The Strategy Behind Rock Paper Scissors

The rules are simple: Rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock.  Each option perfectly balanced.  The strategy?  You’d think there is none, but you’d be wrong.  There is a bit of psychology behind our choices, which Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) “experts” exploit to their advantage.

According to the World RPS Society, which ran the 2009 World RPS Championships last fall, there are a few factors which, if exploited, can help you win.  Men tend to open with rock, but that’s only typical of beginners.  Another bad habit of the uninitiated?  New players rarely toss the same thing three times in a row.  So if your opponent plays paper twice, you should drop a rock the next time — it’s most likely safe.  And finally, inexperienced players tend to “replay” the last hand after a loss or draw, throwing the option that would have just beaten them.  For example, if your opponent played a rock in the previous round and lost, they are much more likely to go with paper (which beats rock) than with the other two options.

There are tips that work on more experienced players, too.  The World RPS Society notes that in competitive play — yes, there are lots of rock paper scissors tournaments — scissors appears only 29.6% of the time.  And regardless of skill (to use the term loosely) or experience, all players are somewhat susceptible to implicit suggestion — simply talking about one option more than the others can subconsciously cause your opponent to play that suggested move.

Bonus fact: Not all game shows are random, either. Press Your Luck once had a contestant who walked away with over $110,000 in cash and prizes after he mapped the pattern of the prize/Whammy screens; you can watch part of his incredible “luck” here.

From the Archives: Sometimes, To Win, You Have To Play To Lose: How a set of odd soccer rules lead to an even more bizarre outcome than imaginable.

Related: “The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide” by Douglas Walker. Five stars (!) on eight reviews.

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