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Rock, paper, tournament

You've played the game to pick kickball teams or settle who does the dishes. Now, thanks to a tireless promoter, college students are playing it for money.

March 21, 2009|Alana Semuels

PANAMA CITY, FLA. — The one they call Naco faces his opponent, fist raised, trying to ignore TV cameras, jeers from spring-break revelers and women in itsy-bitsy bikinis a few yards away.

Standing in the center of a boxing ring on a stage erected on the beach, the diminutive Syracuse University sophomore is tied, one best-of-three set apiece, in the USA Rock Paper Scissors League's inaugural collegiate tournament.

A referee gives the signal. The competitors pound their fists, one, two, three times.

Naco throws a clenched hand -- rock. Stone Thrower, a sunburned University of Oklahoma student in a backward baseball cap, extends two outstretched fingers -- scissors.

Rock beats scissors. Naco is one throw from victory.

The thousands of raucous spectators on the beach below roar and raise plastic cups, a red wave rippling across the crowd of skin.

Winning carries more than bragging rights: The champion will score $20,000 for tuition. Winners of rock-paper-scissors tournaments at nearly two dozen colleges across the country were flown here by the sponsor, PepsiCo's AMP Energy drink, to compete against one another and wild-card players plucked off the beach.

Off to the side of the stage, a tall, bald man in a bright blue shirt and white shorts dotted with lobsters grins and takes a picture. He is Matti Leshem, commissioner of the USA Rock Paper Scissors League. The Los Angeles marketer brought the child's game to casinos, and now he's turning it into a spring break sport.

"Your brains got you into college, but you're going to use your fists to pay for it," he yelled to the crowd before the match.

Leshem is intent on exploring -- and exploiting -- the sexy side of a game usually reserved for schoolyards.

The 46-year-old uses buxom women in bikinis to promote events, brings in beer and energy drink companies as sponsors, and strikes television deals such as the one to broadcast these finals later this month on MTVU, the cable network's college channel.

His latest angle: Pitch rock-paper-scissors as a way to help students pay for school, a scholarship sport that requires brains rather than athletic talent. The game has a low barrier to entry: It requires no equipment, and, he likes to say, it's so simple that even a one-armed person can play. In the game, rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper smothers rock. When each player throws the same hand, it's a stalemate.

Leshem challenges just about everyone he meets to a game, provided they're willing to wager money on the outcome. On the beach here, Leshem swept an MTV host and former "Top Model" contestant in straight sets. He beat a bikini-clad cheerleader (she had to do a back flip as penance for losing). He even challenged a toddler -- who gave up on the game halfway through to return to his juice box.

He says you can tell a lot about people by their choices: Someone who throws rock first is either aggressive or lazy. Paper, represented by an outstretched hand, palm down, means you're staid and observant. Scissors suggests complicated and sexy.

By puffing up the simple game into an event that screaming college students want to be part of, Leshem has become the sport's go-to guy. He says he has perfected how to properly televise the matches, and he landed a publishing deal with a HarperCollins imprint for his book, "The Zen of Rock Paper Scissors," about how the game can be applied to situations including work, love and death.

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The game's history is murky. Some claim its roots lie in ancient China, while others believe it originated in Portugal in the 6th century BC. The first written records of a Japanese version called "Jan-Ken" date to roughly 200 BC. Some Americans call it "roshambo" (believed to be a reference to San Francisco's Rochambeau Playground) and chant those three syllables in place of the traditional counting to begin a game.

In schoolyards, kids picking kickball or basketball teams use rock-paper-scissors to determine who gets first choice of players. During an exhibition tour in China last year, Dodgers players Matt Kemp and Andruw Jones threw fists to decide who would start in center field. As Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark dog-sledded above the Arctic Circle in 2000, his expedition used it to determine whose directions to follow.

"This is a game that's been used to settle disputes for centuries," said Ross Martin, a senior vice president at MTV. "But in the hands of a Matti Leshem, it becomes a transformative experience."

Rock-paper-scissors became a competitive sport after two Canadian brothers, Graham and Douglas Walker, created the World Rock Paper Scissors Society in 1995. Seven years later, they started holding annual tournaments that drew competitors from across the globe. The passion is strong, but the prizes are small and the matches relatively tame.

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