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.


This is the formula that Daniel Gilbert (Harvard professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness) told us was the centuries old formula for doing precisely the right thing at precisely the right time. I guess people had more noble ambitions back then.  Every gamble, risk, action, goal, or even thought has an expected chance of happening and an expected value if that thing actually happens. The premise of his talk yesterday was that though the formula seems simple, the brain is unfortunately pretty awful at doing these calculations in real life.

Errors of Odds

We don't store odds in our brain very easily. Instead of storing something like "there's a .001% chance of being struck by lightning" the brain stores "I can remember 2 stories of people being struck by lightning within the last 2 years". Events or information that is easy to recall will have inflated odds (disasters, news stories, and other information that is easy to recall, like words rhyming with "at") while events and information that is difficult to recall will have deflated odds (death by boring events like asthma, drowning in a pool, etc, stories that aren't good news, and other information that is difficult to recall like words that have an "r" as the third letter).

Your ability to predict the possibility of something happening is going to be wrong almost all of the time due to the way our brain stores odds. We are designed to overaggressively seek or avoid memorable events and information while being blind-sided by unmemorable events and information.

Errors of Value

As bad as we are about storing odds, we are even less skillful at predicting how much something is worth. We think we will be happier when our goals are realized than we actually are, and we think we'll be sadder when fortune fails us than we actually are. This is because we make decisions of value through comparison rather than by trying to determine objective value. We go to the coffee shop that serves the cheapest or the best coffee and never consider if it is actually worth its price. What does "worth its price" even really mean? Much more powerful than the idea of how much $1.89 is worth is the idea that $1.89 is less than the $2.25 that coffee costs across the street, and much less than the $3.50 that it would cost to get a mocha. We are therefore getting a deal. This is easily manipulated by well known tricks of retailers who put "aspirational brands" near commodity brands in order to make people more comfortable with purchasing the high-end commodity brand.


I came away from this talk (actually, it was the second time I saw the talk… I also saw him speak in Austin at SXSW this year) with a couple questions, the most articulate of which is "So what?"  An error is an error only if it causes us some strife.  One obvious form of strife is that if we aren't consistent in our ability to make decisions, then people will exploit the inconsistencies of our decision making.  Which we know is pretty much the case with the current state of the media and advertising.  But, an error is also only useful to point out if there is some way to correct our behavior by rooting out the error and making better decisions.  Daniel Gilbert side steps this question and offers no simple keys to happiness and good decision making.  One leaves with a sense of urgency… we need to figure this out, and soon!  Before we reach the inevitable end of our collective poor judgement calls… a world of misleading advertisements, lotteries, casinos, disasters, and debt.  He warns us that we're the only ones with the ability to control our fate, by predicting the future and altering the present… and if we as a species fail to do so, it will be a result of this poor decision making.  He sure has a funny way of stumbling on happiness.