Since people act predictably irrational, the Chinese game researchers were able to identify the following strategies for a sure victory:

  • The first strategy is the countertactic: Let’s say you played scissors and your opponent played rock. The chance that your opponent will confidently play rock again is now very high. What that means to you: anticipate that and play paper. In other words: play the option that wasn’t played in the previous round.
  • The second strategy is to mirror: If you just won, play what your opponent just played, because he or she will think that you are going to play the same gesture again.

Therefore, this is the best way to win at rock-paper-scissors: if you lose the first round, switch to the thing that beats the thing your opponent just played. If you win, don’t keep playing the same thing, but instead switch to the thing that would beat the thing that you just played. In other words, play the hand your losing opponent just played.You should switch to scissors. This should work unless your opponent has read this article, in which case, you both are in trouble, because you’re now living on a plane of RPS strategy the likes of which we can only imagine.

Here’s how it works in practice: Player A and Player B both start by using random strategies. If Player A uses rock and Player B uses paper, Player A loses. In the next round, Player A can assume that Player B will use paper again and should therefore use scissors to win. In the round after that, because Player B lost, Player A can assume that Player B will use the next strategy in the sequence — scissors — and Player A should then use rock, thus winning again.

If you take the game on a theoretical level, the most mathematically sound way to play rock- paper-scissors is by choosing your strategy at random. Because there are three outcomes — a win, a loss, or a tie — and each strategy has one other strategy that it can beat and one other strategy that can beat it, and we don’t care what strategy we win with, it makes the most sense to pick paper exactly one-third of the time, rock one-third of the time, and scissors one-third of the time. This is called the game’s Nash equilibrium.

The pattern that Zhejiang discovered — winners repeating their strategy and losers moving to the next strategy in the sequence — is called a ‘conditional response’ in game theory. The researchers have theorized that the response may be hard-wired into the brain, a question they intend to investigate with further experiments.

The strategy for playing RPS depends on how skilled your opponent is. Let me start by giving a basic strategy for playing against a novice player (which is to say, 99 percent of the public).

First of all, the throws are not equally common. Statistically, they are,

Rock 35.4%

Paper 35.0%

Scissors 29.6%

Though the names of the throws are arbitrary, they inherit cultural stereotypes. Rock is the testosterone choice, the most aggressive and the one favored by angry players. The majority of participants in RPS tournaments are male (is this a surprise to anyone?). On your first throw against an inexperienced male opponent, the best choice is paper because that will beat rock.

It’s said that women are most likely to throw scissors. You can supply your own psychoanalysis, but there aren’t enough women in RPS tournaments to make scissors as popular as the other choices.

Naive players don’t like to repeat the same throw more than twice in a row. They can’t accept that as random. That means that a player who throws rock is more likely to switch to something else on the next throw.

This is a big deal in a game that’s nominally luck. The counterstrategy is to choose whatever sign the doubled sign would beat. Should your opponent throw rock and rock a second time; you would want to choose scissors on the next throw. Given that the opponent is unlikely to play rock again, scissors would be unbeatable. In case of paper, scissors wins; should the opponent choose scissors, it’s a tie.

RPS players mentally categorize their throws as winners and losers. A player who loses is more likely to switch to a different throw the next time. Some players unconsciously “copy” the sign that just beat them.

Most good players believe in tells, or at any rate the possibility of tells. You should watch your opponent for any facial expressions or gestures that might betray the next move. Some big winners of Rock Paper Scissors have credited their success to reading the faces of their opponents. As a result of this smart players wear dark sunglasses to make it harder for opponents to read their expression.

Players begin by pumping, priming, their fists to a count of three. The throw usually comes on the fourth pump. Take note of whether the tip of the thumb is tucked in the crook of the index finger. Sometimes this is a giveaway clue of what your opponent is coming up with. The tucked thumb often forecasts rock.

A good and experienced player will know all of the above and will be thinking a step ahead. This is the hall of mirrors that every serious strategist faces.

In summary, here are two major tricks that can prove to be a major winning strategy;

Scissors is the most unlikely choice several players come up with, and men favor rock. Hence, knowing these two facts is a major reason to choose paper in a one-shot match. Announce what you’re going to throw and do it. Most players will never believe you.