I’m waiting for the Paper Scissor Rock World Championship to begin, drumming my fingers on the bar. Bartender slides my beer and I take a nice pull. My confidence soars and I think, This world is mine.
A woman numbered 200 on her competitors tag singles me out and challenges me to a few practice round. The rules are simple: Rock beats scissor beats paper beats rock. She beats me three times straight, no problem. My confidence slumps.
See, I’ve never been good at rock-paper-scissor – the classic children’s game and, later in life, the Great Decider of who buy beers or who rides shotgun. It’s usually me in back seat with a case of beer in my lap. Most people chalk it up to luck but luck, it seems, has little to do with it.
“There is no luck in rock-paper-scissors because there is no random determining anything…It’s a game of pattern recognition,” says Brad Fox, grand marshal for the event. “How fast can you recognize what patterns your opponent falls in to and how can you keep yourself from falling into recognizable patterns?”
He takes his role very seriously, describing game history and protocol with such conviction one might think the fate of our world depends on armies of scissors cutting through the planet's entire supply of paper.
Fox says RPS is one of the – if not the – most widely played game in the world, with versions of it existing on every continent, dating as far back as 2000 B.C. in Egypt. In the West however – in Toronto, in particular, at the Steam Whistle Brewery on a Saturday night – it’s a sport of true competition, drawing a crowd of 400 players and another 400 or so spectators, many of them dressed in outlandish costume. A bumblebee here. Captain America there.
“It really is the great equalizer in many ways,” says Doug Walker, co-founder of the event. “The richest man in the world, the male or female, the most able-bodied or disabled – there’s no inherent advantage “
An announcement is made and everyone gathers at the foot of the stage in the main concourse. The costumed drunks yip and holler. Someone had torn off all fingers but the middle of a complimentary giant foam-hand and now he’s waiving it in the air. Someone spills a beer on my camera and I think what a fitting sponsor this event has in Yahoo.
And with that, it begins.
Each referee is more serious than the last. Ours is a stout woman with a quivering voice. “Welcome to the sport,” she says, “you are the elite of your sport, congratulations on making it this far,” with no hint of irony.
She explains the rules – no cheating; best three out of three; once you’ve lost you’re out for good – and pairs us off. I follow her extended finger to a Nordic with a blonde crew cut and hollow eyes, clutching a miniature Norwegian flag.
He crushes me in four consecutive throws, no problem. The ref rips my undefeated stub from my competitors tag with dramatic flare and the Norwegian introduces himself as Petter Olsen, Norwegian national champion.
“Your routine was quite easy, I saw it quite early,” he said. “Sometimes its difficult but I saw your type and I just went for it.”
Disturbing. Who is this Norseman and how can he see through me so clearly?
And, more importantly, why can't I see through him?
“You have to read the person and what type of personality,” he adds. “Is he an intellectual guy, is he a macho type? Does he think he knows what he’s doing?” The game is an experiment in psychio-analysis to suss out each opponants playing patterns.
According to Fox, women statistically lead with scissors; men lead with stones. Journalists, regardless of sex, tend to lead with paper. Often, people will just “wing it” but because randomness can never be tamed, Fox says the best strategy is to plan one and recognize your opponent’s patterns.
The pattern. Yes. As the astrologers and mystics of yore understood, it’s all about the pattern. I see it now: my own daft inability to recognize the pattern. The ones who advance in this tournament, it seems, possess ultra-sensitive pattern recognition system that they may not even know about.
I plan a strategy – play the hand that defeated my last throw. I challenge a dozen people or so. I lose every match, every throw, every single time. There’s no hope here. The players missing “undefeated” tags grow larger in numbers buy the minute, sticking out like amputated soldiers. There’s a peculiar excitement in the air, cut with an endless drone of cheering, topped with dim lighting and weird costumes. A bumble bee here. Captain America there.
It turns out Captian America– aka Tim Conrad of Taylor, Michigan – will win the world championship, swindling $7000 from Yahoo’s pockets for throwing his fingers around.
But he had no pattern, he’ll tell me two days later. He just felt it from the gut and it rose like a snarling, primitive beast – that urge to throw rock and rock after rock after scissor.
Yes. A true life lesson, Captain America. To hell with luck! To hell with patterns! Throw what you feel and rule the world.