Saturday, April 3, 2004. 1:23 pm. Canada-US border.
James “Bucket-Tête” Kerr, Amy “Random Yeux” Wong, Neil Doshi (aka Dr. Polaroid) and Ricky Madison the “Fish of Fury”—all members of the artist collective Young People’s Foundation (YPF)—have been stopped en route from Montreal. They are explaining to a border guard that they’re going to the city of New Brunswick, New Jersey, to compete in the Northeastern US Rock, Paper, Scissors (RPS) championships.
The guard is at first suspicious. He calls his colleagues over for a laugh. One has seen RPS world champ Rob Krueger’s recent appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and asks—while searching the trunk of the rental car for illegal fruit or drugs—if there really are strategies to such a stupid game. A flurry of hands illustrate how to deviously toss and recognize the standard three-throw gambits of Avalanche, Bureaucrat, Paper Dolls, Fistful o’ Dollars, Scissor Sandwich, Crescendo and Denouement.
Amused but not convinced, the guard grills Random Yeux: “How about you, ma’am, what do you do for a living?”
“Nothing,” she replies proudly. “Why do you think I’m going to Jersey for a Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament?”
Saturday, April 3, 2004. 11:31 pm. New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The YPF players are being shown a night on the town, Jersey-style: hanging out in parking lots ordering Fat Joes (hamburger, mozzarella and french fry sandwiches) from the grease trucks while playing RPS with hospital security guards, b-boys and their celebrity hosts—none other than tournament organizers, referees and (omigod) A-list RPS power couple Lauren Hood and Shawn Ring (aka C. Urbanus)! Renowned for faking bad moves early so as to psych out his opponents with strategy reversals later on (the legendary Urbanus Defence), Shawn proposed to Lauren, his personal live-in RPS trainer, after she ousted defending champ Pete Lovering last year at the second annual World RPS Championships in Toronto.
The victory was a triumph over destiny, says Shawn. “I didn’t believe in fate, but how did Pete Lovering win the 2002 World Championships? He walked in wearing a robe with ‘1973 RPS Champ’ stitched to the back, and—against a field of over three hundred competitors—he won!”
Bucket-Tête offers his two cents: “I grew up in Montreal playing hockey, and I was on the floor at the Forum in 1993 with a dropped jaw, thinking, ‘Holy shit, I’m watching the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup.’ And honest to God, when Pete Lovering won the RPS championships, I was more impressed.”
But good luck asking Lauren how she vanquished such a mythical foe. “Fans and journalists will come up to me wanting to know my secret strategy, like there’s actually any strategy,” she deflects calmly. “Those guys in Toronto are so retarded, coming up with all this bullshit.”
The “guys” in question are World RPS Society founders Douglas and Graham Walker. In the past two years they’ve masterminded the transformation of RPS from a schoolyard bullying pretext into a beer-sponsored tribal ritual within the mating meta-game of Geek, Hipster, Jock. They’ve parlayed the exposure from officially sanctioned tournaments in Ontario, New Jersey and California into print, broadcast and Web media hype from the mainstream to the fringe, all leading up to the publication this fall of The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide.
They’re maxing out the meme now, but not without inventing an equally rich past for RPS by manipulating classic propaganda images to embed references to the game throughout history. They’ve traced the earliest known written record of the game (then called “Jan-Ken”) to 200 BC in Japan and have followed its migration from Europe to America in the late 1700s via the exploits of one Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (the game is still known in parts as “Roshambo”), a French general sent with an army to support George Washington during the American Revolution.
Jason Simmons, aka Master Rosham-bollah, is the Outreach Minister for the World Rock Paper Scissors Society and has developed a cult following by competing in his trademark patterned blue tux and conical bamboo hat. This professional body piercer from Washington, DC, believes that human-computer cooperation is vital to the future of RPS in the digital age. “Never trust a good RPS player,” he wryly observes while walking through a parking lot. “Lauren Hood just wants you to think there’s no strategy. I’ve read all the psychology and game theory about it on the Internet. Generally, people subconsciously associate Rock with strength and will resort to it in pressure situations. Also, people incorrectly assume that repetition isn’t random, so repeated throws can be very successful against human opponents. Ultimately, it’s about psyching your opponent out however you can.”
Sunday, April 4, 2004.
4:23 pm. Seaside Heights, New Jersey.
No New Jersey RPS pilgrimage would be complete without a nihilistic baptism in the Atlantic Ocean at Seaside Heights, which is not quite to RPS what Ibiza is to rave. It’s a derelict sandbank town in the tradition of Asbury Park or Coney Island, so steeped in rusted nostalgia that the neon signs and inflatable plastic prizes lining its endless strip of hurricane-battered shoot-’em-up betting games (even Shoot the Geek of Bowling For Columbine fame) are obscured by a sepia-tinged cloud that hangs over the place like the shadow of Bon Jovi’s thinning mane over a bed of roses, or perhaps nails. If it weren’t for Bucket-Tête and Shawn Ring both being seasonally unemployed carnies here with nothing better to do after selling overpriced bongs to tourists all summer, the New Jersey-Montreal RPS connection may never have been formed. And so, drenched from a recent rain and hoping for salvation from hard luck, we pay our respects under the rotting boardwalk with a shoeless RPS throwdown, as the cold undertow yanks at our frozen pink feet.
