The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide
By Douglas Walker
Fireside Copyright © 2004 Douglas Walker
All right reserved. ISBN: 0743267516
Chapter 3: Basic Strategies
In order to appreciate the subtle and sometimes profound tactics associated with Rock Paper Scissors, one must first understand the fact that strategy does indeed play a role in the game. Acceptance of this fact differentiates the unranked novice from the player of a higher order.
Rock Paper Scissors is, at its core, about making a selection. Better players make better choices. Players collect, interpret, and ignore information both prior to and during the match. They must then make their choices. In turn, their opponents analyze these choices. The result is a tangled dance of strategy and counterstrategy, one that can be difficult for the casual player to appreciate. This chapter is designed to give the novice player insight into the basic strategic precepts, as well as ammunition against RPS detractors.
One often hears, spewing from the gaping maws and vacant minds of the ill informed, that Rock Paper Scissors is merely a game of random or unpredictable outcome. While an understandable position for the small-minded (often referred to in RPS circles as "Coin Tossers," a reference to the mid-nineteenth century that highlights the rivalry between RPS players and enthusiasts of lesser games), this is a fallacy. Human beings are utterly incapable of acting in a purely random fashion, despite appearances. Everything we do has some motivation behind it. This is certainly not to say that humans are always rational or logical, only that there is some kernel of a reason nestled somewhere in the dark caverns of the brain.
Chaotic vs. Random
Chaos: Unpredictable and seemingly random behavior occurring in a system which should be governed by deterministic laws.
-Oxford Concise Science Dictionary
When considering the full range of an individual's behavior, it is difficult to predict what someone will do next. However, when we limit that behavior to those actions taken in the world of RPS, with its defined rules and three possible outcomes, making some educated guesses is possible. Even the layperson, once enlightened, can discern clues about an opponent's next play. So while RPS is not random, it is chaotic. This distinction is an important one: if a system is not truly random, then correct interpretation of information at hand can lead to a better chance of success.
The undulations of the stock market are considered chaotic because while they are governed by the easily understood principles of buying and selling; no one can tell with absolute certainty what will occur next. Despite the chaos, many traders have made successful careers interpreting the fluctuations accurately enough to generate significant profit. For the purposes of RPS, chaos means that if a player can correctly discern the exact state of his opponent's mind, as well as the process he uses to determine his next throw, then theoretically the player can correctly infer his opponent's next move. In contrast, random, from a mathematical perspective, means that an outcome happens without any predictability at all.
Contrary to popular belief, not even computers are capable of completely random behavior, either, since they operate according to a set of rules established by human beings. In 2003, the World RPS Society made a bold step by authorizing the entrance of a player guided by a computer program to compete at the World Championships. The computer program, called Deep Mauve, was used to supply the player with a series of throws in an attempt to better approximate randomness. As was predicted by many leading RPS mavens, the Deep Mauve team did not make it past the qualifying round. The failure of the computer has sent those few in the random-is-the-best-strategy camp scrambling to redefine their argument.
Human vs. Computer: Deep Mauve
In an effort to end the debate surrounding random strategies, the World RPS Society authorized the admission of a computer called Deep Mauve into the World Championships of Rock Paper Scissors. The computer program was developed by a leading science organization with the intention of having players actually play directly against the computer's display. This plan was deemed unacceptable by tournament officials. The counterproposal required the handler of the computer, Peter McMahon, to be the player, deferring to the computer to decide his next throw.
Deep Mauve gave a dismal performance and did not manage to progress past the qualifying round. The computer advised Mr. McMahon to deliver a suicidal Scissors/Rock combination in the second set, effectively resigning the match. This is a gaffe that even a beginner human player would not make. The failure of Deep Mauve to provide a real challenge to the human competitors did not come as a surprise to leading RPS theorists. Professor J. Emeritus of the Game Theory Department at the Smallsoa Foundation says, "Even if the program were capable of completely random throws, which I highly doubt, then its expectation over the long run is to win one-third, tie one-third, and lose one-third of all of its games. This means that any strategic insight, no matter how slight, would effectively beat the computer." Work on Deep Mauve version 2.0 appears to have been abandoned.
Chance in RPS
Much to the dismay of RPS-playing parents, many elementary-school teachers have used Rock Paper Scissors to illustrate probability. Probability refers to the chance of a particular outcome occurring within a defined set of possible variables. So, for example, there are three possible outcomes that result in an odd number when rolling a six-sided die: one, three, and five. There are six possible outcomes overall. Therefore the probability of rolling an odd number is three in six, or 50 percent, as long as we are not in a crooked casino. However, in RPS, all of the players are crooked, so to speak. Each will make a conscious choice of which throw to make with the express desire of humiliating his adversary. So to assign basic probability to an RPS match would be a grave error, unless the player's aspiration reaches only to a height of mediocrity.
Take, for example, this hypothetical question from a sixth-grade math test:
Question: Jimmy and Janie are playing a game of Rock Paper Scissors. Each can play only one of the three throws. What is the probability that Jimmy will play Rock next?
Answer: 1 in 3.
