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The Koan of Roshambo: You Are Paper. I Rock.

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2004; Page C01

Place your faith, for a moment, in the perfect holy trinity: The rock. The paper. The scissors.

One guy is walking around at the D.C. National Rock Paper Scissors tournament Saturday night with a T-shirt that provocatively asserts, "Paper is the new rock." He lost.

Robert Walton, left, squares off with Chuck Bassford at the rock-paper-scissors tournament. (Cathy Kapulka -- The Washington Post)

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Every strategy of rock-paper-scissors (aka RPS, or roshambo) was tried in this, the area's first official tournament of a game so ancient, so primal, that of course you now have to play it while drunk, in bars.

RPS has gone a little bit MTV, and that's why 128 Washington area contestants and their sweaty fans are shoehorned into the upstairs bar of the DC9 nightclub off U Street NW for some high-stakes, high-octane "throw."

For the rusty, let's review: Rock smashes scissors. Scissors cut paper. Paper covers rock. What else in life do you need to know?

"There can be no argument," says Will Healy, a 36-year-old consultant, and this appears to be the cornerstone of rock-paper-scissors devotion -- it is sometimes the only way to settle life's disputes or make a decision. "If you lose, you lose, and everyone agrees on this. . . . It's totally meaningless, but you can start to take it totally serious. You can make believe that you're affecting the outcome, and that you're outsmarting the other [person], and in fact, you do believe it."

Healy is sitting in the back of the bar with his wife, Camella Bailey, 39; they are trying to keep away from most of the cigarette smoke, especially because she's pregnant with their second child. They hired a sitter for their 2-year-old because, well, a significant, if mundane, part of their married life has been settled by RPS, and they consider themselves to be professional-level players of the game:

Who has to take out the trash? (1-2-3, RPS.) Who has to get up when the baby's crying? (1-2-3.) The answer is determined after three "primes," the 1-2-3-throw of traditional roshambo.

"Sometimes we RPS just to decide what we're going to RPS about," Healy says.

These are exactly the kind of people who heard the call of Saturday night's tournament, a phenomenon so new that there really is no national title; competition was open to the first 128 people with six bucks for the entry fee. (Although the event was billed as "national," well, this is a sports movement still in its infancy. Wanna compete at the international level, at the annual RPS tournament in Toronto in October? Then go. Nothing's stopping you; but prepare to be humiliated by guys who call themselves "master" -- as in Master Pete, or Master Awesomer-Than-You -- and wear mullet wigs or Union Jack kilts.)

"When resources are scarce, that's when you have to turn to RPS," says Patrick Bracken, 26, who, as it happens, has a day job as a consultant for settling labor disputes. "The last beer in the fridge. Where are we going out tonight. Who has to drive. These are the kinds of things that RPS was made for."

Bracken belongs to a rock-paper-scissors team of six of his friends, calling themselves the DC Gambit. (They went "pro," it appears, after a hazy weekend in Las Vegas in March.) Right now the men of DC Gambit are too busy for a formal interview because they are screaming insults at a possible opponent: a tiny woman in a black tank top and tight jeans, brandishing a cigarette and Yuengling beer, wearing a pink feather boa. She is yelling at them about what wimps they are, how they can't possibly out-RPS her and her friends.

As burgeoning sports go, rock-paper-scissors has at least this going for it: It embraces and encourages inebriated trash-talking among its competitors.

The rise of RPS is a little like when adults started forming kickball or dodgeball leagues a few years ago. Or the annual air-guitar championship held every summer in Finland. Now comes the commodification and officializing of rock-paper-scissors, a game many people learn from an older sibling on a long car trip. There's a documentary film being made about RPS and, in October, there'll be a book -- "The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide."

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