Friday, December 10, 2004

First things first. Dynamite is banned. Verboten. Does paper snuff wick? Or does it burn? Too ambiguous. Make a hitchhiker fist during a serious game of Rock Paper Scissors, and you’ll be laughed out of the room.

Which brings us to the second point: There are, in fact, serious games of Rock Paper Scissors.

“The response to dynamite would probably be a little less friendly than [laughter],” said Jason Simmons, a Rock Paper Scissors enthusiast. “Honestly, the only way you would get anyone to accept it is if you’re a grown man playing 10-year-olds.”

Mr. Simmons speaks from experience. A 33-year-old body piercer from the District, he is better known as Master Roshambollah, perhaps the most feared Rock Paper Scissors player in the world. Fear being a relative term.

Crushing with a fist, cutting with extended fingers, smothering with a flat hand, Mr. Simmons has thrown down for money and sport, in bars and, well, bigger bars. And he’s not alone.

Long regarded as the civilized way of settling life’s thorniest conundrums — such as who pays for the next round — Rock Paper Scissors is evolving into something else entirely: a genuine, bona fide, almost legitimate sport, sans the towel doffing, fan pummeling and steroid injecting common to its more celebrated peers.

The World Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) Society — yep, there’s one of those, too — boasts 2,200 members. The winner of this year’s world championship was honored with a parade at Disney World. Simon & Schuster recently published an official strategy guide.

“I can think of five bars in the Dupont [Circle] area where you can find a money game, $1 to $20,” Mr. Simmons says. “It’s the equivalent of pickup basketball.”

Tonight, Fox Sports Net’s “Best Damn Sports Show Period” will feature an extended segment on October’s world championships, held in Toronto. A British-made RPS documentary film is due in January.

At this rate, a Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn star vehicle seems inevitable.

“We’re talking to studios about an RPS movie, like ‘Dodgeball’ but better,” said Matti Leshem, a Los Angeles-based producer who oversaw the Fox Sports Net segment. “There are all kind of things that appear to be boring on TV at first blush, like blackjack or poker. This is much more interesting.”

Birth of an (RPS) nation

While televised Rock Paper Scissors is new — and the surest sign yet that sports viewers cannot live on fat guys playing poker alone — the game itself is venerable. Possibly older than roller derby. According to the World RPS Society, the game’s long, strange quasi-history goes something like this:

• Prehistoric cavemen threw ‘rocks’ (fists) at each other in order to settle disputes;

• Ancient Egyptians produced papyrus scrolls (paper).

• In 500 A.D., an Italian barber invented scissors.

• Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, who commanded French forces during the American Revolution, brought the finished game to North America (don’t even ask).

• RPS subsequently was used to hash out intractable arguments everywhere, like who gets to ride shotgun.

“It’s a game of honor, and from a philosophical perspective, a means of last resort,” said Douglas Walker, 33, a Toronto native and co-leader of the World RPS Society. “Four years ago in Florida? Definitely an ideal situation for RPS. That would have been pretty riveting on CNN.”

Following an epiphanic RPS match at a family cabin in northern Canada — cold, dark night; someone had to gather firewood — Mr. Walker and his brother Graham started a Web site devoted to the game, Two years ago, they rented a Toronto bar for the first world championship.

“We really didn’t know how things were going to turn out,” said Mr. Walker, who works in public relations. “Really, we would have been happy if 25, 30 of our friends came to drink beer and play for a big prize.”

Hundreds of people showed up. The 2003 tournament was covered by CNN and Rolling Stone. This year’s event drew a Japanese television crew and more than 1,000 spectators and competitors, from as far away as England, Norway and the Czech Republic.

Lee Rammage, a 34-year-old from Ontario, captured a $7,000 prize by defeating Toronto’s Heather Birrell. Birrell wore a T-shirt inscribed with the letters “WWJT,” short for “What would Jesus throw?”

The King of Kings, she explained, was her rock.

“We take RPS about as seriously as someone can take something like RPS,” Mr. Walker said. “There is an element of tongue-in-cheek to all this.”

Indeed. The World RPS Society strategy guide features deadpan maxims such as “paper is the answer, should rock be the question.” At the world championship, outlandish costumes and pro-wrestling-shaming personas were the norm.

Team Bureaucrat’s nebbish competitors wore suits and glasses, boldly proclaiming “paper is the new rock.” Benjamin Stein, a New Yorker, wore yellow spandex tights and a Lone Ranger mask, dubbing himself “Scizzoro.”

As alter ego Master Roshambollah, Mr. Simmons boasts of being both the sport’s Bobby Fischer (“at 10, I was regularly beating players twice my age”) and Phil Mickelson (“the best player to never win a major”). He favors a bamboo hat and a purple tuxedo jacket.

“Anything to psych your opponent out,” Mr. Simmons said. “It’s kind of imposing when you’re standing across the table from six people who are wearing superhero costumes.”

See the rock, be the rock

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

Speaking of big time: Mr. Simmons will serve as a color commentator for tonight’s Fox segment, which may be repackaged into a stand-alone special at the end of the month. He recently flew to Los Angeles to tape additional material.

“I told Fox I couldn’t do it, I was retired from active competition,” he said. “They said all the best play-by-play guys are retired athletes. So you’re in.”

In August, Mr. Simmons put together the first national RPS tournament at DC9 in the District, filling 128 bracket spots in half an hour. A beer company sponsored the event, and Mr. Simmons hopes to hold a second tournament this winter.

“I’d like to do it at MCI Center with Coke and Pepsi as sponsors,” he said. “That’s the dream.”

Absurd? Maybe not. Mr. Leshem is considering a televised celebrity RPS tournament (for charity, of course). Fox has an option to broadcast additional RPS events. Next year’s world championships may move to a Las Vegas casino, major corporate sponsorship in tow.

The sport has never been healthier. And that worries Mr. Walker.

“In a way, it’s kind of bittersweet,” he said. “If this becomes 100 percent real and legitimate, is there any humor left?”

Which brings us back to dynamite. Like other illegal throws — the trite Texas Longhorn, the goofy Spock, the vulgar Bird — the thumbs-up gesture ruins the game’s tripartite symmetry. And balance among hands, between satire and seriousness, is what makes RPS unique.

Not to mention a good excuse to get together and have a drink, especially when loser buys.

“Dynamite will never be accepted in serious play,” Mr. Simmons said. “People say, ‘You’re a bunch of idiots, there’s no strategy, throw them to the lions.’ But I pretty much can drink free anywhere in D.C.”

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