For most of its history, RPS has been an intrinsically personal game, with players priming their actual fists in close proximity. Like most things, however, the advent of Internet technologies has revolutionised the sport.

I have previously discussed how online RPS play often increases throw rate, leading to a focus on quantity, not quality, in gameplay. But from a broader perspective, is online play comparable to real-world competition? Is virtual RPSing even worthy of anyone’s time or attention? If so, how should the two styles interact?

Note that, when I refer to “online”, I really mean a subset of Internet-based RPS competition: sending throw choices to a central server, or to one’s opponent, without the time constraints required by traditional play. These systems don’t allow the viewing of one’s opponent, and don’t feature an audio system, although a text chat is often available.

A good friend of mine makes the distinction clear: he refers to all Internet-based play as “online fantasy rps”, subtly demoralising those whose fortes lie in the online format. And certainly, the two deserve to be separated. On the old Facebook stomping ground for RPS enthusiasts, the application Red Bull Roshambull, scores of players exist who have racked up thousands and thousands of games, but have yet to compete in an offline tournament. Mark “D” Thomas, perhaps the most notorious of these, frequently blitzes seasoned professionals in online-only competitions. Although he has yet to show his ability in a real-life event, it is reasonable to assume that he wouldn’t do as well. Online, a different skillset is required: instead of looking for tells, watching hands, or utilising physical subliminal messaging, the player must be a supreme trash-talker; psyching out an opponent, leading him/her astray, or manipulating him/her into your trap is the sign of a top online player.

Given this vastly different gameplay experience, setting the two standards apart is important. They are only really related in the basic mechanics: Rock still beats Scissors still beats Paper still beats Rock. Although a large departure from the normal game, online RPS still deserves to be recognised, and gaining mastery of the networked beast is perhaps a welcome challenge for players who have reached their peak offline. Although not at the same standard (in the same way that Internet chess champions are not as famous as their offline equivalents), online play can hone skills and increase versatility.

As far as I can identify, a grey area also exists on the online-offline spectrum: players across the globe can use webcams, and software like Skype, to play RPS with full audio and video. For the most part, this doesn’t deviate from the real-life experience: most physical and vocal tells can be gleaned, and strategic moves can also be noticed. Although the necessary lag (due to Internet transmission) may mean that last-minute tells or hand reads are unable to be detected, and may also require a different priming style to compensate (e.g. priming out-of-view, then revealing the throw on-camera), these deficiencies are minimal. This is especially true considering the impressive ability to play against someone in a different country.

I’d welcome your views in the comments: which style do you play most, and which do you prefer? Do you think both have merit?

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Many people ask me whether I play “Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock”. I must warn you against this, as asking this question to a Rock Paper Scissors player is like asking a university student whether he or she goes to RMIT – it results in derision and disgust from all but the minority of people who proudly answer in the affirmative. These kind of RPS variants are looked down upon by most self-respecting players, and here’s why.

Rock, Paper and Scissors form a near-sacred trinity. They complement each other with perfection and poise. The presence of only three elements represents the foundation of strategy – no game with a strategic element can have fewer than three moves. The relationships are balanced: the brashness of Rock is tamed by calm Paper, which is itself destroyed by devious Scissors. Each throw has just enough connections (i.e. 2) to make its win/loss relationships meaningful, and easy to remember. Devotion to the three throws within the community is almost Messianic.

The Saviour descends

Adding further elements to the game complicates matters: in the case of RPSLS, we now have four connections per throw; they stop being meaningful and “real”, and are used only to sustain the game. However, practically, the result is the same: each pair of throws will result in either a win, a loss or a tie. This pointless over-complication and departure from tradition is why variants on throw types are so scorned. If you attempt to use any non-standard throw in an RPS tournament, you will either be given a red card, or banished from the arena, depending on which league you are playing in and the strictness of the referee. So don’t try to use “God” or “Well” against your RPS-devotee friend, unless you want a lengthy tongue-lashing. Followers like the game because it’s externally simple; its complexity comes from the interplay of wit, and from strategy and counter-strategy.

Of course, even within the simplistic beauty of regulation RPS, disagreement over the throws is rife. First, many players and non-players argue about the validity of Paper being able to “cover” Rock: some say that this is unrealistic, and that Rock could easily break through. Second, questions of Rock’s relationship with Scissors are often raised: does Rock smash and destroy Scissors, or simply blunt them? More aggressive players prefer to imagine the former, and more passive ones the latter. These different dynamics have an impact on the way the throws are played; it is accepted that establishing a spiritual connection with the game’s elements provides a higher chance of victory. But let’s not get too mystical.

