with at the 2006 USA Rock Paper Scissors League championships at the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas claimed he slugged his way through two regional tournaments throwing nothing but paper. He dared more than a dozen competitors to call his bluff . . . and for a while, no one did.

That's the beauty of competitive RPS: Layer upon layer of simplicity adds up to something much more cerebral--if you open up your mind and let it go there. Drinking definitely helps, which explains why so many events happen where alcohol is readily served--and why major beer brands have replaced mining operations, paper mills, and office supply companies as the game's primary sponsors. Still, can rock paper scissors truly be considered a sport? Or is the semiseriousness being attached to RPS, like Garth Brooks' releasing that record as Chris Gaines, just another elaborate postmodern hoax?


Spend a few minutes with a 'master,' and it's a short leap to starting to believe that there's something very real going on here. As Graham Walker, cofounder of the World Rock Paper Scissors Society, says: 'The game is simple. It's the gamesmanship that makes it complex.' Think about it. Poker? Competitive eating? Cherry-pit spitting? Golf? These are marginal activities created to pass the time or sell advertising. Rock paper scissors is played around the world in different variations, it has a history as a conflict-resolution device, and its champions are as mentally disciplined as any professional athlete. It sure feels like a sport to me.

Today's big-time tournaments feature trained referees and official rules (strictly forbidden are both the controversial 'fourth throw' of dynamite 1 and the blatantly illegal vertical paper, or 'the handshake' 2 ) and have created legends like C. Urbanus (he of the Urbanus Defense, a strategy in which one intentionally loses the first throw) and historic moments such as Pete Lovering's 2002 'rock heard round the world.' For those of us whose life-or-death college decisions (like who had to clean the bong) hinged on rock paper scissors proficiency, the allure of competitive RPS is too strong to resist.

Along with the pageantry, there's a visceral energy that also helps explain why so many are being drawn to the sport. Over just a few months, I personally witnessed dozens of extended stalemates (identical throws that result in a tie), all of which made a marathon volley between Agassi and Sampras look like a game of patty-cake. 3 While stalemates are infinitely exciting during street matches--my cousin claims he and a chum once tied 27 straight times in a Rome back alley to determine who would get the last piece of a particularly delicious pizza--they are even more rousing under the bright lights as hundreds (or a handful) of spectators gaze on, slack-jawed, punch-drunk with delight.

According to various sources, the origins of this grand sport can be traced to somewhere between pre?Homo sapiens (where it was called 'rock rock rock') and various ancient Asian cultures. The book Children's Games in Street and Playground (Oxford University Press, 1969) by Iona and Peter Opie hypothesizes that RPS came to London by way of 'Jan Ken Pon,' a Japanese game based on sansukumi: a nontransitive system in which the snake fears the slug, the slug fears the frog, and the frog fears the snake.

Children's Games also references a London traveler who discovered a version called 'earwig man elephant' in Indonesia, as well as a scene in a tomb in Egypt that points to the existence of finger-flashing games as early as 2000 BCE. And the reason for the commonly used term roshambo? It's widely believed that Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, also known as the count of Rochambeau--and lieutenant general of the French forces during the American Revolution--was responsible for bringing RPS to the United States.


Regardless of whether the weapon is rock, slug, or earwig, our brightest and least-laid computer programmers are using advanced technology to devise strategies for success. RPS is often used to prove the game theory of nontransitivity, which rebukes the more logical theorem of transitivity, namely: If A beats B, and B beats C, then A also beats C. Notice the contrast with the rules of RPS: rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, but then rock loses to paper.

This nontransitive neutrality can be compared to chess, in which both sides have the same number of identical pieces and the same number of potential moves. Because of the bluffing that can occur, some draw parallels between RPS and poker (not surprisingly, RPS has become a popular pastime on the World Series of Poker circuit). There is a major difference, however: In poker, you ultimately have to show your hand; in RPS, your bluff is your hand.

Looking at RPS from a mathematical perspective, playing the game in its purest form would mean making totally random throws. But alas, we humans are utterly incapable of random behavior. What we're wearing, what we've had for breakfast, our mood, how much we can bench press . . . these all influence our choice of throws, and a keen opponent can pick up our tendencies rather easily.

In an effort to remove this psychological element, some computer geeks have developed programs that simulate random throws. Truly random play would make for a dull game, though: One-third of the time you would win, one-third you would lose, and one-third you would tie. In the long run, you would break even. That won't get you very far in tournament play, as demonstrated in the 2003 International World RPS championships, when a computer program called Deep Mauve was used to feed random throws to a player who was summarily ousted in the qualifying round.

