How an ancient hand game traveled from east to west and became an unbiased way to decide everything. Plus: Can you actually hack a match?
Think back to the last time you and a friend had to settle some kind of score, from picking who got the last slice of pizza to deciding who had to foot the happy hour tab. You probably didn’t make your choice based on any kind of reasoned debate—you just formed a fist and hoped your rock beat your buddy’s scissors.
Rock Paper Scissors is beautiful and brilliant in its simplicity: Two players. Three possible moves. One ultimate outcome. Rock beats scissors, which beats paper, which beats rock. Every game ends with a clear winner and loser—or, in the case of the dreaded draw, an instant rematch to crown the champ. Rock Paper Scissors leaves no wiggle room for bias or unfairness. And it takes no prisoners.
But how did the ancient Chinese game of Rock Paper Scissors land in the west, where it’s most popular now? What value do we continue to find in those three simple gestures? And, most importantly, could we actually hack the odds to guarantee we win every time?
The first mention of a game resembling the current iteration of Rock Paper Scissors is found in Wuzazu, a book penned by Chinese Ming-dynasty writer Xie Zhaozhi. The author refers to it as shoushiling and dates its origins to some time during the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Li Rihua, a renowned artist, critic, and bureaucrat during the Ming dynasty, also calls out shoushiling in his book, Note of Liuyanzhai.
Subsequent mentions of Rock Paper Scissors are found in Japan, a country that’s often (mistakenly) credited as the birthplace of the game. In his book, Some Thoughts on the Ken Game in Japan: From the Viewpoint of Comparative Civilization Studies(1995), Sepp Linhart confirms the game’s Chinese origins and its ensuing popularity in Japan—a move that brought along with it slight changes to the form and rules most players followed until then.
Throughout Japanese history, games similar to Rock Paper Scissors had always been referred to as sansukumi-ken, a term that loosely translates to pastimes in which “three are afraid of one another.” Simply put, these are games played using three hand gestures (“ken” means fist). One of the very first sansukumi-ken to gain popularity throughout the country was mushi-ken, where players use their hands to represent a frog (thumb), slug (little finger), and snake (index finger). The frog wins against the slug, which wins against the snake, which wins against the frog.
Today, both within Japan and outside of it, the most popular version of sansukumi-ken involves the classic rock, paper, and scissors hand gestures. In Japan, the game is called jan-ken, or jan-ken-pon.
Following increased contact between Japan and the west, jan-ken eventually landed on the other side of the world. By the early 20th century, Americans had become increasingly familiar with the rules of Rock Paper Scissors, a fact that wasn’t lost on European media outlets.
In an article published in August 1921, the Washington Herald referred to it as a method of “Chinese gambling.” That same year, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a piece about cricket and, within it, mentioned “stone, scissors, and paper” as a “Teutonic method of drawing lots.”
In England, one of the first mentions of the game came in a 1924 contributor letter published in The Times. The writer described a game called “zot” that he noticed people play across Mediterranean ports; the similarities between it and today’s variety of Rock Paper Scissors are strikingly obvious. Interestingly enough, the letter was written in response to a previously published article detailing the traditional Italian hand-game morra, which also shares similarities with Rock Paper Scissors.
When looking at France’s history with the game, Rock Paper Scissors aficionados will likely first land on a 1927 article in the children’s magazine La Vie Au Patronage, which dissects a “jeu Japonais” (which literally translates to “Japanese game”). The French name for the game is “chi-fou-mi,” in reference to the ancient Japanese words that mean “one, two, three.”
Across the ocean, the New York Times published an article on May 22, 1932 by Marion May Dilts about rush hour in Tokyo. Within it, Dilts explains the rules of the game she noticed the Japanese playing.
Rock Paper Scissors had officially taken over the western world.
More Than Luck
Although mostly understood as a game of luck and randomness, Rock Paper Scissors has actually been the subject of many mind game studies, with experts acknowledging the use of at least some strategy by pro players, which has led to worldwide competitions, national leagues, and loads of cash prizes.
