Why Study RPS?
Why should I study RPS? What will RPS do for me? As with any sport, the answer to these questions is “That depends on what you put into it.”
RPS is gaming at its most basic, its most fundamental. Take anything away, and it ceases to be a game at all. Every other game, at some level, contains RPS. Like chess or fencing, the rules are simple, but the game itself is as complex as the mind of your opponent.
Playing RPS probably won’t make you rich and famous. Chances are good you won’t win an Olympic gold medal. And it’s not likely to improve your physique, maximize your sex appeal, jump-start your career or expand your memory. Many players have found, however, that studying RPS gives them a greater understanding of how gaming relates to human behavior. In that sense, RPS can help you find success in other areas, but only if you have the determination to work hard and think hard – not just in RPS, but in every area of your life.
Studying Your Opponent
Because RPS is a game of wits, it’s crucial to know your opponent. Does he have noticeable tells? What strategy has she used in the past? Does he throw Rock when he’s angry? Can I make her lose her concentration?
Historically, RPS championships have only admitted players who have won in lesser competitions in order to ensure that every player has data for other competitors to study. The current trends toward open-format competition will give new players an advantage in high-level competitions and possibly break some long-standing RPS “dynasties.”
The Role of a Trainer
Some players choose to retain the services of a personal trainer. Experienced and talented trainers can be invaluable in building an RPS career, but beware of charlatans. There are many “trainers” available for hire who have never been either a competitor or referee and have no qualifications to speak of. Before you sign a contract, find out who you’re dealing with.
The Three Throws
Equal but Not Equal
On the surface, RPS appears to be a game of chance. After all, according to the rules, each throw is equal, right? Each defeats one other throw and loses to one other throw.
Perhaps to a computer the throws actually are equal. To the human mind, that is seldom the case. Whether because of associations with the symbols or the hand positions that represent them, players perceive the three throws to have distinct characteristics. These vary from player to player, but generally fall into some common patterns.
The Character of Rock
Rock, represented by a closed fist, is commonly perceived as the most aggressive throw. It taps into memories of fist fights, tall and unmoving mountains, rugged boulders and the stone ax of the caveman. Without realizing it, most players think of Rock as a weapon and will fall back on it for protection when other strategies appear to be failing.
The Character of Scissors
Scissors are a tool. As children, we use them to cut construction paper for craft projects. As adults, we may cut cloth for clothing or use scissors to open plastic packaging. Scissors are associated with industry, craft work, making things. There is still a certain amount of aggression associated with scissors; they are, after all, sharp and dangerous implements. Scissors, however, represent aggression that is controlled, contained, re-channeled into something constructive. In RPS, scissors are often perceived as a clever or crafty throw, a well-planned outflanking maneuver. As such, players are more likely to use scissors when they are confident or winning.
The Character of Paper
Paper is often considered the most subtle throw. There is nothing aggressive about the limp documents that move through our desks and offices. Even the gesture used to represent paper is peaceful – an open palm like that used in a salute or handshake. Historically, an open palm has been a sign of friendship and peace because an open hand cannot hold a weapon. Some players, who unconsciously perceive Paper as weak or a sign of surrender, will shy away from using it entirely or drop it from their game when they are falling behind. On the other hand, Paper also connects with a player’s perceptions about writing. There is a quiet power in the printed word. It has the ability to lay off thousands of employees, declare war against nations, spread scandal or confess love. Paper, in short, has power over masses. The fate of the entire world is determined by print. As such, some players perceive Paper as a subtle attack, the victory of modern culture over barbarism. Such players may use Paper to assert their superiority and dignity.
More than Meets the Eye
The basic skills of RPS need no discussion. Most children can be taught to form the three throws with their hands and with a little practice can follow the prime and reveal their chosen throw at the appropriate time.
An advanced RPS player can do more than that. He can use his hands to confuse or deceive an opponent. She can make her opponent believe she is going to throw Rock when she is actually going to throw scissors.
“Cloaking” is the term used for delaying the unveiling of the throw. Put a little more simply, “Cloaking” is waiting until the last possible second to throw Paper or Scissors. Some players will watch your hands for an indication of which throw you are about to use. By not moving your fingers until the last moment, you can fool such a player into thinking you are throwing Rock. Since a hand-watcher will respond to a well-executed cloak with paper, cloaking Scissors is generally more useful than cloaking Paper.