More advanced nerds have created algorithms that track past throws to detect patterns that may predict future throws. One program, Iocaine Powder from Dan Egnor, devises throws based on the concept of Sicilian reasoning, which uses six levels of meta?reasoning to make predictions. Subsequent programs have used this concept to create new strategies, such as Stratmove, which looks at the history of competing robots to determine how long certain patterns are played. Another, Bayesmove (named for mathematician Thomas Bayes), looks for any strange numbers to determine whether the competing robot is using random moves or employing specific strategies.

If Iocaine Powder and Sicilian reasoning sound familiar, you're probably a fan of the 1987 movie The Princess Bride. In the following scene, Westley (played by Cary Elwes) challenges the Sicilian Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) to a battle of wits to gain the freedom of Princess Buttercup. Two glasses are placed on the table, each containing wine and one containing poison:

WESTLEY: The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.

VIZZINI: But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet, or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I'm not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

WESTLEY: You've made your decision, then?

VIZZINI: Not remotely. Because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows. And Australia is entirely peopled with criminals. And criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

WESTLEY: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

[After more back and forth, the two raise a cup to drink.]

VIZZINI: Let's drink--me from my glass, and you from yours.

WESTLEY: You guessed wrong.

VIZZINI [howling with laughter]: You only think I guessed wrong--that's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned. You fool. You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is 'Never get involved in a land war in Asia.' But only slightly less well known is this: 'Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.'

[He laughs and laughs before falling over dead.]

BUTTERCUP: To think--all that time it was your cup that was poisoned.

WESTLEY: They were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocaine powder.

It's no surprise that RPS devotees pay homage to The Princess Bride, for this exchange encapsulates the essence of Sicilian reasoning--a deduction based on multiple levels of 'If you know that I know that you know' and a fundamental element of game strategy. An example: Even novice players know that rock is the most common opening throw. So if you're playing someone beyond novice, chances are he will not throw rock . . . or will he? Maybe he knows that you know he is not a beginner, and therefore he will throw rock because you least expect it.

The challenge is to not overestimate or underestimate the intellect of your opponent. One needs to know when to stop thinking and just throw. In 2005 a single-throw match between Sotheby's and Christie's determined the rights to a pricey art collection. A Christie's employee's daughter used flawless Sicilian reasoning to offer this advice: 'Everybody knows you always start with scissors. Rock is way too obvious, and scissors beats paper.' As reported in Fortune magazine and other major media outlets, Christie's threw scissors and beat Sotheby's paper.


In spring 2006, I attend my first competitive RPS event--the Chicago regional finals of the new Bud Light?sponsored USARPS League. Regional winners will receive a free trip to Vegas to compete for $50,000 and the chance to be crowned league champion. While I am waiting for my first match at Duffy's bar, I order a Guinness, flip through my dog-eared copy of the RPS strategy guide, and memorize a few gambits, defined as 'three prescripted throws made with strategic intention.'

Standing across from my first-ever competitive RPS opponent, I'm strangely nervous. My palms are dripping. The event is low-key--most bar patrons are more interested in the American Idol premiere on the television than in an RPS showdown--but along with 30 or so people in the corner of the bar, I'm sucked into the pure energy of the moment. Ready, set, 'ro-sham-bo.'

I begin with a gambit called 'the crescendo,' a classy series that builds from paper to scissors to rock. My opponent, a cocky financial trader in his mid-20s, is left reeling, so in the next set, after a few scissors ties, I finish him with 'the denouement,' a mind-blowing cooldown of rock-scissors-paper (and the crescendo's mirror image), earning myself a commemorative Bud Light RPS hand towel and a trip to the next round.

Round two, feeling confident and somewhat enlightened, I add a little glitz to my game. I perform elaborate arm stretches before the match. After we begin, I repeatedly call for time and slow-ly wipe my brow with my new commemorative hand towel. But soon I'm on the ropes. I never do catch her name, but she's wearing all black and doesn't blink once.

Her eyes lock on mine like a laser beam and I can feel her setting up camp inside my skull. Suddenly I'm making throws without any plan: no gambits, no instinct . . . rock, then paper, then rock again. I can still recall the steely aftertaste of her triumphant series: paper, followed by scissors, followed by another paper . . . the goddamn scissors sandwich.


