Rock, Paper, Scissors game theory

June 24, 2006

I love this game because it is simple, and yet endlessly entertaining due to a simple and engaging aesthetic. Most of all, I love the names of the 27 possible gambits. A gambit is a series of three throws in a row, and depending on the order and nature of the three throws, you get a gambit that has a humorous name and a personality of sorts. For example, the most striking of the gambits is the Avalanche… 3 rocks in a row.



There are two possible strategies in this game.

The first one is to simply attempt to throw randomly. By throwing randomly, your opponent will most likely not be able to guess your next throw, and will have equal chances of winning and losing no matter how "good" the opponent is at the game.

The second strategy is trickier and potentially more dangerous because it opens you up for being tricked. This strategy is to use mind games, taunting, and pattern matching to try to guess what your opponent is going to throw, and then obviously throwing its superior opponent. This is why the game can be so entertaining… like poker, all the complexity of bluffs, smack talk, intimidation, and taunting can be used to trick your opponent. The only problem is that if both you and your opponent are trying to out-guess one another, there is a chance that your patterns and strategy will become apparent to your opponent and you will be basically slaughtered on the rock, paper, scissors floor.


Gambits became a useful tool for paper, rock, scissors competitors because it helps abstract out the possibility of being guessed. Instead of trying to strategize on every throw, you can strategize on every set of three throws. I guess the thought is that they allow you to introduce more randomness by choosing between 27 options rather than only 3. When you only have 3 options to choose from, there is a subconscious desire to balance the three things, and that pressure to balance can be exploited by your opponent if they are paying careful attention.


Believe it or not, there is a pretty serious Rock Paper Scissors tournament every year. This year it'll be in Toronto on September 30th (learn more). There are many more smaller tournaments around the world, and it's actually pretty easy to set up an event yourself if you want (learn more). I'm going to be going to one in Seattle at a local bar (Baltic Room) on July 10th to practice the slightly deviant "drunken rock, paper, scissors" game. If you're in the area, come by.



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