Join the league


by Bryan Rourke
The Providence Journal


The phone rings. Jason Messier answers. A woman speaks.

Messier recognizes the voice. It’s a friend from West Bridgewater, Mass. It’s early March. And it’s Friday night.

Messier’s deciding what to do: go on a date or go to a poker game. Then the woman gives Messier a third option. And she presents in such a way it’s hard for the 28-year-old Coventry man to resist.

“She says, ‘You’re stupid. You’re into stupid stuff. There’s a rock-paper-scissors tournament tonight. You got to come.’ ”

Messier’s tempted.

The winner from this tournament, among hundreds around the country, gets an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Las Vegas to compete in the second annual USA Rock Paper Scissors championship with its $50,000 first prize. The losers quench their thirst. They get complimentary beverages from the sponsor, Bud Light.

“I said all right. The worst is I get free beer all night.”

Meanwhile in Providence, Brian Gambon is thirsty. The junior at Johnson & Wales University wants a beer. So, naturally, he goes to a bar: Finnegan’s.

Gambon, 24, walks in on a rock paper scissors tournament. How ridiculous, he thinks. He has no intention of participating.

Then Gambon sees something that changes his mind, and his night.

“The Bud Light girl who was hosting the tournament was really hot. She enticed me into it.”

So here you have it, two Rhode Island athletes, long removed from their sport, completely out of practice and training. Yet valiantly they compete again, relying on skills honed but apparently not abandoned years ago in some schoolyard.

That’s right: sport. The world’s largest media outlet devoted to athletics, says so.

Rock crushes scissors. Scissors cut paper. Paper wraps rock.

You can see all the fast-fingered action Saturday at 9 p.m. on ESPN 2.

“ESPN is interested in competition in all forms,” says Ilan Ben-Hanan, the network’s director of programming and acquisitions. “While we’re obviously interested in the traditional sports — football, basketball, baseball — there is room on the network for other kinds of competition. This is fun, and different from the norm, and there all kinds of great people in the event.”

For those who missed the national championship in May, we won’t drain the drama of your TV watching this weekend. We won’t tell you who won. But we will say who didn’t: Messier and Gambon, among others.

However just qualifying for Vegas, by beating a number of nimble opponents, is something anyone with hands can appreciate. The game’s not hard. But winning consistently is.

Sure it takes some luck, but also some skill.

“It’s not like flipping a coin,” Messier says. “But it’s not like flying an airplane. It’s somewhere between the two.”

LET’S BEGIN IN A BAR in downtown Providence. Gambon appears to be playing rock paper scissors. But what he’s really doing is impressing the Bud Light babe, or so he’d like to think.Gambon goes undefeated. He finishes first in a field of 25 competitors. He gets the right to compete the following weekend in a regional final. But he doesn’t get what he really wants: the Bud Light girl.The next weekend at the Fish Company in Providence, Gambon faces some of the area’s best hands in a regional final. He wins again. You wonder how; he does, too.

“I just go with the flow. I feel like thinking would be too much for me.”

So it appears winging it is Gambon’s strategy, but that’s only how it appears. When pressed, Gambon reveals his heady tactics.

“I manipulate them to make them throw the opposite of what I’m throwing.”

Gambon says he does this by using his “psychic powers,” and by doing what his opponents don’t expect: double throws — scissors followed by a scissors, rock by a rock, etc.

“You got to trick them.”

Gambon’s trick works. He goes to Vegas. But before that, in the two months between the regional and national championships, everywhere he goes, everyone challenges him.

The word’s out. Gambon’s got game.

“I have to play everyone I meet, even people in class. Everybody stops me.”

FINALLY, GAMBON GETS to Vegas. Matches are the best of three bouts. Each bout is the best of three throws, where ties (rock vs. rock, etc.) don’t count.

Winners advance. Losers play the slots.

“It was a long flight for a short game.”

Gambon’s Vegas tournament amounts to one match, which lasts less than one minute. He loses two bouts to none.

“I lost because they put me up against my kryptonite: a beautiful woman. They put me up against the most beautiful woman in the tournament. I can't tell you much. I was out before I knew it.”

Gambon’s right. Michelle Dreckman of Mankato, Minn., is beautiful, to the point of distraction. And she makes Gambon do dumb things with his fingers.