What do you think about RPS variants, or the relationships between the throws in the standard game? Let me know in the comments.

I recently conducted an interview with Master Roshambollah, a famous (but retired) RPS player who hails from the US. He spoke at length about the hidden mysticism of the game, and addressed some controversies surrounding his place in the community. Here are some excerpts from the first questions:

Me: Can you give me a bit of a quick intro? About who you are, where you came from?
Rosh: My name is Jason Simmons. In the world of professional Rock Paper Scissors, I’m also known as Master Roshambollah. For quite some time, I was marketed and self-promoted as the greatest player in the history of the sport of Rock Paper Scissors, and along the way I wrote the foreword for the official strategy guide, provided colour commentary for televised Rock Paper Scissors on ESPN, Fox Sports and various other, fairly inconsequential, American cable networks. And along the way met wonderful friends, had great adventures, and that brings me here talking to you today, Will.

Me: Where did the name Master Roshambollah come from?
Rosh: I’ll tell you this: being a fairly big name in Rock Paper Scissors, that and five bucks will get you a cup of coffee, that’s what I’ve heard. But for what it’s worth, when I first started writing under the name of Master Roshambollah, it was on the World Rock Paper Scissors Society message board. Now, some of your readers may not remember this, but a message board is an archaic system of communication between peers on the Internet, and in this context, after reading some of the posts about Rock Paper Scissors strategy for a few days, I decided, “you know, I need to start posting under my own name”. And, of course, not wanting to start at the bottom and work my way up, I wanted to start at the top and work sideways. So, of course I had to be, you know, a Master-level player, not the only Master but one of several Masters. and Roshambo, of course, is another name for Rock Paper Scissors. “Shambhala” is a term from Tibetan Buddhism, which can be seen as the secret, hidden city of the Masters where human fate is, if not decided, then at least influenced. So, the initial character of Master Roshambollah that I was writing for was part spiritual guru, part conman, and part his own worst enemy, so that’s kind of the triple value of Master Roshambollah.

Me: What do you think the dark side of Rock Paper Scissors is, what does that mean?
Rosh: Another word for “dark” is “occult”. But the word “occult” doesn’t mean “evil”, it means “hidden”. And in the world of Rock Paper Scissors, it’s not about what you show down at the throwdown, it’s what remains hidden. What you hide from your opponents which sometimes you can hide from yourself. It’s also a process of self-discovery, like anything else. You can learn it piece by piece.

The full video of the interview can be found below. Keep in mind that it’s very long, because I couldn’t work out what to cut!

So you’ve now mastered some of the basic strategies suitable for amateur-level RPS play. On their own, these won’t get you very far playing with the big boys, or even well-read rookies. So let’s look at how you can boost your play further.

With most advanced RPS strategies, the key is really to get inside your opponents’ head as much as possible. You want your mind to be at one with theirs. Considering this, a good technique to perfect is “Sicilian Reasoning”. This type of logic gets its name from The Princess Diaries, and involves a regression of “if I know that you know that I know…”. It can be easily related to an opponent’s throw choice in RPS, and learning how many steps to navigate can lead to moments of great clarity: “he will definitely think that I think he’s going to throw Rock!”. This type of reasoning applies to many advanced tactics.

Also think about the “meta-game”; plan your game from a level above and beyond the match. Subliminal messaging, such as subtley showing Scissors before a match, can force images into your opponents mind and dicate their play. Also consider well-prepared trash talk: ask your opponent what he or she is going to throw; announce what your choice will be; tell your opponent that you are sure to win; etc. Experiment, and find out what gives you the most success. Switching hands mid-game is another great way to throw your opponent off. Plus, make sure you know as much about your rival as possible; throw history, possible tells, etc. Keep a mental note of his or her throw choices in particular circumstances, and use that information later.

Advanced scripting is another well-known technique. Built off gambits and non-reactive play, adaptive scripting is when one enters a tournament with several different scripts, or strings of throws. Depending on one’s opponents, and the progress of one’s games, one can switch to different scripts. This allows protection from emotional play, as well as flexibility.

As a professional player, you should be wary of hand-watchers, who will try to predict your throw by watching your hand during the prime. Work on improving your cloaking (delaying your Paper or Scissors delivery until the last moment) and shadowing (fooling a hand-watcher into thinking you will deliver one throw, but actually showing another). Also consider practicing an exclusion strategy, where one throw is omitted from your play. This may force your rival to focus all of his or her energy on the placement of the excluded throw, leaving him or her vulnerable from other angles.

