As long as humans have roamed the earth, decisions have had to be made between people. Who will lead the group? Who should keep watch as the others sleep? Whose turn is it to club the mastodon? And so on (at least, we assume). So it isn’t surprising that we have always tried to concoct fair ways to make those decisions: “random” games like Rock, Paper, Scissors that leave everything up to the gods of fate.
But do they really?
Upon closer inspection, seemingly random means of decision-making like Rock, Paper, Scissors or even flipping a coin can have patterns, and those patterns allow strategies to emerge. If you’ve ever wanted to have an advantage over winning that last slice of pizza or avoid picking up that first round of drinks, then you’re well-advised to read on to learn how to ensure victory in these games of “chance.”
In the Beginning
Rock, Paper, Scissors is a game that has been around, in one form or another, for centuries. According to the Encyclopedia of Play, a version of the game can be traced back as far as Ancient Egypt—roughly 2,000 B.C.E. The game also has a long history in Japan, where it is called Janken and has been around for at least 300 years.
One of the best-known keepers of this ancient activity is Douglas Walker. He is the founder of the exhaustive World Rock Paper Scissors Society webpage and co-author of the Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide. He shines some light on why Rock, Paper, Scissors, or “RPS” for shorthand, has been so popular among the populace for so long.
“Almost every person carries with them everything they need at all times to play a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors,” says Walker. “Even compared to something like coin-flipping, it is the people’s game because you don’t need to have access to a coin.”
Walker goes on to share that one unique element of decision-making with Rock, Paper, Scissors is that there are three options—and this triumvirate of tactics offers a world of possibilities. “It’s the simplest possible game that can involve strategy,” boasts Walker.
That is what Walker wants everyone to know about Rock, Paper, Scissors: It is not an arbitrary arbiter. Understanding this is critical to learning how to play the game, lest the game play you.
Just luck? No chance.
So if Rock, Paper, Scissors is indeed a battle of skill then why does it have a reputation as a game of fortune?
“Most people can’t tell the difference between randomness and chaos,” says Walker.
He likens Rock, Paper, Scissors to the stock market: Actions that come from a very complex set of rules that all appears chaotic but are not actually random.
Part of why Rock, Paper, Scissors could never be a true game of chance is because there is not an equal chance of each outcome. Unlike the roll of a balanced die, which has a one in six chance of any one number coming up, the chances of a person shooting rock, paper, or scissors is not a clear one out of three for each.
“There’s nowhere near a third, a third, a third distribution of how people play their throws,” Walker says.
Whether they realize it or not, nearly all players are making an active choice and fail at being truly “random.”
Based on throws Walker recorded from participants in Rock, Paper, Scissors World Championship Tournaments from 2002–2004, people tend to throw rock. Men who are RPS novices heavily favor the perceived strength of a mighty boulder—“Rock tends to be the most instinctive throw, and it approaches 50 percent,” reveals Walker. He also shares that women are more likely to play scissors, but not by as dramatic a margin. On average, female players tend to play scissors some 35-40 percent of the time according to Walker’s data.
Rock, Paper, Strategy
One way for Rock, Paper, Scissors players to approach each contest is to borrow some psychology from our national pastime. Walker describes a Rock, Paper, Scissors game as similar to a batter facing down a pitcher in baseball. “The batter needs to commit to how they’re going to strike that ball before it leaves the pitcher’s hand,” Walker explains. The same can be said for a Rock, Paper, Scissors throw. It’s in a competitor’s best interest to know their opponent and make a decision of what to throw based off of what they think their adversary will attempt.
How can you go about sizing up your fellow Rock, Paper, Scissors competitor? Walker says there are a number of different observations to make to determine the best calculated risk on your part: “What did they play last time? …How are they feeling? What is their body language?” Similar to poker, having an eye for the “tells” of your opponent can offer any RPS player a tremendous advantage.
Walker lets slip an insider term—“rock jaw”—for the way someone’s face contorts before they make a move: “You can see somebody tensing up their jaw and clench their jaw before they deliver a throw of rock.” Using observational tactics to determine what someone’s next play will be is a form of “defense” in the world of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Of course, if there’s a “defense” to be played in Rock, Paper, Scissors, there certainly must be an offense as well.
