The Big Throwdown

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


| Utne Reader July / August 2007


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.