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What Is The Correct Way To Count Off In Rock Paper Scissors?

XXX during the first Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard and Spock tournament in Australia on December 13, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. Originally created by blogger Sam Kass, the game was made famous by The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper. This is the first time The Big Bang Theory fans in Australia will be able to play in a real tournament.
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

What is the right way to play Rock Paper Scissors? No, I'm not talking about how to win at the game, though there is plenty of research and guidance, both academic and popular, on that, should you be looking for it. I'm talking about the cadence of each round itself: When do you throw your sign? Do you throw on a count of three—"rock, paper, scissors"? Do you throw on four—"rock, paper, scissors, shoot"? Or do you, like me and millions of wise, handsome people, do what got me so mercilessly mocked by my co-workers this week, and throw on a count of five—"rock, papers, scissors says shoot"?

All logical people agree on the value of RPS, which has been used to settle everything from points of law to soccer kick-offs, but there is widespread disagreement on the proper way to count off before throwing. This count-off is called "priming," with the throw being the "delivery," and oh buddy, you'd better believe that it's taken seriously at the highest level. But informally, there remains a great deal of variation in priming, almost entirely geographic.

We at Defector learned a lot this week about each other. Everyone else learned that I'm supposedly a weirdo for including "says shoot" in each round of RPS, while I learned that no one else does this. This came as a shock to everyone involved. We're all neighbors on this big space rock, but we live in different worlds, apparently. It came up because we were discussing Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni challenging potential draftees to games of Rock Paper Scissors, which no doubt sheds much light on their psyches. Are they fans of brute force who favor rock? Are they cunning paper men? Or are they total freaks who prefer scissors and should be avoided at all costs? You get the picture.

That led to some casual investigation of the history of the game, which, thanks to Wikipedia, we learned has origins in a family of games called sansukumi-ken, "meaning ken (fist) games where 'the three who are afraid of one another.'"

The earliest Japanese sansukumi-ken game was known as mushi-ken (虫拳), which was imported directly from China. In mushi-ken the "frog" (represented by the thumb) triumphs over the "slug" (represented by the little finger), which, in turn prevails over the "snake" (represented by the index finger), which triumphs over the "frog".


This is dumb. Who ever heard of a slug beating a snake? Rock Paper Scissors is much better, though perhaps not as good as the modern Indonesian variant, where

the game is called sutensuit or just sut, and the three signs are elephant (slightly raised thumb), human (outstreched index finger) and ant (outstreched pinky finger). Elephant is stronger than human, human is stronger than ant, but elephant is afraid of the ant.


From there talk naturally led to our own strategies for the game, and for ensuring a level playing field—how do you keep players (especially children) from cheating by waiting a split second to throw their sign, and potentially getting to see their opponent's? The answer is priming, but that's about all we were able to agree on. The following transcript from our work chat is lightly edited for clarity:

Wags if you both do it on "shoot" you can't really hold off imowe should have a RPS tourney one daywhen we're back in an officeBarry Petchesky let’s do it over slackLuis Paez-Pumar RPS over zoomBarry Petchesky rock paper scissors saysSHOOTi played rockLuis Paez-Pumar SAYS???Wags says?????Luis Paez-Pumar What the fuck BarryBarry Petchesky yeah rock paper scissors says shootLuis Paez-Pumar No.Wags noBarry Petchesky you assholesLuis Paez-Pumar What.No.Wags barryLuis Paez-Pumar It’s just Rock Paper Scissors shootWags yesLuis Paez-Pumar This mf said saysMaitreyi Anantharaman says???lmaoWags this mf!!!Maitreyi Anantharaman i am doing a real life lol at “says”Tom Ley barry is in mf modeBarry Petchesky what the hellgiri barry learned the game from mr. rock paperscissorsTom Ley barry went mf mode and said says!!!!!!!Albert Burneko i've def never heard "says"Luis Paez-Pumar Barry’s in the slack room showing saysSamer i've heard a word between "scissors" and "shoot" but i didn't realize it was "says"i thought it was like a tic or somethingKalyn Kahler its SHOOTonly shootMaitreyi Anantharaman what does this even mean barry, am i to believe a rock, paper and pair of scissors are saying “shoot”??Kalyn Kahler i was going to askwho is the narrator heregiri if that were the case maitreyi this mf can't manage subject-verb agreementMaitreyi Anantharaman Rock, paper! Scissors says, “Shoot.”Wags drag his assAlbert Burneko maybe it's like a Holy Trinity type of deal, where they're a triune figuregiri mr. rock paperscissors up on 12th stMaitreyi Anantharaman the father, the son and the holy scissorsDrew This is Barry’s duck duck grey duckKelsey McKinney SAYS?

Anyway, you get the idea. They were all very rude to me.

I swear I was not just pulling this out of my asshole, though. I grew up playing with "says," and only with "says." Surely I cannot be alone. I did a Twitter poll and it was, uh, not received warmly. But 12 percent is not zero percent!!

As you've probably already surmised, how you play appears to be a regional quirk of where you grew up. Much of the Western U.S. plays with the three-count, shooting on "scissors." Centered on the populous Northeast is a bloc that prefers "rock, paper, scissors, shoot." And within that range is a small enclave, comprising just New York City and Long Island, which plays with "says shoot." Here's a short blog on that, from a Cornell professor for a course about human networks.

"Says shoot" is played in a very limited geographic area—it includes me, since I grew up in Manhattan, but not Giri, who grew up in North/Central New Jersey—but I would argue it's the best version. It extends the drama before each throw, and rhythmically, it's just more pleasing: there's a reason so much popular music has a four-count start with the song (the throw!) truly coming in on the fifth beat. Yet I concede that it's uncommon, as just about every thread on RPS etiquette acknowledges.

So what's "correct"? Even that is up for debate. The World Rock Paper Scissors Society's international standards on priming mandate "rock, paper, scissors, shoot," with the delivery on shoot. You can see that here, and you'll see it in most internationally sanctioned tournaments.

But Americans are stubborn in all things, so at many informal and unsanctioned domestic competitions, you'll see the more rapid three-count, with the delivery on "scissors":

I am led to three inescapable conclusions about proper priming for Rock Paper Scissors:

    1. Agree on the rules ahead of time. Do not assume your opponent plays the same way you do!
    2. "Says shoot" is valid, damnit.
    3. Shun all who call the game "Roshambo." They are the true aberrants.
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