Once again, a simple childhood game has become a worldwide sensation among adults with a sense of humor and penchant for gag T-shirts.
Rock, paper, scissors has gone professional. In an age when organized dodgeball tournaments have become commonplace and curling is an Olympic sport, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a game known nearly universally in schoolyards around the world has caught on.
"Not many people have the opportunities to compete at the highest levels in a sport," said Graham Walker, leader of the World RPS Society and co-author of "The Official Rock, Paper, Scissors Strategy Guide."
"You have to work all your life to get in the Olmypics or on a football team. What we offer is the chance for anyone who wants to declare themselves a professional athlete to compete at the highest levels and be able to walk away a world champion. That’s why we have people flying in from Norway, Australia, the Czech Republic, 20 U.S. states."
Just barely more complicated than, say, a game of tag, rock, paper, scissors — or RPS, as pro players like to call it — doesn’t exactly take a lifetime to pick up.
Players stand about an arm’s length apart, facing each other. On the referee’s count, the players "prime" — or pump — a closed hand three times, then simultaneously let loose with one of the three possible throws. Scissors cut paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes scissors.
While some remember the game with an additional throw, such as "match" or "dynamite," the pros stick to rock, paper, scissors.
And by "pros" we mean people who take this game seriously. Last year there were 512 competitors in the 2005 RPS world championship in Toronto.
The number of players, and the enthusiastic media scrutiny that surrounded it, were signs that professional RPS had come a long way since 1995.
That's when Graham — a Canadian who now lives in Prague — his brother Douglas and a handful of others sparked the phenomenon with the creation of the Web site www.worldrps.com.
Of course they did so not just with RPS throws at the ready, but also with tongues firmly in cheek: The society's "official" history claims its founding in Great Britain in 1842, as well as a great and bitter rivalry with the Coin-Tossing Confederation, and "archaelogical evidence" that traces RPS's roots to 50,000 B.C., when it was played only using the throw rock (preferably against an opponent's face or stomach).
By 2002, the "secret" society was ready for the big time, and held its first open tournament.
Amused journalists relayed news of the event around the world, and the RPS renaissance was well under way, with the society growing and even some spin-off groups forming.
"It’s the ultimate excuse for a road trip for a lot of people," Walker said. "You get your friends together, and the world championships are happening a couple feet away, and it’s a very electric event for that reason. All these people have four things in common: rock, paper, scissors and a sense of humor about what’s going to happen."
Tournament play is best two out of three, leading longtime players to give monikers to certain popular combinations, like "The Avalanche" (rock, rock, rock), "The Crescendo" (paper, scissors, rock), "The Denouement" (rock, scissors, paper), "The Bureaucrat" (paper, paper, paper) or "The Toolbox" (scissors, scissors, scissors).
It actually gets more complicated from there, with popular strategies including shouting out what move you’ll use just before the throw, creating false tells or just generally acting insane to psych out an opponent.
"If you only have one strategy, you won't get very far," said Shawn Ring, known in RPS circles as Urbanus and considered one of the top eight strategists in the world.
"You need to be able to read your opponent and be able to make decisions based on the style of the particular person you are facing. I am well known for a technique referred to as the Urbanus Defense (which I popularized at the 2002 World Championships), which involves losing the first point of a match on purpose to lull the other player into a false sense of security."
Some common wisdom has developed, including defining players by their preferred throws — rock players are overly aggressive, scissors players are devious and paper players are passive-aggressive.
"It’s the mentality of inexperienced players to overemphasize the use of rock," Walker said.
All kidding aside, 29-year-old Ring, who lives in Philadelphia, said RPS is a game that contenders do take seriously, when rock comes to paper.
"Of course, you get the comment ‘It's all luck’ from many that first hear of competitive RPS. I would challenge them to attend any World RPS event and see how they hold up against the competition. Most people who attend these events want to get more involved in the sport, and for good reason."
"It’s no fun if you don’t take it seriously," Walker said. "The more seriously you take it, the more fun you have with it. The people who come out like the idea of being able for one night of the year and, for one night, to take it seriously, and that’s where the fun is."
And Walker sees no end to the number of people who could learn to fall in love with rock, paper, scissors all over again.
"It’s all got the same basic structure, same basic rules in almost every country in the world, and it’s a fascinating cultural game that stayed intact as the game was passed along. When you ask, ‘Why rock, paper, scissors,’ the easiest answer is: ‘Why not?’"