“Five to me and none to you!” says my son in a tone of innocent and self-delighted gloating. “OK…” “One, two, three,” I say wearily, then shoot my hand out in front of me, my index and middle fingers protruding.
“Haaaaah!” says Max. His own hand is balled into a solid fist. His rock smashes my scissors. “Six to me and none to you!” His hand appeared at the same time, no question about it. I was watching closely. Straight up: I’m having my ass handed to me at rock-paper-scissors by a five-year-old.
The thought that I might have spawned some sort of prodigy, and that the skill will later be lucratively transferable to—for instance—Texas Hold ‘Em is carrion comfort. I still remember the first time I beat my father at chess. This feels like the complete reverse of that.
“One, two, three…” And I’m thinking about it. Really thinking about it. The loop of thought is as follows. He’s just done rock. He won’t do rock again. So he’s doing scissors or paper. But he’s just seen me lose with scissors—thus placing a psychological sell order on them in his five-year-old mind—so that makes paper his natural next move.
Which mandates scissors for me. But doing the same thing twice in a row seems either too obvious or too perverse, depending on whether we’re talking bluff or double-bluff. It feels risky. I’m overthinking this. He can’t be second-guessing me to that extent. He’ll be thinking of rock or scissors. The sideways jump to paper won’t have occurred to him. And he won’t do rock again because he’s five. So he’s scissors. Bottom dollar on it.
Rock. Paper. He wraps his small hand halfway around my fist, and demonstrates that he can count to seven.
This is really starting to bug me. It’s not that I mind losing to a five-year-old. OK, it is that a bit. There’s always the Oedipal struggle to consider. But mostly it’s that I have, literally, never won a game of rock-paper-scissors against him. I’ve won the odd hand—sometimes two in a row. But he unfailingly comes out on top in the long run. And he does so to an extent that the laws of chance alone don’t seem to account for.
As this losing streak has continued over the last few weeks I found myself, late at night, consulting the internet on the psychological and game-theoretical implications of rock-paper-scissors. In one direction I’m dragged down a rabbit-hole of zero-sum games and Nash equilibriums, which I think have something to do with Russell Crowe but the mathematical explanations of which make me gape like a guppy.
In the other direction I’ve found whole websites dedicated to strategy. Apparently “rookie males,” for instance, most often open with rock, while “rookie females” most often open with scissors. So if you’re playing an experienced player you should assume they will avoid doing so—unless, of course, you assume that they assume that you know about all this and are hence making that assumption. Unless, of course…
“I’m having my ass handed to me at rock-paper-scissors by a five-year old”
Players that have just played the same move twice in a row will usually switch for the third—giving you the chance of a guaranteed win or draw. That is, if your opponent has just played rock twice, you should play back with scissors because you’ll either beat his paper or draw with his scissors. The upshot, to quote Wikipedia, is that though pure chance technically governs the outcome: “rock–paper–scissors can be played with a degree of skill by recognising and exploiting non-random behaviour in opponents.”
Here’s my concern. My opponent is five. Is he winning because he’s out-thinking me? Or is he winning because, being five, it doesn’t occur to him that the game has a psychological dimension and so his play is as near as you could get to perfectly random. That would mean that he’s exploiting my non-random behaviour with a zen-like innocence—and thus driving me to become even more non-random. In other words, is the problem that I’m out-thinking myself?
“One… two… three…” I empty my mind and try to trick myself into making a completely random move. Paper. I look down. You’d almost think he was giving me two fingers. “Eight to me and none to you!”