Clash of the Rock, Paper, Scissors Titans
For the bold and daring among Rock, Paper, Scissors veteran ranks there are offensive strategies to employ. One is telegraphing what you intend to play in order to force an opponent to change their strategy. Walker gives the example of announcing that you’re planning to throw rock, thus giving you some control over what the opponent is considering—“Suddenly, I’m in your head, and you’re starting to play my game.”
When playing longer rounds, such as sets of best-of-three or a first-to-ten game, delving into the psychology of the sport is a must. This is one revelation from a study conducted by Zhijian Wang at Zhejiang University in China. After observing 360 students play in Rock, Paper, Scissors games, the study’s authors found some fascinating information: Competitors tended to reuse a throw that won for them and changed their throws if they lost with a particular play. In short, if you’re playing someone and beat them, say, scissors over paper, then your next play should be rock because they would very likely not play paper again.
The basic finding of the study confirmed what Walker has already shared: Rock, Paper, Scissors is far from a game of chance, but instead a game of strategy and skill. Upon learning this, one may opt to use a more random method to make major decisions, like the flipping of a coin.
I had to play a classmate in Rock Paper Scissors as a part of an assignment and i beat him by only doing rock and he looked at the teacher and said “BUT HE JUST DID ROCK THREE TIMES IN A ROW” son, it’s called strategy step your game up
— Jared Kunish (@JaredKunish) May 24, 2018
However, there is some evidence that suggests that even the most basic decision-making game of chance might not be as random as we would believe.
On the Flip Side
The coin flip, like Rock, Paper, Scissors, is a universal arbiter of decisions but one that enjoys significantly more prestige. It is the flipping of a coin that sets in motion the events of pro football games right up to the Super Bowl, though there are multiple instances that showcase how this simple act can be embarrassingly fumbled.
What the hell were they thinking? this is the worst coin toss in coin toss history. pic.twitter.com/VEQA3dEPrU
— Cork Gaines (@CorkGaines) December 30, 2017
Or does the real embarrassment belong to the NFL for even thinking that a coin flip is an impartial way to decide who gets the ball to begin with? Certainly it’s more civilized than the XFL’s opening scramble, but there’s evidence to suggest that coin flips are not the fifty-fifty proposition we think they are.
A study from the University of British Columbia revealed that a slight edge is attainable based off how the coin is flipped. The study asked subjects to try to secure a “heads” result when they were in charge of flipping a coin. Seven out of thirteen participants were able to successfully achieve a result of heads, with one participant scoring heads 68 percent of the time. Such a wild inequity in fairness might be just fine for the National Football League, but it causes a real quandary for those who thought flipping a coin was a truly just means of making an impartial decision.
The Thrill of the Shoot
While you may be shook by the revelation that these games of chance are, in fact, contests of skill on the same level as medieval jousting or the gladiatorial battles of Rome, you can certainly take heart in the viewing of such competitions as a new frontier of excellence to be conquered. Especially when it comes to Rock, Paper, Scissors.
It may not be a surprise to learn that there are few things Walker enjoys more than a spirited match of RPS. He sees it as an everyman’s battle of will and wits and relishes sharing tidbits about how to psychologically best an opponent. One such example is to employ a mild dominant strategy to every-so-slightly lean in and stare down the opposition in order to elicit a reflexive show of strength by throwing rock. Walker repeats an old adage about chess that he believes applies to RPS—”It’s not about making the best move, it’s about making the move that your opponent least wants you to make.”
It’s wise to perfect your strategy because simple contests like the flipping of a coin or throwing Rock, Paper, Scissors have been around for a long time and will likely stay with us for decades ahead. Armed with the knowledge that these so-called games of chance that are so popular for making decisions can be manipulated by thoughtful players could have tremendous ramifications. Take for example the story of the “most expensive game of Rock, Paper, Scissors ever” where an art auction prize was left up to one RPS throw. Sounds almost as intense as this epic Japanese janken tournament.
i have concluded that this is one of the greatest videos on the internet pic.twitter.com/4uARohKNwp
— Joon Lee (@joonlee) December 12, 2016
Whatever the stakes you are playing for, be it a recording deal, exquisite art, or the last brat on the grill, remember Walker’s words concerning the underlying mysticism of the Rock Paper Scissors Society and the tripartite of options for each player: “To the beginner the choices are few, but to the expert the choices are many.”