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Game theory in the popular press.

Why paper and scissors rock

Toronto Star
Bill Taylor
November 18, 2002
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256 competitors get hands-on at world championship

Here it is Monday morning and it's a safe bet that dozens of people are still quarterbacking the match they saw Saturday night: "Man, you should never throw scissors ..."

Words for us all to live by. Except "throw" here means to produce the symbol as your move in rock, paper, scissors — or RPS as the game's movers, shakers and heavy-hitting throwers know it. And though all three moves are theoretically equal, "scissors" is widely regarded as a risky gambit in serious competition.

In a world where darts, snooker and even wrist-wrestling make prime-time TV, is it any wonder that this simplest of childhood games would be next to hit the big league?

By 8 p.m. Saturday, when Doug and Graham Walker threw open the doors of the Mockingbird club on King St. W., there was a snow-covered lineup right down the block of people eager to pay $10 for a shot at the title of World Rock Paper Scissors Champion and the $1,200 that went with it.

The Walker brothers, who run the Toronto-based World Rock Paper Scissors Society, were looking for 256 competitors.

"We filled up the entry list very quickly and a lot of people here are just disappointed spectators," reported Doug as the original 256 were thinned down to 64 and then 16 and the tension built along with the beer fumes. This was not a wine and martini crowd, nor was it restrained. You rarely see this kind of fervour outside a Stanley Cup playoff or a monster-truck rally.

There were rumours that unused $10 entry cards were changing hands in the washrooms for up to 100 bucks.

One competitor dressed as a bear. Another wore a crash helmet and someone else a ski mask.

Several wore gloves on their "throwing" hand. Someone waved a homemade sign: "Go, Paper!"

Team Slut played the punk role, pouring down beer as if it were going out of style, screeching encouragement — "Throw rock! Throw rock!" — and spitting defiance at their opponents ... "You're gonna throw scissors! We're gonna send you home in a body bag!"

"I don't think this atmosphere is conducive to high-quality play," someone remarked.

The three-man All Too Flat Dream Team, in their neat white T-shirts, flew from New York for what Benjamin Stein called "our first pro outing." Don't give up the day job, guys. Stein, Luke Fraser and Antony Chan all lost in the first round.

"You Canadians are tough!" said Chan.

Local thrower "Master Pete" Lovering wore a cowboy hat and a turquoise terrycloth bathrobe hand-lettered on the back: "1974 World RPS Champion."

"That was in Singapore," he said. "I was 7 years old. I've been in seclusion since then."

Lovering, who runs a job recruitment Web site, said his strategy was based on Zen, "the mindfulness of being. Clear your mind, don't think of what you'll throw, just throw."

He confessed to "almost pooping my pants" as he went into the first round, his hat down over his eyes, playing three best-of-three games against one opponent, then another, to move into the second round. His calm, bring-'em-on demeanour paid off against the often hysterical posturing of his opponents.

Still, going into the final, it was Moe Asem — "Moe! Moe! Moe!" screamed the mob. "Throw rock! Nothing beats rock!" — who was the popular favourite.

There were "oohs" and "aahs" and roars of disbelief as the two deadlocked on rock-rock, paper-paper. Asem, grinning and flexing his arms, took the best-of-five final as far as he could, his match-point scissors blunted by Lovering's rock.

Asem picked up $600, Lovering $1,200 and a trophy.

"Maybe now I'll retire," he said.

The Walkers were already talking of a bigger venue, better sponsorship and more money for their next championship.

"We're overwhelmed by the response," Doug said.

For the record, the Toronto Star entry made it through the first leg of the first round, in spite of forfeiting a point for what the referee called a foul throw ("paper" delivered too fast and too low), but then lost the match point of the second leg with ill-judged scissors shattering on a rocky fist.

"Man," someone howled. "Don't ever throw scissors."

No, indeed.


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