The above question displays a deplorable lack of knowledge regarding RPS game play. This pitiful explanation does not contain remotely enough information to make an accurate prediction. Is Jimmy a good player? Has he played against Janie before? Are they playing with two or three primes? What did Jimmy play last? Is Janie right- or left-handed? Does Jimmy have a tattoo? These are just a few of the factors that could drastically affect the outcome. Perhaps the question should more accurately include: "For the purposes of this asinine test, assume that Jimmy and Janie both suffer from a debilitating mental defect that renders them incapable of forming a coherent thought or retaining any memories." Ignorant questions such as the one listed above have no doubt robbed an entire generation of reaching their potential in the sport.
Aside from the demeaning notion that chance plays a role, RPS played by humans does not conform to the law of averages. Probability would dictate that over the long run roughly one-third of all of the throws ever made would be Rock, one-third Paper, and one-third Scissors. After careful observation of numerous championships, in which literally thousands of throws were made, the World RPS Society knows this not the case. This notion suggests a hidden agenda from educators claiming that RPS players have no intent in their throws.
While the number of opening techniques is limited only by the imagination, the most common opening throws tend to result in Rock, Paper, or Scissors. Proper use of the opening move is crucial to success, and it can secure the advantage for the remainder of the match. Let us take each of the basic opening moves in turn:
Represented as it is by a closed fist, Rock is commonly perceived as the most aggressive throw. It taps into memories of fistfights, and it conjures up images of tall and unmoving mountains, rugged boulders, and the stone axe of the cavemen. Without realizing it, most players think of Rock as a weapon and will fall back on it for protection when other strategies appear to be failing.
On the other hand, use of Rock when on the offensive is a sign of overconfidence and an obvious attempt to intimidate an opponent. Among beginners in the sport, Rock is by far the most common opening throw. Rock is a powerful move that must be handled with finesse in order to avoid overextending oneself.
Rock also happens to be the most effortless of throws, and fast reactions are never required to employ it with success. By careful examination of the options and atmosphere of play, a well-placed Rock will render useless a carelessly thrown Scissors every time.
Paper is often considered the subtlest of the three throws. There is nothing aggressive about the limp documents that move across our desks and through our offices. Even the gesture used to represent Paper is peaceful -- an open palm much like the gesture used in a salute or a handshake. Historically, an open palm has been a sign of friendship and peace because an open hand cannot hold a weapon. Some players, who subconsciously perceive Paper as a sign of weakness or surrender, will shy away from using it entirely or will drop it from their game when they are falling behind.
On the other hand, Paper also connects with a player's perceptions about writing. There is quiet power in the printed word. It contains the ability to lay off thousands of employees, declare war against nations, spread scandal, or confess love. Paper, in short, has power over masses. The fate of the entire world is determined by print. As such, some players perceive Paper as a subtle attack, the victory of modern culture over barbarism. Such players may use Paper to assert their superiority and dignity.
Paper is the most challenging of the basic opening moves because it requires the manual displacement of all five digits in addition to a full 90-degree wrist rotation. It is, therefore, generally viewed as the least obvious of opening throws. Should a player open with Paper, rest assured that a counter of Scissors will cut it down to size.
Scissors are a tool. As children, we use them to cut construction paper for craft projects. As adults, we may cut cloth for clothing or use scissors to open irritating plastic packaging. Scissors are associated with industry, craftwork, and construction. There is still a certain amount of aggression associated with scissors; they are, after all, sharp and dangerous implements. Different from the thuglike force of Rock, Scissors represent aggression that is controlled, contained, and rechanneled into something constructive.
In RPS, Scissors is often perceived as a clever or crafty throw, a well-planned outflanking maneuver. As such, players are more likely to use Scissors when they are confident or winning. Opening with Scissors presumes that an opponent has tight control over their aggressive tendencies and therefore will not open with Rock. One of the main pitfalls of opening with Scissors is the tendency of many to reveal the throw too early, allowing an experienced opponent to easily counter.
Psyching Out the Psychic
True psychics are rarely encountered, but in case you find yourself playing against someone with second sight, we recommend that you practice your throws while thinking of the name of another throw. Instead of thinking of a throw by its rightful name, think of it by the name of the throw that beats it. Thus, when throwing Scissors, think Rock. When throwing Rock, think Paper. When throwing Paper, think Scissors. This results in the psychic discerning your intention to play a certain throw, then reacting and offering the throw that beats it, all the while you are actually using the throw that beats your opponent's. Practice it enough, and it will become second nature. One caveat, this effect may become permanent and muddle your playing style for tournaments.
"Gambit: a series of three successive moves made with strategic intention."
-The Master's Guide to Rock Paper Scissors
To demonstrate how knowing one's opponent can affect play, imagine playing RPS against an opponent who has just thrown two Rocks in a row. Naturally, one should question whether this player has the courage to play Rock for a third time and complete the Avalanche gambit. If this information affects the next throw, then the player has just begun to grasp the most basic strategy of RPS, the use of gambits.