Gambon’s just not thinking, at least not about his game.

“I remember she had golden-brown hair, very blue eyes and a gorgeous smile.”

Gambon got beat by his own strategy.

“You’ve got to get into your opponent’s head. If you can do that, you can win. You got to look them in the eyes. That’s why I lost to kryptonite.”

IT TAKES MESSIER a longer time to lose in Vegas. But first, he’s got to get there. So in early March, he drives to West Bridgewater, to the Charlie Horse bar. There he meets his female friend who invited him, and his cousin, with whom he used to play rock paper scissors as a boy, before every Wiffle ball game.

“We’d see who would bat first and who would pitch first.”

But there were other occasions, too.

“There was this creepy guy that used to live next door. Whoever lost had to go over and talk to the guy.”

Messier didn’t like talking to the guy.

“I got good after I had to talk to the creepy guy a few times.”

Then, around the age of 11 or 12, just when Messier is mastering rock paper scissors, he lets it go. And he doesn’t return to it in earnest for nearly two decades, in a bar in West Bridgewater, where some 60 people are vying to go to Vegas.

“I had a strategy. Girls love to throw scissors first, if you’re playing an average, amateur girl. If I face a guy, I’ll throw paper first. Guys throw rock a lot. They think, ‘I’m tough. I throw rock.’ ”

The strategy works. Messier wins. And he returns the following week for a regional final.

The pool of competitors is narrowed to three: Messier and two guys playing in the last semi-final match. The winner will face Messier, who studies and memorizes their match.

“He throws paper first and then he throws paper again. Who throws paper, paper first?”

Messier faces this guy in the final, and figures his tendencies haven’t changed.

“I never go scissors first. I did scissors. I beat his paper. I did scissors again. He threw paper.”

Messier took a 2-0 throw lead, and eventually won the 5-throw match.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to Vegas for rock paper scissors.’ ”

MESSIER TAKES HIS COUSIN with him. They stay at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino for two nights and two days.

The tournament involves 325 competitors, and all kinds of characters, some who wear wacky outfits, such as “Heavy Hands Moran” who sports a silk boxing robe and a fake rock paper scissors championship belt.

“I saw this guy before the event and said to my cousin, ‘Look at this idiot.’ ”

The idiot is Messier’s first opponent. Messier seeks advice from his cousin, who he notes is showing the effects of access to an open bar. He takes his cousin’s suggestion anyway, that someone with heavy hands is going to throw rocks. So Messier throws paper, and promptly loses the first bout in the best-of-three match, which he comes back to win, with the ESPN cameras capturing it all.

“I think it was because of his stupid outfit.”

Messier wins his next match too.

“I played an amateur lady, a typical lady. She did scissors first. Then I thought she’s coming back with rock. I threw paper. I beat her two bouts to nothing.”

Messier has the night off. His next match isn’t until the following morning, which isn’t good. He has too much time to think.

“I put too many thoughts in my head. I over-prepared. I started out-thinking myself.”

MESSIER’S MORNING opponent is a man. And, Messier says, he’s “rock crazy,” and, worse, “erratic and really random.” Messier, a competitive poker player, says this is the worst kind of opponent. You need to have some sense of your opponent’s tendencies.

“He was just a regular guy. That kind of threw me off. He was too regular and normal. I was better at beating the freaks. They reminded me of the old days and the creepy guy, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going to talk to him.’ ”

After making it to the round of 64 players, Messier had the rest of the tournament to tour the town, mingle with the masses.

“People from the Midwest would say, ‘Where’s Rhode Island?’ One guy asked if it was a new state. I may not know where North Dakota is on the map, but I know it’s a state.”

As with Gambon, Messier, too, says he’d like to participate in the rock paper scissors tournament next year. However, Messier’s relatively close call to fame and fortune in Vegas still gnaws at him, even weeks after his return.

“I dreamed I won the tournament and the $50,000. I woke up and it wasn’t true. And for some reason, the Spice Girls were in this dream.”

Don’t ask.

Know this though: The phone rings. Messier answers.

“I wake up. All right, it’s time to go deliver pizza at Domino’s.”

“Oh my God. I’m going to Vegas for rock paper scissors.”

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