At the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas three weeks later, the poolside crowd is dominated by backward-baseball-hat-wearing twentysomething white males, all treated to a weekend's worth of partying thanks to their friends at Anheuser-Busch. But a closer examination reveals a demographic divergence from this beer marketer's wet dream: There's a smattering of fiftyish guys in khakis on the periphery, looking slightly confused, like maybe they're at the wrong trade show mixer. I chat with Mike, an insurance salesman from St. Louis. He says his wife still doesn't believe he really won a trip to Vegas for playing RPS, even after he showed her the official winner's voucher.

Plenty of young women are here too--some girlfriends, many champions in their own right. It appears that a few winners brought their parents. In less than 36 hours, this mass of humanity will reconvene at the House of Blues in the adjoining Mandalay Bay Hotel Casino, where they will glue giant plastic scissors to their heads, dress in ridiculous costumes to resemble Vikings or oversize ketchup and mustard bottles, and compete for RPS glory.

USARPS League co-commissioner Matti Leshem is lanky and intense. He sports a freshly shaven head and Hollywood facial fuzz and paces the party like a puma, giving direction to various film crews capturing the weekend for an A&E network special. He introduces me to Jason Simmons, 36, known in RPS circles as Master Roshambollah, the sport's top ambassador.

Bald and pensive, Simmons looks like RPS's version of David Carradine from Kung Fu. He created the Master Roshambollah character in 2001 while he was working at consulting giant Arthur Andersen; when the company was going down the toilet, he stumbled across the World RPS Society website, thought it was funny, and started posting messages under the guise of this 'spiritual con man . . . part Baptist minister, part used-car salesman.' In a 2004 Washington Post article about a local tournament, Simmons said his ultimate goal was to serve as a commentator for the sport. It sounded ridiculous at the time, but here in Vegas he is providing just that service for A&E.

Leshem suggests I play Master Roshambollah in a match, which proves humiliating. After a few stalemates, he beats me without breaking a sweat. It happens so fast I can't recall any of my throws. Was I offering tells? He doesn't elaborate, except to say that he picked up on a pretty common algorithm. There is something in his calm confidence that makes me believe him, and I did notice a momentum change, a point at which I was suddenly put on the defensive. Master Rosh chuckles politely and likens it to the hunt: The hunter doesn't let the hunted know he is being hunted until . . . or something like that. He then shows me how a slight twitch of the finger (call it a muscle spasm) can throw off a hand-watching opponent: 'With receptive opponents, if they see the scissors, chances are they'll throw scissors,' he says. Master Rosh refers to this as an ancient Hindu technique called 'subliminal advertising.'

After my time with the master, I make my way into the crowd and test my skills on Ashley, a spunky young blond from Toledo, Illinois. She lifts her shirt to expose a long scar on her midsection and explains that she could really use the $50,000 prize to pay her medical debts. Locked in, and not nearly as drunk as Ashley is, I dominate our match. I am done with gambits--this is all instinct. I lean heavily on scissors, forcing stalemate after stalemate, and then drop in a rock to close the show. Wandering the casino over the weekend, I meet more contestants and consistently beat them by just opening my mind and feeling what I should throw next. Am I finding my way on what Master Rosh calls 'the path'?


Contrary to reports from the regional tournament rounds, the officiating in Vegas is crisp, overseen by legendary boxing referee Richard Steele, and now the pool is down to the final two. Gone is Amber, the former child runaway whose pen-scrawled message 'scissors first' across her bare midriff foiled many an adversary. Gone is Dave, the young hippie from Boulder who favored rock and carried a notepad to tally the throws of his next-round opponent. Even the costume contest winners, a father and son dressed as Barney Fife and Otis the Town Drunk from the old Andy Griffith Show, are done. Once untouchable, they have all been reduced to bystanders. Some pick at the remnants of the complimentary buffet; most continue to hoard Bud Light as this magical weekend nears last call.

The ladies of RPS, including former Playmate of the Year Brande 'Rock' Roderick, saunter provocatively along the stage to let everyone get one last look at them before the climactic match gets under way. The host, comedian Dave Attell, makes a few wisecracks to lighten the mood. He refers to RPS as the second-best drinking sport, behind cockfighting. Most of the audience is exhausted, and there's an almost eerie silence in the room. Is it anticipation? Or does everyone just want to go home and take a nap?

