By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- The House of Blues at the gleaming, teeming Mandalay Bay hotel is a serious rock venue. On Thursday night, with a $32 ticket, you could have experienced a heavy metal bill that included Cannibal Corpse, In Flames, Terror and The Black Dahlia Murder.

Three months ago, during another historic six-hour event, the mosh pit was fraught with much the same kind of chaos. Screaming. High-fives. And -- perhaps not coincidentally -- a copious amount of free beer.

Greg Garber reports from the U.S. Rock, Paper, Scissors Championship

There was rock, too. But on this particular night, there was much, much more.

Specifically, scissors and paper.

It was the inaugural USA Rock, Paper, Scissors Championship. Seriously.

If you're looking to ascribe blame, begin with television producers Matti Leshem and Andrew Golder, who view the age-old children's pastime as the next great gaming phenomenon.

"This can be the Super Bowl," Golder said. "But the thing about rock, paper, scissors is that anyone can play. Rock, paper, scissors is in our DNA."

Golder and Leshem, perhaps most notable for creating "Win Ben Stein's Money," produced the 2004 Rock, Paper, Scissors World Championship in Toronto, which was sanctioned, oddly enough, by the World RPS Society. The experience convinced them that the sport could produce poker-esque ratings, so they created their own league from scratch: the USA Rock, Paper, Scissors League. When Bud Light and the A&E Network signed on, it was a go.

The show aired in June, but ESPN was on hand to film its own version of the strange story, and it can be seen on Sunday night's SportsCenter (11 ET).

Against the backdrop of "reality" television, the RPS nationals event was excessively surreal TV. In the words of the eventual winner, it was a "total freak show," essentially a collision of beer and intuitive reasoning.

In the end, beer prevailed.

Who would have guessed?

To hear Leshem tell it, RPS goes back many centuries.

"The first evidence of RPS is found in the cave paintings in France," the charismatic Leshem explained. "We can follow it historically, through the time of the Egyptians when the Egyptians created papyrus; and of course, it was known as rock, papyrus, spear."

Of course.

Perhaps the reigning RPS authority, at least in his own mind, is Master Roshambola. Reputedly a tournament legend, The Master served as the championship's expert analyst.

Rock, Paper, Scissors contestants
Two Rock, Paper, Scissors contestants, preparing to do battle.

"Rock, paper, scissors mastery was not a path that I chose," he said with a distinct humility. "It was thrust upon me. To some extent, I am the Bobby Fischer of RPS; and to another extent, Bobby Fischer is the Master Roshambola of chess."

The rules are simple: Rock beats scissors, paper covers rock, scissors cut paper.

"Rock is typically seen as a sign of aggression, but you have to control it; you have to know when to use the rock and when to hold it back," The Master explained. "Paper, many times, is seen as a passive throw; but in my opinion, it's more of a reflective throw. Scissors is the throw of artifice. Whereas the scissors has two blades, two sides, it's almost in many ways a two-faced throw."

These subtleties were largely lost on the 257 competitors who were flown into Las Vegas in April after winning regional tournaments in their neighborhood bars. This was a single-elimination tournament in which the best-of-three throws won a bout and the best-of-three bouts won the match. Contestants played for a first prize of $50,000.

Did we mention the sponsor?

"Actually," Lesham said, "there is scientific evidence that not just beer, but Bud Light -- the best-tasting light beer on Earth -- specifically enhances your game as a RPS player."

Make no mistake. It was a beer-drinking crowd. Rock, paper, scissors, apparently, is a young man's game. Three-fourths of the competitors were male, and the average age was a shade under 27.

"There's a game after this called rock, paper, scissors, hurling," observed comedian Dave Attell, who served as the master of ceremonies. "There'll be some hurling involved.

"I'm a little older than these kids. Usually when we did rock, paper, scissors, it was to decide who went home with ... "

Rock, Paper, Scissors fan
Obviously, some fans get VERY into Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Attell, a balding 40-something performer, leaned into the camera and, with consummate professionalism, delivered the payoff:

" ... the skank."

To hear the RPS folks tell it, RPS is a very Zen thing.

"Be your opponent," Golder said, "then you will beat your opponent."

"This game," said Kristina Hartman of Kansas City, Mo., "is as complex as the mind of your opponent."

Which, generally speaking, might not be all that complex?

"I do believe that's true," said Hartman, a freckled redhead who wore a cowboy hat and boots.

Hartman belongs to Mensa, the organization whose members' IQs rank in the top 2 percent of the population. She claims her IQ has been tested at 172. Her opponent in the Sweet 16 was Sandy Pinkham from Boston, who sported bunny ears and was, very clearly, a barley and hops enthusiast. Pinkham, for the record, described her occupation as "a human being."

Beer -- predictably, in the scheme of things -- prevailed over brains.

"For me personally," Pinkham acknowledged, "it is a game of luck. It's whatever my hand does."

A strain of testosterone-induced madness ran through the competition. Beyond the bright lights of television and the costumed competitors, there was, in all earnestness, Richard Steele.

Yes, that Richard Steele.

The high-profile boxing referee was experiencing a bit of culture shock. One night earlier, he had presided over a wild welterweight title fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Zab Judah at the Thomas & Mack Arena. In the 10th round, the bout turned into a brawl featuring family and friends. Mayweather's uncle and trainer, Roger Mayweather, touched it off by leaping into the ring after a low blow from Judah; Steele coolly called a timeout, and the match eventually continued, with Mayweather winning.

Sixteen hours later, Steele was refereeing Sweet 16 matches on the stage at the House of Blues.

"I am hoping that rock, paper, scissors will grow to the heights that some of the big fights like the Leonards and the Haglers and Muhammad Alis did," he said. "I hope that it will grow to that level."

Does he worry that rock, paper, scissors could hurt his boxing street cred?

"No," said Steele, laughing. "Not really. It is a job, and they know that I take any job."

In the end, two engaging (and at least mildly inebriated) Midwesterners reached the finals: Dave McGill, a 30-year-old college student from Omaha, Neb.; and Rob Twitchel, a carpenter from St. Louis.

Rock, Paper, Scissors fan
That's quite a pair of scissors you've got there lady.

Twitchel explained his championship strategy this way: "I have no strategy at all. I drink beer and throw whatever comes to my mind."

Which might explain why, when McGill went the bureaucratic route and threw paper back-to-back in unconventional fashion, Twitchel, too aggressive, went rock, rock to lose the title.

"I was thinking, 'There ain't no way he'll throw the same thing twice' -- and he did," Twitchel lamented. "I give him all credit. He is a good guy; good thing he won."

Twitchel smiled, then hiccuped.

Thirty minutes after his victory, McGill didn't remember his winning combination.

How did he train for the six-hour mental marathon?

"I shotgunned a ton of beer," he said. "I listened to a ton of Stevie Wonder. I was nailing that.

"I can't write a thesis or something like that. I am not very good at intense math or something like that. But rock, paper, scissors is something I am good at. Feels pretty special. I would compare it to Swayze after the filming of 'Road House.'"

Golder, with an artful rationalization, managed to find a Zen context.

"He had found, I think, through some beer drinking, sort of, that beginner's mind," Golder said thoughtfully, "that Zen of mindlessness, if you will."

Leshem, sitting with Golder high above the quiet arena an hour after the competition, summed it up this way: "Sports are essentially soap operas for men. And men don't really need soap operas. Real men just play sports -- like rock, paper, scissors."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.




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