Fists fly in game of strategy

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Rock smashes scissors. Scissors snips paper. Paper smothers rock. A simple game? Think again.

Though math teachers often use coin flips and RPS to illustrate probability, serious players detest the comparison.

“It’s not a random game at all,” Mr. Walker said. “You win and lose on your choice. It’s similar to a shootout in a soccer match, the relationship the striker has with a goalie. It’s a game of chicken. Which way are you going to go?”

Competitive RPS, Mr. Walker added, requires strategy and psychology — like chess without the chessboard, or tackle football without the tackling. Even the most innocuous hand says something about the person throwing it.

Paper is subtle, the choice of intellectual, passive-aggressive types. Scissors are devious, a tool of controlled malice. Rock is between-the-eyes intimidation, preferred by beginners and players who have been backed into a corner.

“People fall into patterns,” Mr. Simmons said. “From my personal experience, women tend to open with scissors. There are some other tells I don’t want to go into. But I can see things in the shoulders and the forearm.”

In the manner of football coaches scripting plays, seasoned RPS competitors sometimes employ predetermined throw sequences, called “gambits.” The Bureaucrat, for example, calls for paper-paper-paper; the Avalanche entails rock-rock-rock.

The mere threat of a gambit, Mr. Simmons said, can confuse and demoralize the savviest opponent.

“If I throw two rocks in a row, any real player is going to be thinking Avalanche,” he said. “Then they throw paper, and I throw scissors.”

Pete Lovering, a Toronto resident and the 2002 world champion, eschewed complex plotting, swearing by a zenlike approach. Be the rock. Be the paper.

“Master Pete doesn’t think about what his opponent is throwing,” Mr. Simmons says. “He’s the only player I respect. We don’t really play the game. The game plays itself through us.”

Tell that to Randall Waldron. A business professor at the University of South Dakota, Mr. Waldron has used RPS to conduct basic experiments in game theory, drawing parallels with everything from economics to the war on terror (long story short: Governments and terrorists are playing an elaborate game of RPS).

His early conclusion? Unpredictability works best, for terror-fighters and RPS masters alike.

“If you’re a football team, you can’t always run, even if your passing game is lousy,” Mr. Waldron said. “It’s the same concept here. When I’m working on my RPS experiments, I tell my students, ‘Don’t tell the regents.’ But the truth is, it has some implications for some big-time stuff.”

Growing pains

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