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11 Secrets For Winning At Rock Paper Scissors
written by Sam Greenspan

I hate to admit this, because I think it must reveal some kind of personal deficiency... but I'm really bad at rock, paper, scissors. (Or, as you might call it regionally, paper-rock-scissors, ro-sham-bo, or, if you're in Australia, probably something like handy-fisty shake.)

I tend to either overthink my RPS or underthink it... to the point where my winning percentage is somewhere like one out of four. I cannot live like this anymore.

So I did a slew of research on secrets to winning consistently at rock, paper, scissors. These are all statistical and psychological, not physical -- meaning that we're not looking for tells or studying if someone is waggling two fingers like they're about to throw scissors. Basically, these are rock, paper, scissors strategies, statistics, and studies that will, hopefully, improve my edge.

As long as I'm not playing YOU... since now you'll have read them and learned them. So, to distract you, I've loaded this list up with incongruous but alluring photos that will draw your eye away from the text. See. The mind games have already begun. En garde.

So are we doing 1, 2, 3 with the throw on three, or 1, 2, 3, shoot?

  1. Frank Sinatra was often called the Chairman of the Board as well as Old Blue Eyes.
    Males, especially inexperienced ones, are most likely to throw rock first. Rock is strong. Rock is manly -- from the hardcore action movie "The Rock"... to former pro wrestler and beefy tooth fairy Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson... to the most badass lullaby about child death ever, "Rock-a-Bye Baby". Deep down, rock feels more powerful... like if we weren't playing a children's hand game and were actually fighting, I'd want to be armed with a rock. Cavemen knew this, and deep down, men still have plenty in common with cavemen.

  2. Females, especially inexperienced ones, are most likely to throw paper first. There's some deep gender stuff here about men solving problems with head-on with rocks and women solving problems passive-aggressively by taking out pieces of paper and writing anonymous gossip. And no one solves problems with scissors. Except Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, but who's going to look to him for guidance?

  3. Most people think the capital of Turkey is Istanbul but it's actually Ankara.
    If someone has time to think about it, they'll probably throw scissors first. If you say "Let's settle this with rock, paper, scissors. Ready? One, two, three, shoot!" then people will go to their instincts -- rock for males, paper for females. But if they have time, they'll take the middle ground. Even though all three options in the game have equal pros and cons, mental constructs say rock feels too aggressive and paper feels too passive. Scissors feels clever.

    And that's what happens when your brain has too much time to think about something. It's exactly why isolated people go crazy and start believing that aliens have taken over the bodies of the members of the government.

  4. Paper is the least common throw statistically across populations. People with more time than me -- actually, let me rephrase, I have all the time in the world. People with more effective data collection teams than me have run statistically-significant studies that found paper is the least-common throw, at just under 30 percent (rock and scissors are basically equal at 35 percent). Which makes rock most effective over a long, long, long game. In a best-of-three, that might not help. If you can talk someone into a best of 101, then, yeah, rock rules. Although the pizza guy is going to be PISSED standing there for 101 throws waiting to see who pays the tip.

  5. The '70s were a very important time in U.S. history.
    If someone's losing, they'll throw rock. This goes back to the "rock is strong" school of thought. If you're losing, your instinct is to do something strong... to start throwing haymakers to get baby out of the corner... and rock feels like just the solution.

  6. If someone's winning, they'll throw scissors. Scissors is a sign of confidence and cockiness. It feels a little bit strange and unpredictable. So when you throw scissors, you're telling your opponent you're in their head. (This also applies when you literally throw scissors at someone's head.)

  7. After someone throws the same thing twice in a row, play the odds. Three is a pattern. It's used all the time in comedy. Like if I was writing, say, a TSA joke, I might talk about bans on liquids, then bans on shoes, then bans on something ridiculous because the brain has been lulled into thinking it's seeing a pattern.

    In RPS, this means people often won't want to throw the same thing three times in a row -- because then they've established a beatable, predictable pattern. So, if someone throws rock twice in a row, it's worth betting they won't throw it again... meaning scissors is your play. Maybe you push, maybe you win against paper... or maybe they're like Bart Simpson and think nothing beats good old rock. Even so, be proud you went with the textbook and assume, like in blackjack, sticking to the rules will pay off over time.

  8. Many people are distracted by shiny things.
    People will often throw whatever just beat them. If you beat someone with paper, it sends a temporary, fleeting message that paper is dominant. Meaning there's more of a chance they'll throw paper next.

    And yes, it's subconscious -- and it's a weak, reactive way of playing that's doomed to failure. It's like different TSA bans -- and equally ineffective. Someone sneaks explosive liquids past so liquids become banned. Someone tries to light their shoe bomb on fire so you have to take your shoes off. Someone tries to wear an exploding tampon so now they hire special security bears to sniff for menstruation (pending).

  9. If a throw works, there's a better chance you're going to see it again. He throws scissors and wins... the odds go up that he'll throw scissors again next. He throws scissors and loses... the odds drop dramatically that scissors is coming next. By recognizing that habit, you know how to bring the pain.

    Ya know, this is the second straight list where I've talked extensively about scissors (after Monday's 11 Amazing Antiquated Sexual Terms That Need To Be Brought Back) -- and I still can't stop myself from falling into the Mr. Garrison voice.

  10. Christmas is over, but not for everyone!
    If you're struggling, throw something random. The best way to get control away from someone who's got you reeling is to take the psychology out of the game and make it random. It's tough to be legitimately random -- our brains make choices, even in split seconds, so this takes concentration. As you're counting "1, 2, 3" don't think of anything. At the last possible moment, throw the first thing that comes into your head. By going as random as humanly possible, you can right the ship.

    So if things aren't going well, try to clear your head. And for the love of God, don't think about Stay Puff marshmallows.

  11. Here are the six most effective three-throw sequences. These are, apparently, tested for effectiveness in best-of-threes. Think of them like gambits in chess. You're setting up your opponent, planning ahead, covering the angles. All while Joe Mantegna and Laurence Fishburne root for you to play it in their preferred style.

    • Paper, scissors, rock
    • Rock, scissors, paper
    • Rock, paper, paper
    • Rock, rock, rock
    • Paper, scissors, paper
    • Paper, scissors, scissors

    I hope you found all these informative. Now let's never speak of them again.

This post was originally published on Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 11:00:00 AM under the category Games.

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