When in a tight spot, consider the Urbanus Defence, created by professional player C. Urbanus. Suitable for best-of-three games, if playing the Defence a player will deliberately lose the first throw. This not only creates a false sense of security, lulling the opponent into apathy, but also provides valuable information to the profiler about the opponent’s behaviour and motivations.

These are just some of the advanced RPS strategies you can employ. High-level play is far more intellectually stimulating, but also more cut-throat: one mistake and you’ll be taken down. PBRPRPSCLCS has a webpage that goes into greater depth.

RPS is no stranger to computer-aided play. In 2003, a team of scientists entered Deep Mauve, an RPS-playing robot, into the International World Championships. The robot was built to be the pinnacle of non-reactive strategy; it played defensively, without being thrown by its opponents’ psychological ploys. Anticlimactically, the computer was knocked out in the first round. From then on, artificial players were banned from sanctioned events. Soon after, robotic specialists toyed with the idea of using a computer to generate a pseudo-random throw, before transmitting it to a human player for delivery. However, this project never materialised.

What benefits could be managed by RPS players utilising cybernetic technology? With the WRPSS’s lack of a “banned substances” list in international play, would unbridled use of augmentative implants be equally unregulated? If not, where would the line be drawn? It’s possible that devices of the future will allow a massive deduction in reaction time, or improve the ability to notice tells. This equipment may well be fairly expensive. Although RPS claims to be the model of egalitarianism (no gender or age divisions), would the acceptance of enhancing cyborg modification drastically disadvantage players unable to procure the requisite funds? And what if neural implants eventually allow humans to control other peoples’ thoughts, or to see the future? Surely, the integrity of the sport would be compromised, and I would propose that the WRPSS and USARPS seriously consider setting out policies to tackle these scenarios. I mean, the WRPSS has sold specially-made “training gloves”, designed to aid quick deliveries. What’s the next step? This video shows a different type of glove, that learns the wearer’s playing style:

The increasing speed of the world and of interactions (through social media and “network time”) can also be noticed in the RPS community. Online services like RPS World Masters, R~P~S, and now-defunct Roshambull advocate speedy throws, often dishing out punishments or forfeits for slow respondents. Although real-world tournaments have strict time requirements, gone are the days when a lazy game of RPS could be enjoyed over a day or even a weekend. Slow primes, trash-talk, and lengthy socialisation between throws have been replaced by virtual “rapid-fire” matches. The focus is on quantity, not quality. And that’s a shame.

In its original format, both as a decision-making tool and innocent hand game, RPS in fact countered the rapidly-accelerating speed of life. Instead of engaging in chaotic and draining physical warfare, two parties would calmly throw down to determine a winner. Instead of running madly around the backyard, children would play RPS. They would bond. RPS gave us a lens through which we could appreciate the simpler, finer things in life, that would be missed if we didn’t take the time out of our day. And that’s where the sport should return.

This morning, I had the privilege of interviewing Clayton “custardchuk” Dwyer, a Darwin native who has been competing internationally in RPS since the beginning. I spoke to him about the sport, and managed to win $10 in a best-of-5 match. Here’s a transcript of the first few questions:

Me: First of all, do you want to just tell me a bit about where you came from, how you got into the sport?
Clayton: Alright, at first I just used to play as a young kid. About 14, I guess I realised I had a bit of a natural talent at it, when I was winning more than I was losing. I got interested in the World Rock Paper Scissors society pretty young, and I guess, you know, we always dreamed about travelling overseas and playing, and come about 2000, the Walker brothers from World Rock Paper Scissors actually created an event that we could all attend and basically from there on, we, particularly me but all my friends travel the world playing it now.

Me: So how would you describe how you play? Why are you better than others? What’s your style, do you have a style?
Clayton: I guess, like, there’s a few different styles going around. There’s great intuitive players like Pete Lovering, it’s just naturals I mean, you’ve got your strategists like Urbanus who, they’ll script something, they might go into a competition with maybe four or five scripts and depending on which way the story develops or the game develops they can switch from script to script. I’m a journeyman I think, I just train hard. I turn up, I mean you’re never going to win any sort of sport sitting in your loungeroom, so I make a point of getting there and getting my hat in the ring. I’m not what you’d call a natural, just hard work.

Me: Who would you say are the players who you most admire or who you are inspired by?
Clayton: Master Pete Lovering’s probably the top of my tree. He’s a guy who, you know, he went out and he won a couple of tournaments or so he told us, and told everyone he was going to win the first ever genuine world championship, and he went ahead and did it. He’s just a freak, to be honest.

