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The Secret to Winning Rock-Paper-Scissors: A Living History of the World’s Oldest Game

Published On 05/29/2015 Published On 05/29/2015
RPS
Thrillist

Ever since I can remember, I've always been a rock, paper, scissors sucker.

On every family road trip, I’d end up in the backseat. At every pizza party, I’d watch idly as my brother devoured the last slice. During every backyard baseball game, I’d be the “chosen one” to climb the fence into old Mr. McGregor’s yard, risking life and limb while my friends cowered behind the chain-link. Being a seven-year-old chump at the sport of 1-2-3-shoot was akin to going to a popsicle convention wearing white gloves. I had a bullseye on my forehead, and everyone knew it.

Apparently I still do—as I recently found out when my co-worker challenged me to a friendly RPS match over the last beer in the office fridge. Before I knew it his rock had smashed my ill-timed scissors, leaving me thirsty and sober, filled only with a desire for Rocky-esque montage-fueled revenge. I made it my mission to become an expert in the art of RPS.

As I would come to discover, there’s a lot more than random luck lurking in the seemingly shallow depths of roshambo. The game we all grew up playing is infinitely more complicated than we could have ever imagined. And I was about to tumble down the rabbit hole head first.

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As a globe-spanning game and cultural phenomenon, rock-paper-scissors is understood universally. A Florida judge, so fed up with bureaucracy and petty quarreling, once ordered two lawyers to settle their dispute with a match. Recently, a concert-goer escaped an underage drinking ticket by beating a benevolent cop. In Japan, a million dollar auction was ultimately decided by a quick 1-2-3-shoot.

The game has transcended playtime and established itself as a legitimate, objective means of problem-solving in the real world. When was the last time a court case was decided over a thumb war?

That's because RPS has absolutely nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with people.

World RPS Society

The genesis of something rock-solid

As I began my quest, I started reaching out to the AAA athletes of the RPS world—experts, historians, professionals players—but one man and his ridiculously memorable name kept rising to the surface of every conversation: Master Roshambollah. “A lot of people claim to be great players,” World RPS Society founder and co-author of the Official RPS Strategy Guide Douglas Walker told me. "He's one of the few that can legitimately and consistently back it up."

Jason “Master Roshambollah” Simmons is a Pacific Northwest-based body piercer at his day job, and the self-described "Bobby Fischer of the RPS world" everywhere else. With extensive appearances on ESPN, Fox Sports, and the Travel Channel for rock-paper-scissor competitions, it’s safe to say if this game of fists and fingers had a face, it would be his.


RPS has absolutely nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with people.

When I spoke with Jason, he was more than happy to aid me on my mission to become an RPS virtuoso, but—in stereotypical kung fu movie form—I needed to first learn the history before I could play in the big leagues.

“The roots of the game are ancient, and hidden in the mists of time,” he told me ominously, from the other end of the phone. I knew what I had to do, so I hit the books.

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As Roshambollah mystically alluded to, there's no simple origin story of RPS. Variants of the sport, densely categorized as a non-transitive tripartite (zero-sum hand games), trace back millennia by some accounts.

Smithsonian historian James I Deutsch, in the The Encyclopedia of Play in Today's Society, admits the exact origins are obscure, but acknowledges a similar game was played in Egypt as early as 2000 BCE: "The idea of three distinct gestures made with the hand and fingers seems to have emerged in Eastern Asia...where each gesture represented one of three competing entities."

Probably the most referenced derivative of the game is the Japanese iteration, “mushi-ken." Reportedly based off a similar Chinese finger game brought over in the 17th century, it was adopted and refined by the Japanese, according to renowned Japanese studies historian and professor Sepp Linhart.

The game used three animal shapes: snake, slug, and frog, before evolving into “jan-ken" using the familiar rock-paper-scissor troika we associate with the modern game. From there, it began its spread throughout the globe via burgeoning Asian trade influence.

Wikimedia

“It's the simplest constructed game that involves strategy. You cannot construct a simpler game that would actually involve some element of choice within it," Doug Walker remarked to me. "The dynamic that appears in rock-paper-scissors appears everywhere. It appears the ways animals evolve, to the way video games are coded. It appears all over in theories of mathematics, how politics and governments are balanced. The essence of that relationship (the tripartite formula) and that thread of logic appears throughout nature and human behavior. Rock-paper-scissors will never fade away. It's ingrained in our culture, and our being."

With a basic understanding of the origins of the sport, I began focusing my attention on the teachings of the Master.

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Applying the skills

"One cannot become a ninja, simply by reading a book about a ninja. You have to practice to perfect your game."

Master Rosh's voice echoed through my head as I paced around a neighborhood bar, looking for potential opponents. I had been under his tutelage for several days—and though I was skeptical about some of his suggestions, I had no choice but to try them out.

I started by rigging the jukebox, per Rosh's counsel. As "We Will Rock You," by Queen blared over the bar speakers, I wagered a shot of whiskey on a game with one of my oldest friends (and a frequent RPS tormentor of my youth). Traditionally, men are known to throw rock at a higher frequency—this was the bedrock I’d build my strategy on. I made sure we bumped fists like boxers before we started. I deliberately fist-pumped the air during the match's pauses. I was subconsciously bending his will to fall to my paper. On the final pump before we threw, I could tell his fist was clenched tighter than a new patient at the proctologist—a dead giveaway that a rock is inevitable. I whipped out paper. His rock was covered, and there was nothing he could do about it.


"I threw out my fist and he threw his out, and the decision was agreed as binding."

Upon seeing the loss, his girlfriend subsequently challenged me. Knowing that women throw scissors most often, statistically speaking, I excused myself to the jukebox, flipping on the Scissors Sisters. 

