Not Sports

The best rock-paper-scissors players know how to win without luck

The best rock-paper-scissors players around can sniff out an amateur before they say "shoot."

If you thought you can't be bad at rock-paper-scissors, you're dead wrong. The World Rock Paper Scissors Association makes it clear that you don't have to be anything more than an "armchair athlete" to become a pro, but the best can sniff out an amateur before they even say the word "shoot."

Wyatt Baldwin is the president of the World Rock Paper Scissors Association (WRPSA), a 5-year-old governing body the hosts national and Worlds-level competitions. Baldwin's love for the sport stems from his assertion that it is "the ultimate decider." He tells Inverse he is decidedly anti-coin flip: "rock-paper-scissors is the much better option, especially in the new cashless society we're living in," he says over the phone.

Baldwin's organization is not the first to transform rock-paper-scissors into an organized sport. The first was the World Rock Paper Scissors Society, deemed a "unique viral experiment" by The Atlantic. Then there was the now-defunct USA Rock Paper Scissors League, the championship tournament of which was aired on ESPN and offered up to $50,000 in prize money. Both leagues have since disappeared. The USA Rock Paper scissors league is now defunct and the World Rock Paper Scissors society disappeared in 2010, says Baldwin.

In the interim, there's the World Rock Paper Scissors Association, which Baldwin says was created to "pick up the torch to give armchair athletes the ability to not just be a fan of their favorite team but compete."

The World Rock Paper Scissors Association's website declares that "anyone can win, some can just win more often." The ones that win more often know that the game is as much about human behavior as it is about deciding who has to take out the trash.

The 2006 USA Rock Paper Scissors title match in Las Vegas.YouTube/usarpsleague

What makes rock, paper scissors a sport? – Baldwin says that anything you can make competitive is a sport. Rock-paper-scissors is inherently competitive. You can train to win — but you're going to be using your brain more than your hands. The tips for winning can be distilled into:

  • Don't give yourself away
  • Play randomly
  • Know how to read your opponent

The first step toward being good at rock-paper-scissors is to not give yourself away, Baldwin advises. Players know that a newbie might clench their first before throwing a rock or slightly stick out a pointer finger before playing scissors. However, there's nothing as telling as throwing a move too early.

"One, two, three, shoot is the right way, basically," says Baldwin. Anyone who goes on three is probably an inexperienced player.

Gauging a player's experience level important, because it can signal whether they're likely to fall into the psychological traps inherent in rock-paper-scissors.

The best strategy for rock paper scissors is to truly act randomly. This means playing each option about one-third of the time, ensures an opponent can't guess what's next. That tactic represents the Nash Equilibrium – if both players are truly throwing out each move randomly, there's no incentive to switch strategies because you can't improve your chances of winning beyond one-third of the time.

However, scientists who research rock paper scissors have shown that people don't always act this way. There are patterns, even subconsciously, and that's what makes the game interesting.

"You're less likely to go into biases."

In an experiment described in a pre-print paper, scientists in China had 354 students play 300 rounds of rock-paper-scissors. Students didn't throw moves with equal frequency and they tended to stick with the moves that they've used to win before. When people lose with that move, they're likely to change strategies — but only in what the researchers call a "clockwise direction." We tend to shift from rock to paper to scissors, not from paper to scissors to rock.

Both Psychology Today and The World Rock Paper scissors association echo the idea that some moves are favored: they both report that rock is played roughly 35.4 percent of the time per round, paper is played about 35 percent of the time, and scissors is played 29.6 percent of the time. The best players are up on these nuances, says Baldwin.

"The more varieties of players you have under your belt you're more aware of what type of throws some people are gonna throw. You're less likely to go into biases," he says.

The Michael Jordan of rock-paper-scissors – Baldwin says that Ken "Whitey" Watson is the "gold standard" of rock paper scissors player. Watson was a member of the Legion of the Red Fist, a team that Baldwin's website declares "one of the greatest rock paper scissors teams ever assembled."

Whitey is also a former World Champion, and distinguishes himself by his approach to the game before the first moves are thrown, Baldwin says. In a recent Pepsi-sponsored video, Whitey backs up Baldwin's claim with some pseudo-psychology:

"If I see you, I see a strong man who looks to be macho, so I think you're going to throw rock," he says to his opponent.

"Are you a psychologist?" his opponent asks. Whitey responds: "Only on TV."

His guesses don't always work, but its the approach that matters, says Baldwin. It's the recognition that the game is as much about reading people as it is about luck.

Ken "Whitey" Watson describing his approach to the game.

The spirit of rock-paper-scissors – It's the sport's mathematical predictability that guarantees that luck will almost always prevail. It also teases the idea that experience can ever so slightly tip the odds in your favor.

It's not unlike the intoxicating mix of luck and skill presented by poker, as described by Phil Helmuth, the notorious "poker brat" who has won 15 World Series of Poker bracelets. His career winnings now surpass $22 million.

"If there weren't luck involved, I'd win every time," Hellmuth famously said to his mom and sister in after a loss at the 2004 World Series of Poker. He later told ESPN that he thought his microphone was off when he muttered the comment.

The competitive spirit of rock-paper-scissors lies in exploiting the human fallibility of your opponent, while trying to check it in yourself. This where the most experienced rock-paper-scissors players shine, says Baldwin.

Experienced players might close their eyes while playing to avoid influence from the other player. Or they might try to think three or five moves ahead to ensure that they're keeping things random.

"The more knowledgeable someone is about the strategies, then they become a tougher person to play against because they’re more aware of what they’re doing," Baldwin says.

Whether or not you become a World Champion will still be hinged on luck, but you may not have to take out the trash as often.

NOT SPORTS is an occasional series from Inverse. Do you have something that's not a sport but almost a sport you'd like to see featured? Fill out a suggestion form.

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