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December 5, 2006

'A person can never be completely random' — Bryan Bennett, North American Champion of Rock Paper Scissors


Last month he finished second in the World Rock Paper Scissors Championships, held in Toronto.

Bennett (above), 24, hails from Glen Ridge, New Jersey, where he began honing his skills as a boy, just for the fun of it.

Peter Applebome interviewed him for a story which appeared in the November 26, 2006 New York Times, and follows.

    A Rock-Paper-Scissors Hand, and a Zen Master's Heart

    Of this we can be sure: Rock smashes scissors. Scissors cut paper. Paper covers rock.

    Beyond that, all is a mystery of feint, instinct and indirection, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. Or so it goes in the world of Bryan Bennett, the newest member of the New Jersey sports pantheon after battling his way to a plucky second-place finish over 500 competitors this month in the World Rock Paper Scissors Championship in Toronto.

    Mr. Bennett was not hard to spot on Friday in this town of strivers of all sorts and flavors. He was the one with the second-place silver medal hanging from a blue ribbon around his neck and the black T-shirt reading, ''Rock, Paper, Scissors — Power, Stealth, Ingenuity.'' But for a succinct lesson in how he got to be a master of his game, like Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning, it's not so easy to put into words.

    Mr. Bennett is a relatively self-effacing young man of 24 from Glen Ridge who works in Montclair at Parabox Media, which has operations that include an online DVD sales business.

    Like a lot of top competitors, Mr. Bennett marched to greatness by a familiar path. He started playing as a kid, just for the fun of it. He honed his skills as he got older through a combination of practice, study and high-level competition.

    And — well, maybe this is not the entirely familiar path — he really broke through in college playing for bigger stakes: the next round of beer, who got to hold the TV remote, bragging rights at the bar.

    Mr. Bennett was pursuing media studies and the ancillary attractions of college life at Catholic University in Washington when he got hooked on Rock Paper Scissors — once a harmless pursuit for children, now another lesson that anything in the world can be considered a sport.

    He developed his craft with friends and roommates and at local watering holes. Washington -- perhaps because of the constant need for conflict resolution provided by the dominant local industry -- turns out to be quite an R.P.S. hotbed.

    Mr. Bennett learned the Way under the tutelage of Master Roshambollah, the Zen master of the local R.P.S. scene. He studied the arcane teachings of ''The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide'' by Douglas and Graham Walker.

    And when he and some friends decided to put on a local competition, he was thrilled to learn that he had been beaten to it — by the World Rock Paper Scissors Society, based in Toronto.

    He competed twice in the world championships without much success before breaking through this year, losing in the finals to Bob (the Rock) Cooper, a 28-year-old sales manager from London, who made off with the $7,000 grand prize. Mr. Bennett took home $1,500.

    Mr. Cooper, perhaps befitting his top-dog status, has a succinct epigram about the R.P.S. Way: ''It is not about predicting what your opponent will throw; it is about predicting what your opponent predicts you will throw.''

    Mr. Bennett offers guidance but no easy truths. Jocks and meatheads like to start with rock. Women are often partial to scissors. More ethereal types prefer paper. That's fine, except that if everyone knows this, it no longer applies.

    It helps to know some of the famous patterns: fistful of dollars (rock, paper, paper); paper dolls (paper, scissors, scissors), or the full-bore machismo of avalanche (rock, rock, rock).

    Mr. Bennett likes playing against men rather than women (easier to read), and relies on his readings of body language and playing patterns when choosing his throws. He considers the notion of random throws a philosophical fallacy: ''A computer can be a random-number generator; a person can never be completely random.''

    And though he doesn't want to provide too many clues to his game, he sounds like a bit of a rock man to me. ''A lot of people feel comfortable with it,'' he said. ''It's a powerful throw. Like Bart Simpson once said, 'Good old rock. Nothing beats rock.' ''

    Mr. Bennett is enjoying his 15 minutes, though he says not everyone is totally taken with his achievement. ''You get some people who refuse to play, think it's stupid,'' he said. ''If they want to make fun of me, fine. Make yourself feel better. I could care less.''

    For now, Mr. Bennett is trying to bring his game to the next level, keep his arm in shape and hone his skills, which means rigorous training at local tap rooms.

    And asked about alternative conflict resolution techniques — coin flips, for example — he has trouble hiding his disdain.

    ''That's completely luck,'' he said. ''A lot of people think Rock Paper Scissors is luck, but it's luck you can control.''

December 5, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Wouldn't be hard to be random - perhaps have a piece of prose you can remember and say silently it and stop at some point - perhaps when your opponent starts moving or whatever. Number of letters in the word you stop on is your move, counted cyclically if needed. Not truly random but far less influenced by what's come before than anything else.

Posted by: Skipweasel | Dec 6, 2006 6:05:59 PM

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