Sunday, April 4, 2004.
10:31 pm. New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Our seaside existential crisis has dissipated. Opponents are intimidated when they see the Polaroid proof that YPF was pumped enough to play RPS in the frigid Atlantic immediately prior to their third major competition. There is now only the excitement of flashing cameras, adrenalin and the seedy Court Tavern packed with RPS competitors getting hammered to Motorhead’s 1980 heavy metal gambling anthem, “Ace of Spades.” Though the vibe is fun and friendly, visible tension exists among the seventy-five hopefuls vying for $600us in prize money. A tightly knit local posse of belligerent jocks in Devils hockey jerseys is clearly outnumbered by the too cute hipster/geek massive from Philly, Brooklyn, Montreal, Kansas and New Zealand.
Crowd favourite Master Rosham-bollah is upset early on after expecting some Bureaucratic paperwork but getting Avalanched instead; meanwhile, after great team expectations, YPF’s hopes are dashed when Fish of Fury, their highest-placing competitor, gets canned in the quarterfinals after a jeering jock spooks him into a rare but ill-timed Four Scissors of the Apocalypse gambit.
Tension mounts until only two local hands remain throwing: jersey-wearing tough guy Michael Krail (who says he normally uses RPS to decide “who’s the bitch for the night”) and gnomish John Daquino, representing the surgical-mask-wearing artist collective Whooping Cough (which traditionally employs RPS to decide “who gets to paint in our tiny studio”).
After suffering some bruising setbacks upon Krail’s initial delayed use of Rock tosses, Daquino regains his composure and the two go Rock for Rock down the stretch. Krail freezes up as the pressure mounts and is tripped by his own Avalanche, while Daquino anticipates the rockslide and takes the tournament. Vindicated, the anti-jock throngs whoop and cough at their vanquished foes while Daquino calls his unbelieving mother to tell her the good news. Krail earns the crowd’s respect by pouring a Budweiser into the championship trophy for Daquino to chug victoriously.
Epilogue: rps dynamics
The big question for humans is, How do you apply a heuristic to randomness? In computerized “Roshambot” competitions—in which hundreds of rival programs play thousand-game matches—every sequence is remembered, analyzed and used to anticipate subsequent throws in milliseconds. The safest plan would seem to be throwing randomly every time to avoid having one’s strategy decrypted—but purely random tactics are guaranteed to win only about half of the time and, as such, are not very effective. Or at least not until the end-game, when initial strategies have become obvious. This, then, is the RPS secret, as confirmed by computer testing: the best strategy is to “out-random” your opponent as soon as you realize your opponent has “figured you out.”
Dan Egnor, formerly a programmer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote the bible for computational RPS strategy in 1999, with his winning open-source entry to the University of Alberta’s First International RoShamBo Programming Competition. Named Iocaine Powder—after the poison used by a Sicilian mastermind in the classic fantasy film The Princess Bride—Egnor’s code carefully employs random guessing, frequency analysis and history matching to predict winning throws using six-pronged “Sicilian reasoning.” Egnor’s post-RPS work for investment consulting firm Morgan Stanley remains confidential, yet one can be sure vast profits have been reaped from the knowledge that scrolling figures on the NASDAQ and DOW are nothing more than the sum of many hands twitching.
Barry Sinervo of the University of California, Santa Cruz, applied RPS analysis to evolutionary biology in a 1996 paper that showed side-blotched lizards breed according to an ecologically stable and naturally occurring RPS-style mating system: orange-throated males use their large size to cuckold blue-throats by overpowering females (Rock wins); blue-throated males guard their mates against yellow-throated males through blanket territorial surveillance and deterrence (Paper wins); yellow-throats sneakily mate with females left unguarded by orange-throats (Scissors win). Similar patterns have been observed in overgrowths of marine sessile organisms, in competition between mutant strains of yeast and in cyclic competition between rival genes.
The fascinating counterintuitive implications of such evolutionary RPS dynamics are exposed in “Rock-scissors-paper and the survival of the weakest,” a 2001 analysis from New Zealand scientists Marcus Frean and Edward R. Abraham. Long-term survival success within RPS systems, it turns out, is guaranteed not to the fittest, but rather to the least aggressive. For example, when orange-throats lay off blue-throats, blue-throats are free to hassle yellow-throats, who would otherwise be sneaking in on orange-throats. What doesn’t go around won’t come around, like in the game of Technology, Humans, Nature, where reduced fossil fuel emissions mean that fewer drives to cancer and asthma clinics are required. What might result if RPS logic were applied to Homeland Security, Foreign Occupation, Terrorist Attack?
The lesson for human RPS players and Roshambots alike is clear: a throw’s success rate is inversely related to its frequency, making rare throws more effective. Nothing beats good old Rock if Rock is never played. This is precisely the paradoxically standoffish doomsday-device threat that prevented nuclear annihilation during the Cold War.
So there you have it: scientific studies have shown that RPS-derived world peace is a winning long-term strategy for survival of the human species, and cool kids these days believe that whoever isn’t playing RPS is a loser. But of course, this could just be a random coincidence.