Winning at Rock, Paper, Scissors

Rock-Paper-ScissorsI like to think that I don’t lose perspective on things. Despite my rants and ravings, I know what is important and what is not. And yesterday, a really important article flashed across my screen. It was by Joseph Stromberg over at Vox, How to Use Science to Win at Rock-Paper-Scissors. You may be one of those ignorant people who think that the game is random. But I know from years of experience that people are very poor random rock-paper-scissors generators. Bad players (which in practice means most players) repeat the same kinds of patterns over and over again.

There was one bit of news in the article that blew me away: there is an official league for rock-paper-scissors competitors. It is called the US Association of Rock, Paper, Scissors. I’m sure that these people would crush me like a pair of scissors. After all, I don’t take this stuff any more seriously than I do any of the hundreds of other odd fascinations I suffer from. And clearly, these are very serious people because some of them have actually systematized the game.

The only absolute rule that I knew, was the first one they mentioned: throw paper first. Actually, they say that you should throw paper first against guys. This is because guys tend to subconsciously think that nothing is as strong as the rock. This is not my thinking at all. Rock is the default throw. The first time that people go, they are kind of disoriented. There’s the whole counting thing (1-2-3…) and then you have to change the shape of your hand. It isn’t natural. So a lot of people panic and do nothing, which is the same as throwing rock.

The second rule is quite clever, although they do a bad job of explaining it. The essence of this rule is that people predict the future by looking at the past—but it works differently for winners and losers.If they just lost to rock, they will assume (without knowing it) that they are going to get rock again; so they throw paper. But if they just won with rock, they will go with it again because they assume their opponent will throw the same thing. So if you just lost to rock, throw paper; if you just won with rock, through scissors. And when you win, laugh maniacally. (Of course, if you both do this, the last winner will win again.)

The third rule is a classic from statistics. If you toss a quarter a hundred times, there is a very good chance that it will come up heads six times in a row. People’s ideas about randomness do not brook much actual randomness. The truth is that three heads in a row will happen one out of eight times when you toss a coin three times. So it isn’t surprising that most people won’t, for example, throw scissors three times in a row. So if you opponent has thrown scissors twice, they are very unlikely to throw scissors a third time.

The article provides a fourth rule, but I think it’s a pass: close your eyes. This is based upon one study, so make of it what you will. There is a related issue, however: decide what you are going to throw before you start! Not doing that is what makes most players bad.

Of course, all of these rules will only improve your chances. I haven’t been able to find any competition results, but I assume that players aren’t doing more than a couple percent better than others. So if anyone wants to do a rock-paper-scissors with you to decide something, make sure you make it the best out of a hundred.


There are many freaks like me. That is why some people developed the game rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock. It has more interesting rules like, “Scissors decapitate lizard” and, “Paper disproves Spock.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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