Of all the decisions Cary Greif has made in her 38 years, this should have been among the simplest. "I had prepared. I had gone online and...

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Of all the decisions Cary Greif has made in her 38 years, this should have been among the simplest.

“I had prepared. I had gone online and looked over strategies. But when I got up there, with the pressure of the lights and the crowds and the camera, I forget everything.”

At the critical moment, her right hand froze, fingers curled into fist. Like a rock.

Facing her at Mission, a West Seattle nightspot, was another woman whose hand was open, her palm flat. The message was clear: the dreaded paper.

Paper, as it has for centuries, wraps rock. It covers rock. It smothers rock. It wads rock up in a harmless little ball and tosses it into the trash. Just that fast, Greif was down one round, and she never recovered. Before she knew it, she washed out of her first rock paper scissors tournament.

Yes, rock paper scissors. If you haven’t seen the Web sites, the book, the YouTube videos or the TV coverage of a $50,000 showdown in Las Vegas, take our word for it: this old kids’ game is back.

“People are looking for sort of strange things to do just because they’re entertaining,” said Aaron Lewis, of the Baltic Room, a Capitol Hill club which hosted a tournament in July and has another planned Oct. 13. “It’s something anyone can do. You don’t have to be athletic. It’s like drawing straws, but more physical.”

Test your talent

The competition is stiff and the beer flows at these rock paper scissors tourneys.

Friday, 4 p.m., T.S. McHugh’s Irish Pub & Restaurant, 21 Mercer St., Seattle.

Oct. 13, 7 p.m., The Baltic Room, 1207 Pine St., Seattle

While some players choose strategies beforehand — rock is regarded as an aggressive play, paper is passive and scissors are conniving — others decide at the last possible moment which sign to “throw.”

And since a match involves multiple rounds, players need to decide whether to stick with the symbol they threw last time, or switch. Some carefully study their opponent’s expression, looking for any “tells” that could hint what sign the player will choose next.

Are these competitors reclaiming lost youth? Longing for simpler times? Or just looking for a way to connect on common ground? All of the above, says Lewis.

Lewis got the idea for the event from a regular customer, Donté Parks, 28, who had played in the Mission tournament and confesses a fascination with the game’s role in popular culture.

“It’s huge. But it’s huge in this strange, nobody-knows-about-it sort of way,” said Parks, program manager for a digital-music company. Some of his friends are very into the game — sometimes playing for money — while others have barely noticed it.

Seattle needs this sort of thing to help loosen its collective collar, says Parks. “In Seattle, everyone wants to be cool and part of that is being very controlled in how you present yourself. But rock paper scissors is so silly that it’s hard to look cool doing it, so people just relax and have a good time.”

Traditionally used to settle bets and make simple decisions, the game — sometimes called Rochambeau after a French count who aided George Washington in the Revolutionary War — has been popping up in some unusual venues. Last year, art auction house Christie’s defeated rival Sotheby’s for the right to sell paintings valued at more than $17 million. In their one-round match, Christie’s chose scissors, defeating Sotheby’s paper.

In June, a federal judge in Florida ordered opposing lawyers to play rock paper scissors to settle their bickering over where a witness’s statement would take place. The judge’s order trigged worldwide news coverage, but the match was never held; the attorneys were able to come to an agreement.

Full Sail Brewing Co.,, of Oregon, puts rock, paper and scissors symbols on the underside of bottle caps on its Session lager, a quick way for beer-drinkers to decide who should buy the next round: paper beats rock, rock beats scissors and scissors beats paper. The brewery helps sponsor tournaments, including those at Mission and the Baltic Room.

Although the game is centuries old and is believed of Asian origin, its place in the modern world has been heavily influenced by a pair of Canadian brothers who, on a November night at the family vacation cabin in 1995, argued over who should go get more firewood.

“It was so cold neither of us wanted to go out. So we decided to settle it with a marathon 15-round session of rock paper scissors,” said Graham Walker, 39, who won the dispute over his younger brother Douglas.

The session rekindled the Walkers’ interest in the game, prompting them to create the Toronto-based World RPS Society Web site, www.worldrps.com. “We found there were people all over the world who have a place for this game in their hearts.”

So naturally, they had to organize a world championship, holding the first in 2002.

In 2004, the Walkers published their manifesto, “The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide,” a 194-page blend of fact, fiction, instruction and silliness.

Consider this gem from Page 125, on how to handle an unpredictable opponent, “There is only one rule for deciding which option to use … and that rule is that there is no rule. Remember that and you will do fine.”

In November, the society will host the fifth annual world championship in Toronto, and among the spots holding qualifying tournaments is a Vancouver, B.C., bar, The Royal.

But what about the good ol’ USA? That’s what Matti Leshem wondered. Leshem, a Los Angeles TV producer, worked on a show about the tournament but had other aspirations. “They call it a ‘world’ championship, but it’s mostly Canadian,” said Leshem, “I wanted to have an American league and an American governing body.”

The result: the USARPS League, which combined big-money sponsor Bud Light and scantily clad cheerleaders to pack a Las Vegas casino in April for a 256-person tournament. After six hours of beer-soaked hand-pumping, 30-year-old bartender Dave McGill, of Omaha, Neb., walked away with the $50,000 first prize.

“I’m an expert at sizing up my opponents,” McGill told the Omaha World-Herald. “I’m a savant.”

In contrast, Katie Randall, 27, the fourth-grade teacher who won the 64-person Mission tournament, got just a couple hundred bucks worth of T-shirts, gift certificates and other merchandise, but still felt the electricity of being a champion.

“There was a lot of luck involved,” said Randall. “I took a simple strategy and put my own kind of half-twist on it.”

Here’s the complex logic that put her on top: “There was a bunch of people who were saying throw paper because so many people are inclined to throw rock. But I thought, OK, if people are going to do paper all the time, then I’m going to do scissors.”

The final match went down to the last possible round, and her scissors prevailed.

Randall, who entered the event at the last minute and can’t remember competing in any kind of tournament before, isn’t going to start taking the game more seriously. But she does plan to compete when Mission repeats the event in February.

“I have to be there. I’ve got to defend my title.”

Times staff researcher David Turim contributed to this report. Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com