The final features Robert 'Fast-Twitch' Twitchell versus Dave 'The Drill' McGill. On the surface, both these Midwestern white guys look like prototypical rock tossers. St. Louis?bred Twitchell works in construction and is built like a beanpole, his blond crew cut and fidgety attitude calling to mind a young Vanilla Ice. He stands out among the field for his textbook form and propensity for throwing scissors when he's backed into a corner. McGill is a compact, wholesome-looking 30-year-old college sophomore from Omaha who likes to lift weights. He leaned on rock in earlier rounds, but his sly smile betrays a devious nature: Like Twitchell, he won his previous match wielding scissors.

I find it interesting that among all the over-the-top costumed characters and pseudosavant Mensa members, these two regular Joes are the last ones standing. Talking with both, I don't get the impression they thought much about RPS until that fateful night a few months ago when a cute Bud Light girl tapped each on the shoulder at their respective local watering holes and asked, 'Hey, you wanna play rock paper scissors?' These guys aren't intimidating. Hell, after having spent some time with Master Rosh, I feel like, on a good day, I could take either one.

Unlike the computer nerds who try to program victory or the satiric Zen Buddhists who are making careers out of RPS, they are both real-life Cinderella stories, and watching them eyeball each other here in a mini?boxing ring--each thinking he knows something the other doesn't, each feeling there is a legitimate reason that he just won seven matches in a row--makes me believe more than ever that, yes, RPS is a sport, and a glorious one at that. Whether the game is poker or water polo, winning breeds confidence. And these two warriors have it in spades.

Finally, the moment everyone's been waiting for. It's go time. Ready, set, 'engage.'

McGill's in charge early with a first-set victory. Twitchell digs deep and takes the second set with a commanding rock. We're all tied up. Interestingly, Twitchell avoided rock the entire previous round, but due either to fatigue or to a mental shift back to his true tendency, he favors it when the match is on the line. In a brilliant move, McGill goes against type in the defining third set and wins the tournament and $50,000 with the ultimate in passive-aggressive play: a gambit known as 'the bureaucrat' (paper-paper-paper). McGill's final throw of paper beats Twitchell's rock to take the crown.

Immediately following his victory, McGill is already acting the part of reluctant hero. There's something a little vacant in this, the pinnacle moment of RPS history. When he's asked what it feels like to represent the sport, he scoffs, referring to himself as a natural, a savant, the best, anything but a role model. The film crew is having a hard time securing a postvictory sound bite that doesn't include the word fuck. During this acknowledged apex of his existence, McGill is already bitter, barking about his distrust of the media and how God liked him better than the other guy. Maybe he's joking around. Or maybe it's because he has been drinking for five hours straight. But he has just won a rather significant amount of money for playing rock paper scissors, and he should be happier.

The rise of RPS as a big-time sport and the glare of the television cameras have already created an unwelcome by-product: the gifted athlete who doesn't appreciate the game that made him a star. I guess that's the chance a league takes when it plucks tournament participants from among the masses to create a luminary. RPS lost its innocence on this day, joining the ranks of other once-proud pastimes: It now had its own mirthless Barry Bonds, its own ungrateful and belligerent superstar. Like most sports heroes, Dave McGill was already acting like an asshole.


FOOTNOTES:

1 Dynamite, a mythic throw sometimes seen in street contests but banned from all respectable competitions, consists of a closed fist with the thumb pointed upward (symbolizing the wick). When it's allowed, dynamite usually explodes rock (beating rock), and its wick is cut by scissors (losing to scissors), but confusion reigns regarding its relationship with paper (Paper snuffs out wick? Wick burns through paper?). Therefore, in addition to disrupting the neutral, nontransitive checks and balances that are the essence of the game (three possible throws in perfect harmony), the unknown relationship with paper renders dynamite patently ridiculous. Despite this fact, it was reported that, in Las Vegas in 2006, thousands of dynamite sympathizers protested the league's strict policy on the throw.
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2 Vertical paper, or 'the handshake,' is exactly what it sounds like: a throw of paper that is perpendicular to the ground as opposed to parallel with it. This throw is either a sign of sloppy play--perhaps fatigue--or a crafty attempt to mask paper as scissors or vice versa.
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3 The World RPS Society refers to a series of stalemates as 'mirror play' and claims the longest run of stalemates in competitive play is five, although there may have been longer runs in preliminary matches over the years. The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide references a grueling semifinal match during the 2003 world championships when the referee felt it necessary to call an official time-out due to extended mirror play.
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Excerpted from the Believer (April 2007), a magazine featuring essays, interviews, and schemata published by McSweeney's in San Francisco. Subscriptions: $45/yr.(10 issues) from 849 Valencia St., San Francisco, CA 94110; www.believermag.com.