At the heart of the most commonly employed strategies lies a single notion: The only way to maximize your chances of winning a game of Rock Paper Scissors involves a completely random selection of moves. But can humans ever actually behave non-arbitrarily? Whereas kids are prone to make purely random choices on a daily basis (a characteristic that renders them the hardest opponents to beat), adults tend to overthink their actions and behave predictably given their mood, past experiences, stress levels, and more.
Therefore, to at least attempt at strategizing, pro players have come up with ways to maximize the randomness of their moves during any given match. To do so, many employ the use of gambits, which are pre-selected series of moves chosen with a specific strategic intention. By predetermining their tactics, expert players placate natural human tendencies that might give away their game plan (think: physical tics that indicate your choice between a rock or a paper move). Ironically, by taking the randomness off the table, players are able to truly be random.
Mathematically speaking, within a game of Rock Paper Scissors, there are only 27 possible gambits. Although each combination has been used in tournaments, eight of them—the Great Eight Gambits—are the most widely employed and boast semi-official names.
The eight sets are:
👊🏻The avalanche (rock, rock, rock)
👊🏻 The bureaucrat (paper, paper, paper)
👊🏻The toolbox (scissors, scissors, scissors)
👊🏻The crescendo (paper, scissors, rock)
👊🏻The denouement (rock, scissors, paper)
👊🏻The fistful o’ dollars (rock, paper, paper)
👊🏻The paper dolls (scissors, paper, paper)
👊🏻The scissors sandwich (paper, scissors, paper)
In addition to gambits, when discussing winning strategies, professional players mention the importance of being able to predict an opponent’s next move through their physical disposition—which brings us to the Janken robot.
In June 2012, researchers from the University of Tokyo unveiled a robot capable of winning a game of Rock Paper Scissors 100 percent of the time. They named it Janken, a reference to the Japanese name of the game.
Technically speaking, Janken would achieve perennial success by, well, cheating. Instead of predicting an opponent’s move, the robot reacts to it—albeit very quickly—through the use of a high-speed system that generates a response within 20 milliseconds of the recognition.
A year later, in 2013, scientists at the Ishikawa Oku Laboratory (part of the University of Tokyo) invented a second version of the machine. This one only requires a millisecond to recognize a hand gesture and deliver a winning countermove.
The Game Stays the Same
Given the popularity of the game and our tendency to turn hobbies into money-making opportunities, the existence of professional Rock Paper Scissors leagues should come as no surprise. Neither should the levels of recognition enjoyed by professional players and the tens of thousands of dollars in tournament prize money at stake.
One of the best-known competitors is Jason Simmons, better known as Master Roshambollah. The American is a former professional player who penned the foreword to The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide and also worked as a commentator of televised matches on ESPN and other outlets.
Roshambollah takes his moniker from “roshambo” (or “rochambeau”), the alternate name for Rock Paper Scissors.
Mostly used on the west coast (specifically in northern California), legend has it the name refers to Comte de Rochambeau, a French nobleman who fought in the Revolutionary War against the British. Although there’s no written historical proof that traces the name back to that time period, Rochambeau’s name was supposedly used as a codeword during the battle of Yorktown, during which he commanded the French troops.
According to the World Rock Paper Scissors Association, there’s “no evidence” of the nobleman’s involvement in the game. The association’s site also mentions “the first ever known use of ‘roshambo’ as a synonym” for Rock Paper Scissors: the Oakland-published The Handbook for Recreation Leaders (1936). In the book, the name was spelled “ro-sham-beau.”
Others postulate the vast population of East Asian immigrants in San Francisco in the 1930s invented the name. Familiar with the Japanese jan-ken-pon, local kids Americanized the name by coining a term that was familiar in sound.
But no matter what you call it, Rock Paper Scissors has stood the test of time. Not only has the game become part and parcel of differing cultures throughout history, but it’s retained its flavor by virtually remaining unchanged in form and function: The rules are the same no matter where you play.
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