Rock on

First, thanks to JFK for making me look smart. Or, at the very least, thanks to JFK for making the obvious choice. Again, I don’t give a damn, but at least the race will be interesting now. Now, onto the continued series, “Get to Know Your Otis.” While I promise to get to the tough questions (my first kid, what am I afraid of, what do I keep running from, why am I so unsure of myself, can I borrow $50), I’m going to stick to an easy one today.

Why aren’t you any good at rock, paper, scissors? –G-Rob

The hardest part about answering this question is actually admitting that the premise is correct.

I am not good at rock, paper, scissors.

Damn, that hurts.

In the past, RPS was simply a means to decide who took out the trash, who got to ride shotgun, who had to buy the beer, or who had to be the designated driver for the night. I, like many people, thought it was simply a game of chance.

Turns out, that is incorrect.

RPS is actually one of the purest practices of high-level game theory. Lesser minds might suggest that anyone who suggests there is a science to such a game is full of hooey. If you doubt me, try running a Google search on game theory and see what I mean.

Game theory can be applied in almost all levels of human interaction. It applies in business, love, war, and, yes, games. Loosely defined, it is making an educated, yay, scienfific prediction of what your opponent will do next based on actions he/she made in the past.

In short, it’s getting in somebody’s head.

Great game theorists make great poker players. The 2001 World Series of Poker champion is a respected game theorist, not to mention a helluva swing dancer. Poker got me interested in game theory and game theory got me interested in Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Within the past year, I started trying to apply my limited game theory knowledge to RPS. During bouts of Drunk Olympics (an irregular game of chance, sporting ability, and mental strength against the poser of the aboved question)I would suggest a game of RPS. I was sure I could use my poker power and recently acquired game theorems to achieve victory in the contest.

It was then I discovered the greatest flaw in game theory: To use it effectively you must use it wisely and be sure your opponent isn’t applying a greater knowledge of the theory against you. (Perhaps that is not a flaw in the theory, but a flaw in the practice, eh?)

In short, while efforting to apply high-level theory to the game, I opened up my mind widely enough for my opponent to crawl inside and track my every move.

He got inside my head and could’ve told me my next move before I even knew what it was going to be.

I’ll admit, the defeats were humilating and shook the foundation of everything I believed about the game. I discovered that the only way I could win is if I completely cleared my head and made the game completely random.

While a terrific exercise of zen (it felt really neat to go completely mentally blank and function without thought), it didn’t do anything to help me better understand game theory.

Since that time, I’ve nearly stopped playing RPS. I’ve been working on my poker game and have developed a greater understanding of the larger theories.

Every year in Canada, hundreds of participants come from many countries to participate in an international RPS championship. Someday, perhaps, I’ll go.

For now, though, I’m happy to admit that I’m no good at the game. Why? Because I let my opponent in my head.

And that’s something you never want to do…unless of course, your playing games of the heart. In that case, I’d recommend it letting folks in. It feels better that way.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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