Rock, Paper, Scissors: Origins, Variations, and Strategies
The rules are simple. Two players count to three and throw a hand forward with either a fist (rock), flat hand (paper), or fist with index and middle fingers extended in a V shape (scissors). The rock beats scissors by blunting them; paper beats rock by wrapping around it and smothering it; and scissors beats paper by cutting it. If the two players produce the same weapon then a do-over is necessary. The loser gets to pay for the beer and pizza.
Prior to the invention of paper and scissors, the game would have been kind of boring with a draw at every turn.
Suitably, the game has its beginnings where paper was invented, in Asia. It’s first mentioned in Chinese texts dating back more than 2,000 years.
Roman soldiers played a version with water, fire, and wood: water extinguishes fire, which burns wood, which floats on water.
The game spread along trade routes until it had conquered the world. Then, of course, there had to be a world championship.
Under the auspices of the World Rock Paper Scissors Society (fess up, you didn’t know there was one) an annual contest was held in Las Vegas. The society was the brainchild, if that’s the right word, of Wojek Smallsoa.
Unfortunately, Mr. Smallsoa died in 2010 at the age of 87 as the society notes: “After a life-long battle with living.” And that seems to have been the end of the global contest. The society’s website announces that “Sadly, the Rock Paper Scissors International World Championships are not currently scheduled. We look forward to bringing back the event in the coming years.”
National championships are still held, but how much cachet does “RPS Champion of Lithuania” really carry?
Variations on Rock, Paper, Scissors
Three choices are not enough for some people.
French schoolchildren add a well to their game—scissors fall down the well, which is covered by paper, which is cut by scissors, which is smashed by rock, which also falls down the well.
An ancient Abyssinian version had eight elements: needle, sword, scissors, hammer, imperial razor, sea, altar, and the sky.
Somewhere, out there in cyberspace, is a man called David P. Lovelace who has risen to the challenge of creating what he calls “The most terrifyingly complex game ever,”—a 101-gesture version of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
There’s quicksand, vulture, turnip, and cockroach and a possible 5,050 outcomes. But, it’s unlikely that anybody will be able to remember whether spider beats sponge or the other way round.
The Psychology of RPS
Even if the world contest folded, there are still plenty of RPS tournaments and, for those who want to win, a bit of pop psychology will help. Most tournament players are male (Oh! what a surprise). They often have testosterone running amok through their systems—victory is mine, crush the opponent. Of course, they are going to choose rock. So, paper has to be the choice for any opponent.
There are some self-aware males who will work this back on the other contestant and choose scissors, which is said to be the first choice of most female players.
Why women prefer scissors over paper and rock is a subject for a PhD thesis. Could they be symbolically cutting the bond of male domination? Emasculating their oppressors? These are deep waters and the prudent writer will stay in the shallow end.
Strategies for Winning
It might seem that defeating opponents is a matter of pure chance; it doesn’t have to be.
The element of chance can be greatly reduced by skilled players who understand game theory.
People who study mathematical models of conflict and cooperation toss around phrases such as “infinite rationality,” “the Nash equilibrium,” and “persistent cyclic motions.” These are far too esoteric for mere mortals who have trouble balancing their chequebooks, but they can be used to predict how someone is likely to play rock, paper, scissors.
A study Zhejiang University in China examined more than 100,000 games and found that competitors chose each of the three plays about one third of the time, which is what classical game theory would predict.
But, that’s not exactly what happens. According to the World RPS Society, the most expert players go with:
- Rock: 35.4%
- Paper: 35.0%
- Scissors: 29.6%
When researchers drilled deeper into the data they found patterns. A BBC report explains that winners tended to repeat the sequence they used to come out on top. “Losers, on the other hand, tended to switch to a different action. And they did so in order of the name of the game—moving from rock, to paper, to scissors”
Game theorists call this win-stay-lose-shift strategy a conditioned response, “and it may be hard-wired into the human brain.”
Maspro Denkoh is a Japanese electronics company that was going through a rough patch financially in 2005. The president of the business, Takashi Hashiyama, decided to sell off the firm’s collection of French impressionist paintings to fatten up the cash flow. He called in the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses to make presentations. Mr. Hashiyama could not decide which company would do the best job, so he asked them to play rock, paper, scissors; the winner to get the contract. The Christie’s representative chose scissors and the Sotheby’s man went with paper. Christie’s got the job and earned a commission of $1.9 million.
The Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash proved that RPS is not a game of pure chance. He devised a game theory known as the Nash equilibrium, which is quite beyond the ability of this writer to understand. Suffice it to say, that players who understand the complex math involved can actually get an edge on players who don’t. Mathematician Patrick Honner says that applying the Nash equilibrium caused the “altering the course of economics and changing the way everything from political treaties to network traffic is studied and analyzed.”
- “Social Cycling and Conditional Responses in the Rock-Paper-Scissors Game.” Zhijian Wang, Bin Xu, and Hai-Jun Zhou, Cornell University, April 21, 2014.
- “How to Win at Rock-Paper-Scissors.” James Morgan, BBC News, May 2, 2014.
- “Schott’s Sporting, Gaming & Idling Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Bloomsbury, 2004.
- “How to Always Win at Rock, Paper, Scissors.” William Poundstone, The Telegraph, September 1, 2014.
- “Why Winning in Rock-Paper-Scissors (and in Life) Isn’t Everything.” Patrick Honner, Quanta Magazine, April 2, 2018.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor