The drive to turn the most absurd activities into ego-busting, teeth-gnashing competitions is a deeply ingrained human trait. In the future, maybe a team of scientists will try to locate the gene that explains this. And if they need some subjects for research purposes, they could do worse than to spend a few Sunday evenings at the Nomad World Pub on Minneapolis's West Bank. Housed in the old two-story brick building once occupied by the old Five Corners Saloon, the Nomad has recently become a Mecca of sorts for those who are inclined to turn child's play into adult contest.
On this late summer Sunday night, a rowdy and devoted crew of regulars has filled the bar. Attracted by the ruckus, a few stragglers from the street have wandered in. The commotion, the newcomers soon learn, is the product of the pub's weekly Roshambo tournament. A game played by kids worldwide, Roshambo is known by many names--Jan-Ken, Shnik Shnak Shnuk, and Farggling. But in this corner of the planet, most anyone who went to kindergarten knows it by the name "Rock, Paper, Scissors."
Certain questions invariably arise when an unsuspecting pub-goer is faced with the spectacle of competitive Roshambo, the first being, "Really?" It is, without question, a silly sight: Two adults square off--face-to-face, fist-to-palm--as a referee in a striped shirt supervises the proceedings. On this night, Queen's "We Will Rock You" blares on the sound system. A few spectators offer illicit wagers, while others provide an impromptu play-by-play. "Oh, look at that extension!" someone shouts when a woman throws an aggressive scissors. "Get your cadence up, Sucka!" shouts another guy, known here as the Reverend Roshambo. Everyone's got a nickname. At least one player has a theme song, the old Beatles classic "Taxman."
Competitive RPS has all the shit-talking of an MC battle and all the macho posturing of a pro wrestling match. But like dodgeball and kickball before it, Roshambo is also an example of one of today's twentysomethings' more notable habits: the recasting of favorite childhood pastimes in more adult shades. One major component of this recasting is booze. Several weeks ago, after a 24-year-old woman became the first female at the Nomad to make it to the finals, she spent an hour and a half in the bar's bathroom, where she rid herself of all the drinks her fans bought her.
Drinking aside, two things set RPS apart from those typical hipster-ironic recreational pursuits. One, it isn't really a physical game. Two, it isn't strictly recreational--at least for more ardent devotees. "Roshambo is more than just a kid's game. It's a lifestyle, almost a religion," muses Kyle Anderson, a.k.a. the Reverend Roshambo. "Roshambo," he adds, "is law."
Anderson, who heads up a crew called the Roshambo Hustlers and is largely responsible for getting the Nomad tournament off the ground, is one of thousands of players who make up the online RPS community. A visit to the World RPS Society website, www.worldrps.com, illustrates just how seriously some people take the game. With pages of Roshambo-related detritus, you can learn about the game's origins (several theories exist; the most popular has the game dating back to 300 B.C. Japan), the most successful first throw (paper), the dynamite controversy (it's an illegal throw, but if it wasn't, most people agree that "scissors cuts wick"), and the World RPS Championships, which take place every October in Toronto.
Chris Mozena, the Nomad's general manager, says he's using the weekly matches to recruit a 12-person team for worlds. "Canada and Europe have dominated the sport for far too long," he says. By far the most popular feature on WorldRPS.com is the "Great Gambits." A gambit, according to the site, is a "series of successive throws made with strategic intention." Gambits come in threes and usually have funny names. "The Crescendo," for example, is paper, scissors, rock, while "the Denouement" is the opposite: rock, scissors, paper. Other gambits include "Fistful of Dollars" (rock, paper, paper) and "the Bureaucrat" (paper, paper, paper).
All of which raises a fundamental question: Is there really any strategy involved? Chris Zito, the week-one champ, claims not. "You just throw your shit out there and see what happens," he says. Anderson disagrees. "There's luck involved, sure. But there's also a lot of skill," he says. "I would say there is more skill involved in Roshambo than in Texas Hold 'Em."
Jason Fleming, house referee at the Nomad, thinks skilled players actually hurt themselves. "People who have no strategy at all usually end up winning because people like the Reverend tend to over-think the game," he observes. "Kyle's a good player. I've seen him roll 100 bucks off someone in a street game. But he never wins here."
Later, Anderson does his best to prove Fleming wrong, as he beats the Taxman, a fellow member of the Hustlers, in a 10-9 victory. But he chokes in the finals and a first-time player named Tamara Sadlo--a.k.a. "The PBR Girl"--is crowned the champ.
Her prize: $100 cash and a poncho that gets her free drinks for the rest of the night. It may or may not double as a puke bib.