Another step beyond cloaking, “shadowing” is pretending to throw one thing, but changing to another at the last possible moment. This is much more difficult and requires great care in execution. Ultimately, it is up to the judges or referee to decide when that last possible moment arrives and if your hand is on the wrong throw or between throws they are not very forgiving. There are two primary ways in which you can use shadowing. The first is to merely twitch your fingers during the prime. A hand-watching opponent may believe this to foreshadow a throw of scissors or paper, depending on which fingers you wiggle. A more advanced method of shadowing is to change the position of your hand three or four times during the last prime. This has the potential to confuse or distract any opponent and will likely befuddle a hand-watcher completely.
“Tells” are visible behaviors through which a player may unconsciously reveal a throw to an opponent. Everyone has them to some degree – they’ve been the poker player’s friend and enemy for centuries. They are the reason that hand-watchers watch hands, but tells aren’t always in the hands. The face and lips are common places to find tells. Records from a tournament in 1923 mention a player who wiggled his toes before throwing Rock. Tells are one reason why players study one another. Serious RPS players will spend time hunting for their own tells (a trainer helps here) and learning to suppress them. This can be an on-going project, because suppressing one tell can sometimes create another.
Broadcasting False Tells
Of course, if you can suppress tells, you can also create them. This requires intense coordination and concentration, not to mention planning. In order to make advantageous use of a false tell, you must display the tell long enough for an opponent to notice its significance, then break the pattern at a crucial moment to score a win. Timing is everything. It won’t help you to lose several points because of a false tell only to gain one when you break it.
Selecting a Throw
Once the prime has started, you have to make a choice. Will it be Rock, Paper, or Scissors? This is the most discussed and debated aspect of RPS, and the foundation of your strategy. How do you decide?
Proponents of the “Chaos School” of RPS try to select a throw randomly. An opponent cannot know what you do not know yourself. In theory, the only way to defeat a random throw is with another random throw – and then only thirty-three percent of the time. Critics of this strategy insist that there is no such thing as a random throw. Human beings will always use some impulse or inclination to choose a throw, and will therefore settle into unconscious but nonetheless predicable patterns. The Chaos School has been dwindling in recent years as tournament statistics show the greater effectiveness of other strategies.
The use of Gambits in competitive RPS has been one of the greatest and most enduring breakthroughs in RPS strategy. A “Gambit” is a series of three throws used with strategic intent. “Strategic intent” in this case, means that the three throws are selected beforehand as part of a planned sequence. Selecting throws in advance helps prevent unconscious patterns from forming and can sometimes reduce tells. Choosing throws in groups of three will prevent you from switching to a purely reactive game while leaving you numerous decision-points to keep the strategy adaptable.
The “Great Eight” Gambits
The mathematically inclined will quickly realize that there are only twenty-seven possible Gambits. All of them have been used and documented in tournament play. Each has several names from a variety of localities. There is no such thing as a “new” Gambit.
The “Great Eight” Gambits are the eight most widely used. There is nothing about these eight that make them superior to any other Gambits, although as a group they can be very effective. Several high-level players built careers on just these eight Gambits. They are, sorted alphabetically by their most common names:
Fistfull o’ Dollars (RPP)
Paper Dolls (PSS)
Scissor Sandwich (PSP)
The strongest criticism of Gambit play is that players still have tendencies to develop patterns. Rather than throwing Rock when angry, a Gambit player may throw Avalanche, resulting in three lost points rather than just one. The true genius of Gambit play, however, is that Gambits can be used as building blocks of larger strategies.
“Chain Gambits” are one way of expanding Gambit strategies. A Chain Gambit is a series of five throws, or two Gambits joined by a common throw. For instance, “PSPSS” is a Chain Gambit built from Scissor Sandwich and Paper Dolls. By shifting one Gambit by one throw, a Chain Gambit can prevent your opponent from obtaining multiple successive victories even if she predicts which Gambit you’re using next.
Gambits and Chain Gambits can also be combined to form longer, complex Combination Moves. By planning your strategy in blocks of six or more throws, you can nearly eliminate reactive tendencies. The downside of Combination Moves is that they can tax the memory. Few things are as disconcerting as forgetting your strategy half way through it.
“Exclusive Strategies” have been getting a lot of attention lately. An Exclusive player will at least severely limit, if not neglect altogether, the use of one of the three throws. Hence, a “Rock Exclusive” player only throws Paper and Scissors. On the surface, such a strategy seems to give an opponent a serious advantage. By neglecting Rock, a player is vulnerable to Scissors.
Many opponents, however, will focus their entire strategy on predicting when the missing throw will appear – even if it never appears at all! A few players have experimented with “Double-Exclusive Strategies,” using only one throw for a whole game, but the statistics gathered so far do not indicate this is as effective as Single-Exclusion.
