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Rock Paper Scissors:
It’s More Than Child’s Play, Says Former No. 2 Player in the World

Alumnus Bryan Bennett throws "rock" during a match at the 2006 World Rock Paper Scissors Championship.“Get the remote.”

“No. You go get it.”

“Rock, paper, scissors?”

There must have been quite a few conversations like this one among CUA alumni Bryan Bennett, Nic Feeney and Brian Hessick during their college days. So many, in fact, that October 2007 found them in Toronto, competing in this year’s World Rock Paper Scissors Championship. Bennett was returning to defend his 2006 title of second-best player on the globe.

The game of Rock Paper Scissors has very straightforward rules. Rock defeats scissors by crushing them, scissors defeat paper by cutting it, paper defeats rock by covering it. The game is so simple it requires no equipment to play, just one hand from each of two players.

For Bennett (B.A. 2004) and his friends at CUA, Rock Paper Scissors became the standby for decision-making and for bragging rights. When they got tired of playing each other, they started playing strangers in bars. In the summer of 2004 they organized a local tournament at Adams Mill Bar and Grill in D.C. Later that year Bennett attended his first World Rock Paper Scissors Championship in Toronto and has been competing in it every year since.

“I plan on going to Toronto until I’m physically incapable of doing it,” says Bennett, vice president of the film-production company Parabox Media Group in Montclair, N.J. “Anyone who travels however many miles for a Rock Paper Scissors tournament is a pretty fun person. I meet a lot of fun people.” The 2006 championship drew 500 competitors and awarded $7,000 Canadian (about $6,500 American) to first-place winner Bob Cooper of the United Kingdom and $1,500 Canadian to Bennett.

This year Bennett combined his love of the game with his passion for filmmaking, as he, Feeney (B.A. 2005), Hessick (B.A. 2005) and two other Rock Paper Scissors players filmed each other during the championship for an upcoming documentary about the pastime.

In the world championships, contestants engage in a maximum of nine “throws,” or hand-shape choices, with each adversary, i.e., three “best of three” matches to determine a winner. For the first set of three throws, Bennett says, he tries to focus more on what, and how, his opponent is throwing than on what he himself is throwing.

How an opponent stands can be a valuable clue. “I first noticed the stance difference on a particular player I saw in the second round of the championship last year,” Bennett says. “I paid attention to his throw, which turned out to be rock. A few throws later, after he gradually adjusted his stance back to normal, I saw the same behavior and decided upon throwing paper, which ended the match with a victory for me. Although not every player did this kind of subconscious movement, a number of them did, in one form or another.”

He also watches to try to figure out what his opponent’s “comfort throw” is. “For example, if a given person comes to a point where they’re losing, or they think they’re ahead, they’ll throw rock — their comfort throw,” Bennett says. “The more you play, the more you see patterns.”

After Bennett was featured in a New York Times article discussing his 2006 second-place finish and Rock Paper Scissors strategy, he caught the attention of Judith Hall, a psychology professor and nonverbal communication researcher at Northeastern University in Boston. Hall invited Bennett to the university and performed a number of psychological tests on him. She also watched him play in order to study how he is able to win matches. In the study she oversaw, Bennett won 84 percent of his matches against 25 Northeastern University students.

“Everyone thinks this is a game of chance,” Professor Hall says. “We were quite astonished.”

She is studying three elements of the game — how a player (1) looks at opponents and tries to decide what they will do based on their movements, (2) detects patterns in an opponent’s throws, and (3) controls his own body language to conceal clues from the opponent.

“I’m not interested in what they do, so much as how they judge the other person and how they intuit what their opponent will do,” Hall says. “It’s all very mysterious to me. It happens so fast. You wonder how anyone can take anything into account, but obviously people can.”

Bennett also “had amazingly perceptive insights about gender differences and accuracy in expressing or judging others’ emotions,” the professor says.

In the New York Times article, Bennett admitted that he prefers playing against men rather than women, because men are easier to read. “I feel more comfortable with being able to read men and manipulate them to throw what I want them to throw,” he says. “Women, although they’re generally easy to pick up on in the first few throws, tend to be less predictable as the match goes on, and generally don’t pay attention to another player’s cues and therefore are harder to manipulate.”

Professor Hall verifies that there are quite a few areas in which women tend to be more skillful communicators than men — especially in nonverbal communication.

“Women are able to control their expression better than men if they want to,” she explains. “When they don’t know that anyone is looking, women are easier to judge than men are, but in the game of Rock Paper Scissors, they are conscious of the need to control their emotions.”

She also explained that women are able to read emotion better than men. “It’s very likely that it’s part of the stereotypic upbringing women have — they are brought up to pay more attention to appearance,” she says, explaining that most girls are encouraged to play with dolls and be more concerned with clothes, hairstyles, cosmetics and minute details than are most boys.

Bennett says that Rock Paper Scissors seems to attract women as much as it does men. In fact, the 2007 world tournament crowned its first-ever woman champion. Bennett and his fellow CUA alumni did not make it into the final rounds.

Even though the game may be fun, challenging and psychologically complex, can it really be called a sport?

“If anyone’s tried playing Rock Paper Scissors for six to eight hours straight, they will understand the rigors of playing it — both mental and physical,” Bennett says. “As dictionary.com defines it, a sport is considered ‘an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature.’ I definitely do think Rock Paper Scissors is a sport.”

He points to his 84 percent win percentage in the Northeastern study. “That win percentage over that many games basically eliminates the element of luck, and shows that there is skill involved,” he says. “Had it been luck, I would have won approximately 33.3 percent, lost 33.3 percent and tied 33.3 percent of my matches — the statistical probability.”

But what makes this game, which can be played by a young child, worthy of a world championship?

“That’s part of it,” Bennett says, referring to the game’s easy accessibility. “People have been playing since they were children and everyone knows the game. Taking something silly and taking it seriously is part of the fun. There are tournaments all over and for anyone that thinks it’s just chance, if they play, they’ll find out.”

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Revised: November 2007

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