Sign up FAST! Login

The World of Competitive Rock Paper Scissors

Stashed in: #winning, Luck!, Awesome, Poker!, Roshambo!, @pattonoswalt, James Bond, So you're saying there's a chance..., Ben Stiller, @therock, fun!, Freakonomics, Rooster Apocolype

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

How to Win at Rock Paper Scissors

"In poker you never play your hand, you play the man across from you." ~James Bond inCasino Royale

It took some time for us to overcome our skepticism that a winning streak in RPS represents anything more than good luck. But if tournament results were random enough that first-time players consistently won, then the notion that RPS is for strategic heavyweights would seem circumspect. So we turned to Brad Fox, a film and television producer who is also the head referee of the World Rock Paper Scissors Society. (A referee’s main job is to keep matches moving; he or she also looks out for cheating like delayed throws.)

No one has yet dominated Rock Paper Scissors like Tiger Woods dominated golf; no winner of the RPS world championship in Toronto has ever won twice. According to Fox, however, “there is absolutely a disparity, a gradation of skill” similar to what you see in professional poker. Individuals who have never seriously practiced RPS have won tournaments, as abemused Andrea Farina did in 2007. But Fox notes that the same handful of skilled players appear in the final rounds over and over.

Just as one hand of poker isn’t sufficient to separate the lambs from the wolves, skilled RPS play is most apparent over many rounds. To make tournaments more entertaining for those eliminated in the first round, some tourneys offer everyone who registers a set amount of monopoly money. Once eliminated, people can play “street RPS,” wagering monopoly money on games with other players. At the end of the night, the player with the most monopoly money wins a cash prize. As street RPS is the result of many more rounds than an elimination tournament, skilled players really stand out. “The same player from Montreal,” Fox tells us, “won two years in a row and came in second the third year.”

Plebeians’ belief that the results of Rock Paper Scissors are random comes from the misperception that each player can randomly choose a throw, whereas, as Brad Fox says, “humans are very bad random number generators.” This is easily seen, according to players like Rosh, in the way that most beginners will never repeat the same throw twice because it “doesn’t seem random.” This makes them easy to beat: if a beginner throws rock, you should throw scissors as it will either result in a tie (if your opponent throws scissors) or a win (if your opponent throws paper). Rosh has coined this tactic “The Roshambollah Trap.” 

In games initiated by this author, however, even novices sometimes threw rock several times in a row, engaging in some simple strategy to surprise their opponent. As a result, it could seem that attempts at RPS strategy easily devolve into a “she knows that I know that she knows…” situation that renders the result just as random. (“She knows that I know that she knows that I am playing the Roshambollah trap…”) 

But this type of thinking, often called Sicilian Reasoning after a famous scene in The Princess Bride, characterizes other skilled pursuits. Take penalty shots in soccer, which reach the goal so fast that some social scientists believe goalies can do little more than randomly guess the shot’s direction. Goalies, however, look at a player’s approach for signs of where he or she is aiming and study game film to see where each player tends to shoot. Similarly, poker exhibits the same type of Sicilian Reasoning as players each suspect the others of bluffing. But the best players do a better job of reading their opponents and keeping their own play unpredictable. 

The same is true in Rock Paper Scissors. Just like a goalie watching a shooter’s approach, an RPS player can look for physical tells like someone’s elbow swinging out to the side before he or she throws paper. (Try throwing paper against an imaginary opponent, and you’ll notice that you do this.) To remain unpredictable, some players decide in advance to throw a string of “gambits” -- eight series of throws like Rock-Rock-Rock or Rock-Paper-Paper. 

Bryan “The Saint” Bennett describes his strategy as a “more psychological approach” in which he “really tries to read the other player.” Bennett recalls how opponents played in similar situations in previous matches. He also always remembers a player’s first throw, as he finds it’s often “their go-to…. when they think they’re about to win or lose, they will go back to the same throw without much thought.”

RPS enthusiasts discuss all these tactics and more on RPS forums and at competitions -- Rosh describes the “Great Eight Gambits” as almost old hat -- so of course people look for and try to counter these strategies. The result is that the emergence of dedicated players has made RPS strategy much more complex -- like going from the playbook of a peewee football team to the one used by the San Francisco 49ers. As Wojek Smallsoa, former chairman of the World RPS Society, has said about Rock Paper Scissors, "To the beginner the choices are few; to the expert the choices are many."

Well, at least they have a sense of humor about it.

In the world of competitive RPS, showing up is half the battle.  With a little luck, just to speak statistically, RPS is just the same, game theoretically as pitching pennies.  In pitching pennies, they found that heads-vs-tails, if you played 7:12 in random sequence, you could influence the outcome, aka the expected payout.

There is an optimal mixed strategy that will allow you over the long run of repeated games to come out on top, but if and only if the opponent is rational.

If the opponent is completely random then there is no advantage to be had. 

dude, this is awesome, i KNEW i had the upper hand when it came to this game!  now i can boast that it's not just dumb luck.  :)

the secret? paper. people think rock is the strongest because in real life it is, but paper is the silent killer!

So Rock doesn't fly through paper?

An Ironic Sport

To the press, the existence of Rock Paper Scissors tournaments is an easy punchline. From the perspective of the uninitiated, RPS players seem, like the characters in the 2004 comedyDodgeball, to be taking a child’s game way too seriously. But even as players advocate for RPS, they are never in danger of being lampooned: the tone of the sport is light and fun, and it constantly engages in self-parody. 

Take the example of the World RPS Society’s rules as listed on their website, which states rules that almost everyone has known since childhood in a hilariously dry tone. (“Rock: represented by a closed fist with the thumb resting at least at the same height as the topmost finger of the hand.”) But jokes also litter the rulebook, like item 6 of the “Player Responsibility Code” that reads, “Think twice before using RPS for life-threatening decisions.”

RPS also does not exactly follow other sports’ butch tradition of naming plays like they are military invasions. So while NFL quarterbacks make play calls like “Zero, Ride Thirty-six” or “Flip right, double-X jet, 36 counter, naked waggle, X-7, X-quarter,” the Great Eight Gambits in Rock Paper Scissors are, as Rosh concedes, “meant to be funny.” Throwing Paper-Paper-Paper is called the Bureaucrat (“The deadpan delivery of this gambit is the ultimate in passive-aggressive play") while Scissors-Scissors-Scissors is called the Toolbox (“Effective use of this gambit requires steady hands and steely nerves"). 

It’s dangerous to take anything at face value, as the culture is so tongue in cheek. Perhaps the best example of this is The Trio of Hands by Wojek Smallsoa, which is supposedly the defining book about RPS. It’s where the quote in the above section comes from, and references to it and its author pepper the World RPS website. Neither the man nor the book, however, seem to exist. (“No comment,” Fox says.) Yet when credulous newcomers ask about the book, insiders assure them that “The Trio of Hands does exist, and it is a delightful tome of RPS wisdom” and that Smallsoa is a Lao Tzu-like figure who wrote poetically and “had already attained a level of greatness by the late 50’s.” (Even though no organized RPS competitions existed at the time.) Similarly, Pete Lovering, who won the first tournament in Toronto in 2002, did so while wearing a bathrobe with the words, “1974 World Champion" taped to the back.

He referee above looks like Patton Oswalt.

What if they increased the number of legal moves to 25...

...then the game becomes more challenging!

Ha ha yes!

What beats Bacon and Bourbon? NOTHING!

Bacon Bourbon, man!!

Bacon Bourbon beats rock.

Bacon Bourbon beats paper. 

Bacon Bourbon never loses!!

Kevin Bacon please dont die meme imgur

At least we'll always have bourbon!

You May Also Like: