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When it comes to rock, paper, scissors, Jason Simmons is not modest: “I’ve been considered the world’s greatest player in the game,” the 33-year-old piercing artist will tell you. His estimation of the game’s future is no more humble: Not too long ago, says Simmons—known in the RPS world as Master Roshambollah—he envisioned a world of corporate-sponsored tournaments drawing hundreds of “athletes” vying for not just glory, but cash prizes.

If a recent Saturday night at Shaw nightclub DC9 is any indication, that vision is no longer grandiose. Well before competition begins, the 128-person field of the 2004 Magic Hat D.C. National Championships (sponsored by Fatty’s Custom Tattooz; energy provided by Red Bull) fills up, leaving several dozen would-be competitors to merely watch rather than battle for the $1,000 purse.

Besides the killer turnout, the bald-pated Simmons (who, in a surprise announcement, retired last week to focus on “building the sport”) has orchestrated another, more telling, sign of the sport’s rise: As at this year’s political conventions, the people who matter—the delegates, the competitors—are subjected to the attentions of a disproportionate number of media reps. Besides a conspicuous bunch of notebook-toting reporters, including journos from the Washington Post and the New York Times, a gaggle of photographers and a couple of cameramen for an upcoming rock-paper-scissors documentary mill around the room.

About a half-hour before the matches begin, Simmons engages in a final huddle with the event’s four referees. “The most important rule is to have complete control over the matches,” he tells them. That means no unauthorized moves: “No dynamite, no bomb, no Satan, no spark, no water, no Texas longhorn,” he says. “That’s a total disqualification.”

Even more important, he tells them, is to keep an eye out for the “vertical paper,” aka the “handshake”—when a player, usually a novice, plays paper with his or her palm to the side rather than down. Not only is it a disqualifying offense, a pamphlet handed out at the competition titled “Official Rules of RPS” says using the vertical paper “is considered exceptionally bad form.”

Despite paper’s hazards, one competitor, local journalist Robert Walton, considers it the cornerstone of his tournament strategy. Among his favorite openers is the “bureaucrat”—three consecutive throws of paper. Asked to handicap the tournament, he deems the competition tough: “I’ve seen a lot of scissors out there,” he says. “Lot of scissors.”

Walton is a member of the D.C. Gambits, a team of eight that Simmons, dressed in a midnight-blue brocade tuxedo with scissors cuff links, rarely fails to plug onstage as the evening wears on. Though this is the Gambits’ first tournament, they are already the most hated team in competitive RPS. With each announcement, the squad garners more boos, thanks to its incessant chanting of “D-C-G!”

Walton, it turns out, is not the only paper aficionado in the room. “I’m a big fan of the old scissor sandwich,” competitor Chris Schwalm says, referring to another textbook opening—paper, scissors, paper, also known as the “paper doll.” He switched to paper from rock, he explains, after injuring himself at last year’s world championships in Toronto.

During the first round, one of the Gambits, Patrick Bracken, plays his way to a one-throw showdown. Bracken comes down with rock; his opponent throws the dread vertical paper. But the referee doesn’t catch it, drawing outraged yells from a couple of spectators as Bracken sulks away, his tournament over.

Things don’t go much better for Walton. “Paper didn’t really get it done,” he says later. “I overthought things, and it didn’t work out.”

The pulpy option doesn’t do so well for Schwalm, either, who also falls in his first match of the night: “I came with paper, but scissors is my downfall,” he says. “My nemesis.”

A moment later, behind Schwalm, one of the deadpan cameramen asks yet another member of the Gambits, Jon Lin, about his strategy. (The highest-placing Gambit, he will finish in the top eight.)

“Are you serious?” Lin asks. “We’re just getting drunk.”

—Mike DeBonis