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Rock Paper Psyche!

The highly evolved schoolyard strategy required for winning at tournament- level Rock Paper Scissors.

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Photo-illustration: Atelier 444  

In the back room of Freddy’s Bar in Prospect Heights, under strands of anemic Christmas lights, two dozen members of the American Rock Paper Scissors Association get ready to rumble. They’d traveled from up and down the Eastern Seaboard for the Atlantic Yards Smackdown, the somewhat belated inaugural event of the ten-year-old New York Rock Paper Scissors Society. The atmosphere crackles with the promise of flinty combat in high-rise tapered black jeans. “We Will Rock You” plays quietly.

Though RPS may seem like just a tween’s game, last year’s world-championship tournament in Toronto was covered by Fox Sports Net. It made the news earlier this spring when a Japanese executive forced Sotheby’s and Christie’s to an RPS one-throw showdown to decide which one would auction off his firm’s $18 million art collection. Sotheby’s, mistakenly believing RPS to be a game of chance, threw paper, while Christie’s, after consulting several schoolchildren, threw scissors. Scissors cut paper, Christie’s won the account—and the game’s legend grew.

RPS is, as it turns out, a game of strategy, not luck. “It’s a psychological battle,” says Ben “Scizorro” Stein, a wiry, intense computer programmer. “It’s all about reading your opponent,” agrees Kenny “Boy Boulder” Bromberg, who’s taken beta-blockers in tournaments to remain inscrutable. But the most effective way to the winner’s circle was codified by Shawn Ring, a.k.a. C. Urbanus. He originated what’s called the Urbanus defense: intentionally lose a round to see how your opponent plays it.

Many, many pints of Brooklyn Lager later, the final round comes down to Jason Simmons, a.k.a. Master Roshambollah, a former U.S. champ, and an unknown called Amanda, who didn’t give her last name. Roshambollah opens with rock, figuring that Amanda knows he knows that she knows he would throw rock (RPS game theory seems to be very dependent on sex roles, and throwing a rock is considered a male move). Amanda, he assumes, will open with scissors, since “women usually open with scissors.” She does. 1-0. In the second throw, Amanda bounces back with the aggressive rock, while Roshambollah, employing the Urbanus defense of purposeful defeat, throws scissors. 1-1. But Amanda is no match for Roshambollah’s head games. In the final throw, she fatally throws scissors, falling victim to her opponent’s crushing rock. Roshambollah makes two rocks with his hands and thrusts them skyward, rejoicing.


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