In the background, “Take Your Mother Out” washed over the room. The stage was set. "Listen, I'm going to throw rock," I told her, already digging deep into Rosh's bag of tricks.

She looked at me, quizzically, but tried to brush it off. "No seriously, I swear I'm going to throw rock," I assured her. After she muttered a few choice words under her breath, we primed, and threw our fists. When I looked up from my confidently tossed rock (I told her I was going to throw rock...), two spread, acrylic tipped fingers stood shaking in the air in front of me. Just as I had anticipated. 

Holy sh*t. This stuff actually....works.
 

A test of confidence: challenging my girlfriend

Unfortunately once you get out of the minor leagues, subliminal messaging starts to lose its efficacy at an exponential rate. During our talks, Master Rosh addressed my concern by alluding to passive, “reading” techniques (like guys throwing rocks, or watching your opponent's hand before a throw) but noted they can only take you so far. “The real way to win consistently, is to influence your opponent. To make them throw what you want them to throw. In conjunction with these passive strategies...this is how you get to the next level.”

His words echoed in my head as my girlfriend suggested something "be done" about the garbage bulging out of the waste bin. "I play my wife in RPS all time, to determine chore-duty...it's really the only fair way to go about it, and no one feels guilty afterwards," World RPS Society Founder Douglas Walker confided. I knew how we would settle this trash situation.

Before we played, I casually asked her: "Should we play 1, 2, 3, shoot...or 1,2, shoot?" After each query, I displayed scissors as my example. Since women statistically threw scissors more often, and I had just planted the idea of scissors in her head twice, I knew I had this. Round one, the scissors came snipping out, and my rock was victorious. I had taken the first throw.


"You cannot construct a simpler game that would actually involve some element of choice within it."

Knowing that it’s likely a person will toss the throw that just beat them in subsequent matches, I threw paper to beat what I thought would be a rock—only to be faced with another pair of scissors. We were deadlocked, but I knew she wouldn’t toss up three of the same moves in a row (that's VERY unlikely, for any player). It was either paper, or rock. “Knowing what your opponent isn’t going to throw, is almost as good as knowing what they will throw,” Rosh explained.

When we drew, her arm cocked out distinctly to the side: a sure-fire paper giveaway. I tossed my scissors triumphantly with a millisecond’s warning. I was victorious! Yet somehow I still ended up taking the trash out. 

"One piece of advice," Master Rosh cooed, "always let your partner win. Trust me."

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The grasshopper catches the fly

After a string of successful skirmishes I stopped looking at RPS as a game of chance and began seeing it for what it was: a chess match. A poker game with no elements of random wild cards. A boxing match, with all the mental back-and-forth, and none of the debilitating concussions or occasional ear-biting.

My lifelong RPS losing streak was a curse because I had tried to rely solely on fortune. As soon as I understood I needed to play the person, and not the odds, they immediately turned in my favor.

I could fill binders with all the knowledge I had gleaned from Master Rosh and co., but in my mind, none of it mattered if I couldn’t defeat the man who spurred my journey in the first place: my colleague, the one who got away with the last beer.

My game-plan: the self-devised "Baader-Meinhof." 

All day long I funneled the idea of paper into my colleague Jeremy Glass' head. I handed him stacks of papers at random times. I whispered the word paper in his ear on at least two occasions. I left MIA's classic, "Paper Planes," playing on full volume in my headphones whenever I stepped away from the desk. I even went so far as to tag him in a Facebook status update from Paper Magazine. The seeds were planted. 

Around quitting time I informed him that there was only one beer left in the fridge. "Hey, why not a casual game of RPS like last time?" I suggested. My game-changing scissors flew under the surface, ready to strike. He flashed a shark's grin and nodded, confidently. As he readied his throw I caught his elbow cocked out ever so slightly...I knew what was coming.


"We can tell a lot about ourselves, and people in general, through the game. In reality, the game plays itself through us, and not the other way around." -Master Rosh

Thrillist

TL;DR

Just in case you’re the kind of person who likes to cut corners and take the easy way out, we’ve included this short-form guide containing some of the best tips I learned throughout this grueling process. Remember, with great finger power, comes fists of responsibility….or something like that.

  • Rookies throw rock a lot, so do guys (so when in doubt, throw paper)
  • On the flip side, women are known to rely on scissors more often than other moves
  • Players like to play the move they were just beaten with. For example, if your rock beat their scissors last throw, they'll look to throw rock the next move. 
  • Body language is important, a clenched, rigid fist on the final throw ("shoot!") is a good sign a rock is coming. When a player is preparing to throw scissors, their fingers will often spread early, before the final throw. Players who throw paper will often cock their elbow out a split-second before the throw, also.
  • If you really want to psych your opponent out, tell him what you are going to throw...then actually do it. 
  • Ask them what rules they play by, and while demonstrating the way you'd like to play, show them a sign. Do it a couple times. Watch for your player to play that sign on the first throw. 
  • Players often don't like to throw the same throw twice, and they almost NEVER throw the same thing three times or more.
  • Don't underestimate the power of distraction and influence! Get inside your opponent's head. Show them scissors, or paper. Say the word "rocks" aloud while you are about to throw. Play a song with "rock" in it. Fist bump the dude. Do whatever dirty you have to! All is fair in love and Roshambo.

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Wil Fulton wants to thank the all the masters, Jason Simmons, Doug Walker, Anthony Iacobucci of the Philly RPS City League, Donald McKeown, C. Urbanus, and all of his varied RPS victims. Follow every exploit @WilFulton.

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