Finally, it bears mentioning that there are also “Mystical Schools” of RPS. These instruct students to select their throw based on some inner force, higher power, or telepathic premonition. Such approaches vary so widely among themselves and results are so mixed (or mixed-up!) that there is no point in trying to catalogue or categorize them. Nevertheless, the well-trained RPS player will be aware that these schools exist and know their basic tenets.
Getting in Your Opponent’s Head
“Meta-strategies” go beyond selecting your throw. In fact, in many cases, their purpose is to let you select your opponent’s throw! Meta-strategies are as numerous as shells on the beach, but they are all based on one of two principles.
The first is: “If you can make your opponent believe what you want him to, you can make him behave how you want him to.” This is usually accomplished through pre-game conversation or in-game banter. No one ever said RPS was played in silence!
Getting Under Your Opponent’s Skin
The second principle of meta-strategies is: “If you can make your opponent react to you, you can play the game for her.” Many players will slip into reflexive habits and strategies when angry, frustrated, afraid, or confused. If you can get your opponent into that condition, you have the control of the match.
If your opponent figures out what you’re up to, meta-strategies can backfire horribly. Worse than if you’d never used them, they can leave you confused and give your opponent control of the match. A good trainer can help you create and hone new meta-strategies as well as show you when to use them and when to leave well enough alone.
Here are a few well-documented meta-strategies to use as examples or as a starting point for building your own:
This is one of the oldest and most well-known meta-strategies of all time. Its effectiveness is minimized by the fact that nearly every player nowadays will recognize the “Ol’ ‘Old Hat’” but as it is the foundation of many more developed meta-strategies, this guide would be incomplete without it.
The purpose of the “Old Hat” strategy is to demoralize an opponent into feeling inferior or intimidated. Common “Old Hat” banter includes:
“I knew that would be your next move.”
“Rock? Hmmm. . . . Frankly I am surprised that Paper obviously didn’t occur to you.”
“This time, actually think before you throw.”
“I don’t suggest using the Avalanche gambit on me; I did invent it, after all.”
If you can successfully anger, frustrate or make your opponent feel inferior, you may be able to drive him into a reactive game and take control of the match.
One of the more clever meta-strategies, “Crystal Ball” is a ploy to confuse an opponent and derail what might be an otherwise effective strategy. Like “Old Hat,” this is a simple and time-tested strategy that is more effective as a foundation on which to build than used in its virgin form.
To employ “Crystal Ball,” tell your opponent what she is going to throw:
“You’re going to bring Scissors again, aren’t you?”
If your opponent is unfamiliar with this ploy, you can now be certain she will not throw Scissors. That makes Paper a safe throw.
“Rusty” is a dubious meta-strategy at best. A player using this technique will claim to be “out of practice” and predict his own defeat. This may put an opponent off her guard or instill a false sense of confidence, but this rarely has a significant effect on a match. Still, some players swear by it and continue to include it in their repertoire.
Putting it Together
Probing Your Opponent
When you face your opponent, know what kind of match you’re playing. Is it a lightning round (one throw), best-of-three, long-form game? In short matches, your best bet is to pick a good strategy or gambit and stick to it. In longer matches, you have the opportunity to “probe” your opponent.
Many players will develop and practice several distinct strategies. Often, after the first five or six throws, you can identify which strategy he is using. That helps you determine which of your strategies will be most helpful.
Consequently, many players develop a few opening sequences, from three throws to ten, that are independent of their larger strategies. The only purpose of these openings is to get a sense of how an opponent is going to play the match
The Backup Plan
Okay, so it’s not working. She’s got your strategy licked and you’re dropping farther and farther behind. Don’t panic! You’ve got a backup plan, right?
When you’re down, the thing to avoid is slipping into reflexive or reactive patterns. You’ll become predictable, your opponent will take control of the match, and you will lose your chance to recover the win.
A better approach is to develop and practice several independent strategies. Some techniques will work wonders against one opponent and fail miserably against the next.
It’s not always easy to know when to switch tactics. Even if you lose three or four throws in a row, your opponent may still be in the dark about what you’re doing. With experience and practice, though, you’ll learn to tell if your opponent has you figured out.
Keeping it Varied
Finally, never stop working on your strategy! Your opponents are studying you as carefully as you’re watching them. Any strategy, no matter how complicated, can be unraveled if you repeat it often enough. Change. Adapt. Replace old tactics with new approaches. Keep your game fresh, and you’ll keep your opponents guessing!