The use of gambits in competitive RPS has been one of the greatest and most enduring breakthroughs in RPS strategy. "Strategic intent" means that the three throws are selected beforehand as part of a planned sequence. Selecting throws in advance helps prevent unconscious patterns from forming and can sometimes reduce the subtle signals that give away the next throw, often called "tells." Choosing throws in groups of three can help to prevent a player from switching to a purely reactive game while leaving numerous decision points to keep the strategy adaptable. Gambits are the focal point of beginner strategy and form the basis of many advanced strategies.
Most games of RPS are played as best-of-three matches; therefore, counting throws by threes is logical, since the correct choice of a three-throw sequence will usually take care of an unsuspecting opponent, even allowing for a single loss or stalemate.
To veteran players, gambits are also frequently used as a shorthand way to discuss matches without resorting to a long list of throws. For example, one player might be overheard saying to another "Excellent match, Charles. Your inspired use of a Crescendo in the opening set negated the early lead of my Toolbox."
The Great Eight Gambits
The mathematically inclined will quickly realize that there are only twenty-seven possible gambits. All of them have been used and documented in tournament play. Each has several names, depending on the geographical region of the players. There is no such thing as a "new" gambit.
The Great Eight Gambits are the eight deemed to be the most historically significant and the most widely employed. They also happen to be the only eight gambits in which there is near unanimous consent on the names. There is nothing about these eight that make them superior to any other gambits, although as a group they can be very effective. Several high-level players have built careers on just these eight gambits. They are, sorted alphabetically by their most common names, the following:
A subtle, yet aggressive gambit. It was the first of the triple gambits developed in the early 1890s. The Avalanche is a relentless and devastating offensive maneuver; executing it requires bravado bordering on recklessness.
Formerly known as Confetti, the deadpan delivery of three successive Papers is the ultimate in passive-aggressive play. Team Bureaucrat, who have gone on record as stating that "Paper is the new Rock," had at least one representative in the final sixteen at the 2003 World Championships.
The slow-building nature of this gambit makes it a very elegant opening series. The devastating Rock is the coup de grâce that gives the gambit its name.
The Denouement is the mirror of the Crescendo and uses a cooling-down approach. When used in tandem with the Crescendo, the result is often a baffled opponent.
This move took the 1967 RPS World Championships by surprise and is arguably still one of the great surprise offensive moves. The rapid switch from offensive to defensive play can force an opponent into a vulnerable spot.
The complexity of this series is belied by its apparent simplicity. Paper levels the playing field and is followed by a couple of quick and sneaky Scissors, which makes it an extremely effective gambit against the unwary.
An invasive and devious gambit. While not the most offensive of the gambits, its main purpose is to unsettle the opponent through the use of the concealed Scissors.
Effective use of the Toolbox requires steady hands and steely nerves. Given the puerile popularity of Rock, this gambit is not suggested for use against beginners.
When RPS players are evenly matched or delivering similar strategies, the result can often be an embarrassing string of ties or stalemates, referred to as Mirror Play. Whereas a stalemate is a single tie and cause for a rethrow, Mirror Play is a series of stalemates. It is often the result of two players attempting similar strategies. Mirroring one's opponent in a sequence of five or six identical throws can be disconcerting and never fails to increase the level of tension surrounding a match. Depending upon how an opponent handles stress, intentionally mirroring can wear down his reserves and leave him easy prey to a surprise attack.
Mirror Play (for example, a situation in which both players throw Scissors over and over again) needs to be treated as a special situation. For example, two opponents have each delivered three successive Rocks in a row. Both players are now involved in a game of chicken. Each is wondering how long to hold out. When will the opponent's resolve break to play Paper for the win? Should a player risk Scissors, hoping that the opponent is about to crack?
While Mirror Play can be highly stressful, it is also a crowd pleaser. During the 2003 World Championship semifinal match between Marc Rigaux and Patrick Merry, head referee Brent Andruko felt it necessary to call a time-out during the fourth set after the players had fallen into an extended Mirror Play, to the delight of the audience members, who had worked themselves into a lather.
As a defensive ploy, one can retreat into a Mirror Play scenario in order to recover from a loss. If taken in stride, a short series of Mirror Plays can be a welcome respite during a hectic match, allowing a player valuable time to reconsider strategy. One must also commit to memory the counterstrategy when a Mirror Play is an opponent's intention; it might just be the opportunity to pounce.
Wits and Dexterity
It is common among dullards to avoid playing RPS and retreat to less-complicated decision-making games, such as One Potato, Two Potato; Engine, Engine, Number Nine; or Odds and Evens. This is due to the mental challenges associated with RPS. However, it is important to note that physical prowess also plays an important role in this sport. The manual dexterity of delivering multiple throws in quick succession can be taxing for some, but it is the small-motor skills, finer muscular movements, and psychology associated with the game that separates it from all others. Shrewd players must quickly progress to using ever more cunning RPS strategies and tactics.
Copyright © 2004 by Graham Walker and Douglas Walker
Excerpted from The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide by Douglas Walker Copyright © 2004 by Douglas Walker. Excerpted by permission.
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