The Game: Rock-Paper-Scissors has always fascinated me. From playground to courtroom, the “dance of hands” has long been used to settle disputes where mediation would not suffice. The world’s leading RPS authority, a Canadian named Graham Walker, rhapsodizes about its simple genius, calling it “the most elegant and profound of all conflict-resolution processes.” As a new father, I’ve been playing a lot lately-every time Mrs. Closer and I hear Mini-Closer crying at 3 a.m. Usually, I throw scissors; wife throws rock; and that’s that. “You always throw scissors,” she says, rolling over. “Milk’s in the fridge.”

The Idea: When I learned that Ravenswood Pub (5455 N. Ravenswood Ave.; 773-769-6667), a homey neighborhood bar along the Metra tracks, hosted a Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament every Thursday, I was sure I could win. Playing drunken strangers in a bar must be easier than playing my stone-cold-sober wife.

The Scissor Sandwich illustrated

The Training: I kicked off my regimen with a visit to, where hundreds of enthusiasts congregate to talk strategy. I learned that people tend to throw rock when they’re losing, scissors when they’re winning, and paper if they think they’re superior. Some experts go by the gut, opting for “chaos play” (throws that attempt to approximate randomness), and others stick with the “Great Eight” gambits, renowned combos of three such as “The Avalanche” (rock/rock/ rock), “The Bureaucrat” (paper/ paper/paper), and “The Scissor Sandwich” (paper/scissors/paper). I scanned the message boards for an afternoon, soaking up the wisdom of online RPS legends like Master Roshambollah and Rockefeller. That night, I dreamed of paper.

Challenge #1: Mrs. Closer  
Bursting with confidence, I challenged my old nemesis, who is pregnant again, suggesting that the loser empty the Diaper Champ. “How about whoever loses has to give birth to the next baby?” she scoffed. Once we began, her trash talk hit me hard-“Have you run out of ideas for your column again?”-but focusing on what I’d learned, I won 10 to 9. It felt so good I emptied the Diaper Champ anyway.

The Avalance illustrated

Challenge #2: Graham Walker  
Walker, who wrote the book on RPS strategy (The Official RPS Strategy Guide; Fireside, 2004), agreed to a best-of-99 series online. (He lives in Prague.) He launched into the psychological warfare immediately: “You picked the wrong opponent. By the way, I am coming out strong with rock. Look out!!” Befuddled, I went with scissors, assuming he’d throw anything but rock and, of course, he threw rock. It was a classic rookie mistake, and he jumped out to an easy lead. But little by little, I pulled closer, until I began to sense his next throw. As the tide turned, I played dumb (“You’re losing to a beginner”), then pushed his buttons (“I used your book as a doorstop”) until he admitted his frustration. In a pathetic last gasp, he pinned his losses on the fact that he was “multitasking.” Final score: me 50; him 36. “I read you wrong,” he conceded. “Rookies tend to play a lot of rock, and you overindexed on scissors, so you anticipated my overindex of paper. You had some inspired play there.”

The Final Challenge: Ravenswood Pub
I arrived at the bar early to scope out the competition and was struck by a conundrum: What does an RPS player look like? I pegged the guy with the beard and the hoodie as a veteran, but he turned out to be there for the free tacos. This wasn’t some rinky-dink competition: there were dozens of competitors. A complicated bracket system. Referees. Cheering sections. Not to mention prizes, including a gift certificate, a hat, and a big tin of cheese puffs. And though the butterflies fluttered in my belly, an hour later I had shocked the field by knocking out a formidable opponent (“The Eradicator”) in a best-of-three round with a steady diet of paper and scissors. In the quarterfinals, my inexperience finally caught up with me. A grim woman with a ski cap and an inscrutable game face Avalanched me and my feeble barrage of scissors-and by the time I figured out what was going on, it was too late. Another player would hoist the cheese puffs that night. Despite all I’d learned, I recognized it would take more than a week as an RPS dilettante to become the champ of anything that didn’t involve diapers.