Me: That was in 2002, wasn’t it?
Clayton: Yes, it was, yeah. I mean, he walked in with the previous world championship on his dressing gown. So, that’s confidence backed up by “walk the walk and talk the talk”. And of the other guys, there’s Roshambollah who, you know, has probably done everything there is to do in the sport. Urbanus is probably the nicest guy in the sport. And, you know, probably the unluckiest player. I’ve got a sort of grudging respect for Martin Burley, from New Zealand. He’s a statistition, I’d say.

Here is the full interview:

After many years in the making, Rock Paper Scissors: A Geek Tragedy was finally released last year at the Calgary International Film Festival, to thunderous applause. The film documents the journey of the Walker brothers as they bring RPS to the masses. As well as providing high-quality footage of WorldRPS tournaments, the film provides a backstory on many of the heroes and villains of the sport through interviews (of note is “Master Pete” Lovering, the 2002 world champion). With very high production values, and a wealth of research behind it, the documentary goes through a distinct story arc, from conception of the WRPSS, to its heyday, conflict with USARPS, and finally to a resolution. Whether events naturally unfolded in such a clean narrative, or whether the director, Mike McKeown, crafted the film to create the effect, this flowing nature makes the film great fun to watch. The documentary also includes two sets of commentary (in which I am mentioned; I must be transparent about bias), and other special features. The choice of players and organisers to document was broad and entertaining.

In its early stages, the film suffered from a lack of funding. A trailer is available on YouTube:

However, as YouTube is switching to a heavily monetised model (what a segue), where commercial vendors are given preference over amateur or independent content creators, it is no wonder that the film was not given the attention it deserved. Although YouTube and other technologies were once a platform for upcoming creatives to showcase their work, the reality is rapidly shifting.

In any case, Mike McKeown (who has worked extensively in film and television around the world) has provided a great piece of cinema, that does much more work towards publicising RPS than I ever could. It can be purchased from IndiePix Films for US$24.95. The official site of the film is here.

So you want to know how to best your friends? Here’s the inside info. This is what you came here for.

Just how strategic is Rock Paper Scissors? Don’t answer that, I’ll tell you: very. Let’s start our crash course by looking at some general trends and tendencies that you can abuse around uni.

70% of women will open an RPS bout with Scissors. That’s not sexism, it’s observable fact. Next time you’re playing a girl, opening with Rock will give you an edge. Of course, ensure that she doesn’t read In Three Minds before starting the match. After your victory, I’d recommend giving her a link to it, so she can read about how you beat her. By contrast, it’s said that men traditionally open with Rock. In practice, I find that younger males actually gravitate towards Scissors. So, throwing Rock will keep you fairly safe (you should either win or tie) against the men in your life.

One thing to keep in mind: rookies play emotionally, and reactively. Even if they know that RPS is not a game of pure chance, they are usually slave to their feelings, and don’t think through their moves logically. After a lost throw, amateurs tend to switch up (deliver the throw that beats what they played), because they perceive their choice as being “weak”. After a stalemate (the official name for a tie), you should expect a repeat of their throw (because they think they’re being sneaky), so switch up to beat them out. Likewise, if our clueless newbie wins a throw, he or she is inclined also to repeat; their emotional response makes their throw seem “unbeatable”. These strategies are only of use if playing a format other than a lightning round (first to one).

If you want to force these responses (and not give your opponent time to out-think them), feel free to “rush the prime”. The “priming phase” is the series of up-and-down movements of the forearm prior to the throw, that synchronises the players. Its speed is an organic agreement between both. If you move quickly, your opponent will feel obligated to keep pace, and his or her poor brain will be too flustered to use reasoning. If the opposing player is clued in to your strategy and refuses to follow your prime speed, and no consensus is reached, the throw will be rendered void. For completeness’ sake, I should tell you that the final downward motion of the hand is called the “approach phase”, while the final revealing of your throw is called the “delivery phase”.

Finally, many players seek to reach the pinnacle of non-reactive play, by scripting their throws (deciding on them in advance) or using gambits (pre-defined strings of three throws). As a beginner, the Great Eight Gambits will be useful to know. These are eight common sequences that can ensure you won’t be affected by any tricky psychological tactics employed on you. If you decide to use a gambit, commit! Any deviations may leave you vulnerable to emotional play. Which is exactly what your rival wants.

The Great Eight Gambits are:

The Avalanche (R, R, R)

The Bureacrat (P, P, P)

The Toolbox (S, S, S)

Scissor Sandwich (P, S, P)

Paper Dolls (P, S, S)

Fistful o’ Dollars (R, P, P)

The Crescendo (P, S, R)

The Dénouement (R, S, P)

More advanced strategies are upcoming. Tune in with thoughts!

