Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Penguin no. 1826: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship
by Stephen Potter

The assiduous student of gamesmanship has little time for the minutiae of the game itself - little opportunity for learning how to play the shots, for instance. His skill in stroke-making may indeed be non-existent. So that the gamesman who finds himself winning in the early stages of the match is sometimes at a loss...this seems to me the place to set down a few words of help and friendly advice to the winning gamesman, to help him keep his lead; to assist him to maintain his advantage, and rub his opponent's face in the dirt.

In this delightful example of literary humour dating from the late 1940s, Stephen Potter proposes gamesmanship as an alternative and widely-applicable approach to the winning of games as diverse as lawn tennis, darts and billiards. His suggestion is to succeed through cleverness; the gamesman seeks not to outplay his opponent, but to outwit him.

If the outcome of any sporting contest can be viewed as an interplay between skill, tactics and chance, his idea is to forget the first factor entirely and concentrate instead on the second, while interpreting the set of permissible tactics as broadly as possible. He gives a working definition of gamesmanship as 'the art of winning games without actually cheating'.

Perhaps the opponent truly believes that he and the gamesman are joining together in a match of croquet, for example, but the gamesman will be engaged in something slightly different, something far more akin to a game of chess. His primary goal will be to force his adversary to play as far below his ability as he can, and he will set out to achieve this by employing a series of well-practised ploys and gambits. For the gamesman, the game begins before he and his opponent have even reached the grounds, and it continues on through lunch and drinks, for the gamesman knows that any possibility of having his opponent feel humiliation, intimidation, embarrassment or discomfort is to be exploited. In the end, winning the croquet match is simply a side-effect of a well-played round of gamesmanship.

While this takes little practical knowledge of the game under consideration, it takes great deal of application and dedication to learning the techniques of gamesmanship. And hence this small volume, which purports to be an introduction to the various axioms, corollaries and gambits involved in gamesmanship, and a discussion of their ongoing development, together with (spurious) suggestions on where to seek further elucidation. This book is written as if it provided a how-to manual for the aspiring gamesman.

But the joke works because it is also a spoof on the academic writing of the day. Stephen Potter sets out to quietly send up the contemporary conventions, so there is the feigned reluctance to write the pamphlet at all, the concern with establishing priority, the references to obscure authorities and their works, the over-abundant footnotes, and the inclusion of diagrams with unnecessarily pedantic explanations, all a chore to decipher.

Perhaps more than any other vintage Penguin title I have read, this one shows how much the world has changed in the intervening years. It is a joke which can only work in a world in which it can be reasonably assumed that, for most people, the competitive spirit is constrained by an inherent decency and an unwavering desire to be seen as playing fair. It also assumes that people are capable of feeling embarrassment, will choose to act to avoid feeling it, and that any display of an overbearing attitude or outspokenness will necessarily induce it, for these are the very qualities which the gamesman hopes to use to his advantage. I suspect that these days the proposed behaviour is more likely to be seen as sledging, or psyching-out an opponent, and the joke would fall flat.

I would describe this book as cleverly done, rather than funny. I think it works, however, because Stephen Potter resisted the temptation to overplay his idea. He keeps his book short, concise, and varied, and as a result, I found it enjoyable.


  1. I loved these books as a kid - there are a few. You've made me wonder if I still would.

  2. It's quite an amusing idea in this original title, but vastly overplayed in the succeeding Lifemanship, One-Upmanship and Supermanship. ( Likewise IMO the sequels to Parkinson's Law, 1066 and All That, Major Thompson Lives in France.)

    1. Yes, I think this one worked partly because of the way it has been written, but mostly because he kept it short. I have the others here on my desk, and I've been wondering if it wise to read them in sequence, or if I will tire of the joke very quickly.

  3. The Stephen Potter books are all very funny, and do link in well together if you read them in one go. They were also a basis for a comedy film, all about Oneupmanship with Alastair Sim, School for Scoundrels, which is a very light amusing film.

  4. I have a couple of Potter's -ship books, but I can't remember which ones and I haven't read any of 'em! But I do look forward to them more now.

    The qualities you describe in your final paragraph still seem like pretty British qualities to me... well, maybe not the honour, but certainly the wish to avoid any sort of scene.

    1. I recommend trying Gamesmanship first, if you have it; I think it is better than the first sequel which I am reading now. I think it will be particularly appealing to someone who needs to read a lot of academic literature - even though his field was English Literature (as is yours), I still recognise the conversational tone being evoked in the Stats literature of the 1930s.

      Do you think that the desire to avoid making a scene is a universal British trait or one that applies within certain strata? I read somewhere after I had written this that even at the time Gamesmanship was published it was recognised that he was describing a pre-war world that had already vanished.



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