Decisions, Decisions

At the Southwestern U.S. Pro-Am Rock Paper Scissors Invitational, the choices are limited, the competition fierce

"To the beginner the choices are few, to the expert the choices are many." -- from The Trio of Hands(1962) by Wojek Smallsoa.

According to the World RPS Society, its antecedent, the Paper Scissors Stone Club, was founded in London, England in 1842, immediately following the decree that "any decision reached by the use of the process known as Paper Scissors Stone between two gentlemen acting in good faith shall constitute a binding contract." Apparently, this took all the fun out of it. Casual enthusiasts had to establish a haven where the game could still be played for recreation and honor. By 1918, the club had gained a considerable international membership, and the headquarters of the newly named World RPS Clubwere moved from London to more neutral territory in Toronto. There, membership peaked briefly at 10,000, a number hardly representative of the worldwide popularity of the game but large enough to prompt the publication of Think Three, a periodical dedicated to RPS strategy, culture, and style that still exists today online.

Variations of Rock Paper Scissors can be found everywhere. In Japan, Jaken, as it is known, is frequently played between strangers to determine who gets the remaining seat on a commuter train or who gets the last copy of Shukan Shonen Jump at the newsstand. It is played as Jan Ken Po in Hawaii, Stone Scissors Well in France, Hammer Nail Paper in Vietnam, and Muck Chee Baa in Indonesia. In the United States it is best known as Roshambo, a name that many attribute to the influence of Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, better known as le Comte de Rochambeau, commander in chief of the French forces during the American Revolution, who was famed for using the game as an earnest method of arbitration. The origin of the game itself is more difficult to determine. The official position of World RPS Society is that the game was independently invented in both Eastern Europe and China.

"The trouble with Rock Paper Scissors is that it has been passed on through oral tradition," explains Graham Walker, director of management of the World RPS Society. "So it has left little or no trace in anthropological records."

As children, Graham Walker and his brother Douglas Walker used Rock Paper Scissors to settle minor disputes -- who gets the last piece of pizza, who gets to ride in the front seat -- but during a marathon match, held to determine who would fetch wood from outside their snow-bound vacation cabin, they noticed some patterns in their throws. They became interested in strategies and gambits, defined by The Master's Guide to Rock, Paper & Scissors as a "series of three successive moves made with strategic intention." Soon after, the Walker brothers discovered that the World RPS Society, at the time an all but dead organization, was based in their hometown. In 1995, they put RPS on the Web, ushering the game into a new age. Now, lively forums discuss the elegance of the "Crescendo" gambit -- paper, scissors, rock -- and the aggression of the "Avalanche" -- rock, rock, rock being the first of the "Triple Gambits" developed in the late 1800s. Personalities are typed according to their penchant for a particular throw: rock -- courageous and strong if a bit stupid; paper -- gentle and wise but often perceived as weak; scissors -- inventive and self-confident but given to rudeness. Among some students at Stanford, Roshambo has evolved into a philosophy that examines the tripartite nature of mankind. Automated Roshambo arbiters have cropped up all over the Web. Organized competitions have grown in popularity and frequency, and the Walker brothers have become very busy.

"I'm moving to the Czech Republic next week," says Graham Walker, "to open the European office [of World RPS]. This is sort of my last hurrah for a while."

We are sitting on a grassy slope overlooking the beautiful Roshambo Winery in Healdsburg, California during a break at the 2004 Southwestern U.S. Pro-Am Rock Paper Scissors Invitational, where more than 125 contestants and their cheering squads are sipping wine and discussing strategy in the bright sunshine.

"Oh no you don't," scoffs Master Roshambollah, a world-class champion from Washington, D.C. "You wouldn't be the first reporter that has tried to sniff out my strategy for a competitor. Why don't you come back and talk to me after I win."

Roshambollah's confidence seems a bit unwarranted given the upset earlier in the afternoon when 10-year-old Maverick Bullisof Forest Hill beat out international champion C. Urbanus of New Jersey.

"That was a real shock," agrees Douglas Walker. "A 10-year-old maverick intimidated one of the true greats of the sport, the originator of the 'Urbanus Defense.'"

The "Urbanus Defense" involves intentionally losing the first round to gain knowledge of the opponent's predisposition.

"It's simplicity itself," says Douglas Walker, "the sacrifice. Of course, it doesn't hold up as a continuous strategy, but, when used correctly, it's inspiring."

"It didn't work," admits 28-year-old C. Urbanus. "He won with rock, and I really thought he would throw it again, but he switched up pretty good. It's always disappointing to be eliminated, but you can't win every tournament."

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