Organised RPS play first came about with the World Rock Paper Scissors Society (its second name change), a defunct and isolated group with very little public exposure. Douglas and Graham Walker (both of whom would rise through the ranks to eventually helm the ship) offered to create a website for the struggling organisation. This coincided with the birth of Web 1.0, and led to a massive increase in popularity and awareness of the WRPSS and its aims. The Society was finally living up to its international aims, and the first semblance of a worldwide community was established.

In the early 2000s, as part of the push towards Web 2.0, the WRPSS began to establish a social media presence, with Facebook pages being created, and players using the site to link up and interact on a larger scale. In 2001, the “Bullboard” (the WRPSS’s message boards) was set up. 2006 saw the establishment of a second league, the United States of America Rock Paper Scissors League (USARPS), headed by Matti Leshem. In 2007, Red Bull launched their proprietary Facebook app for playing RPS, “Red Bull Roshambull”, a program that would become the online stomping ground for the WRPSS’s members.

As part of USARPS’s efforts to establish itself as the dominant league on the circuit, it obtained massive sponsorship from Bud Light (an American beer company), and several television deals to broadcast its grand final tournaments around the world. But after several years of rivalry and annual tournaments, the WRPSS made an announcement. Due to the passing of one of the Society’s most influential and long-serving chairpeople, the 2010 WRPSS championships were not to be held. And somehow, the community and the sport haven’t been able to fully recover.

As we trudge closer to Web 3.0 (whatever that may be), the future of the sport is hopefully looking up. Who knows what we can expect to see? Perhaps it is blogs like this that can start to rekindle whatever fire was lost. To be sure, RPS innovation has never halted (this video from 2012):

RPS is an absolutely social game, that transcends borders of age and gender. So, they hypothesised “community” that will accompany Web 3.0 is aligned exactly with the values of the sport. This will hopefully lead to a harmonious transition. What do you think will happen to RPS in the years to come? Let me know.

My announcement post about this blog on the Bullboard can be read here.

This short student documentary introduces the World RPS Society, and discusses the modern sport and many of the famous faces:

In the wake of the London Olympic Games, a fabulous display of sporting prowess, it’s time to re-examine the selection of events, and make a case for RPS, the sport of the masses. Such a noble game as RPS most certainly deserves the prestige and awareness that could accompany inclusion at the Olympics.

The first point of conflict many may have is that RPS is not usually considered a “sport”, but rather a “game”. While there’s certainly a difference, RPS (like virtually every other sport) is no more one than the other. For evidence, I turn to the writing of my ex-Master, and one of the true legends of the RPS circuit: Master Roshambollah. He writes, “No one who has seen the masters of RPS compete can doubt that the game involves both physical and mental efforts of the highest level”.

Definitions for what qualifies as a sport vary, but thefreedictionary.com defines “sport” as, “Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively”. RPS is most certainly a physical activity, and is also governed by rules or customs. As we’ve seen, large-scale competitive events are part of the RPS spirit. Also, SportAccord (a body incorporating many of the largest international sports federations) specifically identifies that sports can be primarily physical or primarily mental. It is this logic that renders chess a sport (recognised by the International Olympic Committee), and RPS is surely in the same bucket.

Many doubters argue that RPS doesn’t seem like a sport, because sports like football sometimes require higher levels of aerobic exercise. But, in the case of two equally physically proficient football teams, the one with the strongest strategy will win out. So, higher mental skill can secure a victory. This is the same as in RPS. And really, there are various sports in the Olympics that are far less appealing and deserving of their status. For example, in “synchronised swimming”, performers present what seems to me to be more like a choreographed water dance, than a sporting match. Maybe it’s time for synchronised swimming to step aside, to allow RPS to take its rightful place? Let me know in the comments!

Here is the Master talking about RPS as a sport.

And here is some very nice water dancing:

UPDATE: Graham Walker, one of the leaders of the WRPSS, wrote to me, as regards RPS in the Olympics: Nice to have a counter point on the Olympic issue, just for your information, the WRPSS has always been dead set against including RPS in the Olympics. RPS is one of the most progressive sports in the world and one reason for that is our commitment to having no banned substance list for competitors. We feel that is best left to the athletes themselves. Should the IOC modernize their rules, perhaps we would reconsider, but not until then. But they still have much more to clean up, look what happened in Badminton this year! Shameful, but I do not blame the players, they were simply playing the meta game (something RPSers excel at). I blame of the organizers of the format, which caused the players to engage in that behaviour.