Iocaine Powder

They were both poisoned.

Iocaine Powder is a heuristically designed compilation of strategies and meta-strategies which took first place in Darse Billings' excellent First International RoShamBo Programming Competition. You may use its source code freely; I ask only that you give me credit for any derived works. I attempt here to explain how it works.


RoShamBo strategies attempt to predict what the opponent will do. Given a successful prediction, it is easy to defeat the opponent (if you know they will play rock, you play paper). However, straightforward prediction will often fail; the opponent may not be vulnerable to prediction, or worse, they might have anticipated your predictive logic and played accordingly. Iocaine Powder's meta-strategy expands any predictive algorithm P into six possible strategies:
P.0: naive application
Assume the opponent is vulnerable to prediction by P; predict their next move, and play to beat it. If P predicts your opponent will play rock, play paper to cover rock. This is the obvious application of P.

P.1: defeat second-guessing
Assume the opponent thinks you will use P.0. If P predicts rock, P.0 would play paper to cover rock, but the opponent could anticipate this move and play scissors to cut paper. Instead, you play rock to dull scissors.

P.2: defeat triple-guessing
Assume the opponent thinks you will use P.1. Your opponent thinks you will play rock to dull the scissors they would have played to cut the paper you would have played to cover the rock P would have predicted, so they will play paper to cover your rock. But you one-up them, playing scissors to cut their paper.

At this point, you should be getting weary of the endless chain. "We could second-guess each other forever," you say. But no; because of the nature of RoShamBo, P.3 recommends you play paper -- just like P.0! So we're only left with these three strategies, each of which will suggest a different alternative. (This may not seem useful to you, but have patience.)

P'.0: second-guess the opponent
This strategy assumes the opponent uses P themselves against you. Modify P (if necessary) to exchange the position of you and your opponent. If P' predicts that you will play rock, you would expect your opponent to play paper, but instead you play scissors.

P'.1, P'.2: variations on a theme
As with P.1 and P.2, these represent "rotations" of the basic idea, designed to counteract your opponent's second-guessing.

So, for even a single predictive algorithm P, we now have six possible strategies. One of them may be correct -- but that's little more useful than saying "one of rock, scissors, or paper will be the correct next move". We need a meta-strategy to decide between these six strategies.

Iocaine Powder's basic meta-strategy is simple: Use past performance to judge future results.

The basic assumption made by this meta-strategy is that an opponent will not quickly vary their strategy. Either they will play some predictive algorithm P, or they will play to defeat it, or use some level of second-guessing; but whatever they do, they will do it consistently. To take advantage of this (assumed) predictability, at every round Iocaine Powder measures how well each of the strategies under consideration (six for every predictive algorithm!) would have done, if it had played them. It assigns each one a score, using the standard scoring scheme used by the tournament: +1 point if the strategy would have won the hand, -1 if it would have lost, 0 if it would have drawn.

Then, to actually choose a move, Iocaine Powder simply picks the strategy variant with the highest score to date.

The end result is that, for any given predictive technique, we will beat any contestant that would be beaten by the technique, any contestant using the technique directly, and any contestant designed to defeat the technique directly.


All the meta-strategy in the world isn't useful without some predictive algorithms. Iocaine Powder uses three predictors:
Random guess
This "predictor" simply chooses a move at random. I include this algorithm as a hedge; if someone is actually able to predict and defeat Iocaine Powder with any regularity, before long the random predictor will be ranked with the highest score (since nobody can defeat random!). At that point, the meta-strategy will ensure that the program "cuts its losses" and starts playing randomly to avoid a devastating loss. (Thanks to Jesse Rosenstock for discovering the necessity of such a hedge.)

Frequency analysis
The frequency analyzer looks at the opponent's history, finds the move they have made most frequently in the past, and predicts that they will choose it. While this scores a resounding defeat against "Good Ole Rock", it isn't very useful against more sophisticated opponents (which are usually quite symmetrical). I include it mostly to defeat other competitors which use it as a predictive algorithm.

History matching
This is easily the strongest predictor in Iocaine Powder's arsenal, and variants of this technique are widely used in other strong entries. The version in Iocaine Powder looks for a sequence in the past matching the last few moves. For example, if in the last three moves, we played paper against rock, scissors against scissors, and scissors against rock, the predictor will look for times in the past when the same three moves occurred. (In fact, it looks for the longest match to recent history; a repeat of the last 30 moves is considered better than just the last 3 moves.) Once such a repeat is located, the history matcher examines the move our opponent made afterwards, and assumes they will make it again. (Thanks to Rudi Cilibrasi for introducing me to this algorithm, long ago.)

Once history is established, this predictor easily defeats many weak contestants. Perhaps more importantly, the application of meta-strategy allows Iocaine to outguess other strong opponents.


If you look at Iocaine Powder's source code, you'll discover additional features which I haven't treated in this simplified explanation. For example, the strategy arsenal includes several variations of frequency analysis and history matching, each of which looks at a different amount of history; in some cases, prediction using the last 5 moves is superior to prediction using the last 500. We run each algorithm with history sizes of 1000, 100, 10, 5, 2, and 1, and use the general meta-strategy to figure out which one does best.

In fact, Iocaine even varies the horizon of its meta-strategy analyzer! Strategies are compared over the last 1000, 100, 10, 5, 2, and 1 moves, and a meta-meta-strategy decides which meta-strategy to use (based on which picker performed best over the total history of the game). This was designed to defeat contestants which switch strategy, and to outfox variants of the simpler, older version of Iocaine Powder.


One must remember, when participating in a contest of this type, that we are not attempting to model natural phenomena or predict user actions; instead, these programs are competing against hostile opponents who are trying very hard not to be predictable. Iocaine Powder doesn't use advanced statistical techniques or Markov models (though it could perhaps be improved if it did), but it is very devious.

As a final word, note that any good strategy should have a random fallback (if it's losing, start playing randomly). It's not possible to beat such a strategy by very much, so a competition populated by entries designed by people who realize this basic fact would be quite boring. Since it's the "dumb" entries that make RoShamBo interesting, so the challenge is mostly to figure out the things entrants who are not very bright will think of.

Dan Egnor