Sunday, 23 October 2011

Literature: Stephen Potter and Gamesmanship

Stephen Potter was one of the few writers who coined a new term in the English language; the word being "Gamesmanship". In the 1950s he wrote four short but very funny books: "Gamesmanship", "Lifemanship", "One-upmanship" and "Supermanship", followed by two others in a similar vein: "Anti-woo" and "The Complete Golf Gamesmanship". Unfortunately the word "Gamesmanship", though widely used in commentary on sports, is invariably misunderstood and misapplied by people who have obviously not read any of Potter's books. This essay is an attempt to put the record straight.

"Gamesmanship" is nowadays used to describe what is in fact straight cheating, especially in football: for instance, pretending to have bben fouled in order to win a free kick. Such behaviour is totally unlike anything described by Potter, who defines gamesmanship as "The art of winning games without actually cheating". Indeed, Potter's concept of gamesmanship is scarcely applicable to professional sport at all, and certainly not to football. What Potter typically describes is a purely amateur encounter, in a sport such as golf or tennis, between two players who each assume the opponent will behave like a gentleman - except that the gamesman isn't really gentlemanly at all. Thus the gamesman might indicate that he has recently suffered some injury or bereavement, in the hope that his opponent will feel sorry for him and ease up on his efforts, in much the same way that, when playing against small children, we often let them win. The same result may be achieved by the gamesman giving the impression that he doesn't care whether he wins or not, but is playing purely for the fun of it. The gamesman might try to confuse his opponent by adopting bizarre tactics, or embarrass him by his inappropriate clothes or peculiar behaviour. If the opponent plays a bad shot, the gamesman should irritate him by offering gratuitous advice on how to improve his technique. If the gamesman on occasions put his opponent off his stroke by moving at the wrong time or causing some other distraction, he should always apologise profusely for such "accidental" misconduct. In sedentary games such as chess, the gamesman can imply he has made a deep atudy of the subject.(My suggestion: when the opponent makes some perfectly innocuous move, the gamesman exclaims, as though talking to himself, "Well, well! The old Zinoviev gambit! I haven't come across that for years!" Opponent will vaguely remember he's heard the name Zinoviev somewhere before)
Potter's gamesman, in fact, is a thorough cad, but not a cheat.

In the following books, Potter developes the concept of "Lifemanship", which essentially consists of how the "lifeman" manages to convey the impression that he has certain expertise or erudition which he does not in fact possess; as a motorist, birdwatcher, linguist, rockclimber, academic, sportsman or whatever. Telling direct lies is cheating, and even worse, runs the risk of being exposed by a genuine expert. Potter gives various examples: how to be one-up on your doctor or supervisor (or, if the boot is on the other foot, how to prevent this happening), how to become the dominant person at a meeting or seminar, whether as speaker, chairman, or simply someone who asks a question from the floor; and the style of book-reviewing which Potter styles "Newstatesmanship": the art of appearing to know far more about a subject than does the author of the book under discussion.
Potter recommends some basic ploys which can be employed in many different situations. For instance, if asked to identify a certain bird, the lifeman can say firmly, "Where I come from, we used to call it a frog-pippet". This is, of course, quite unanswerable, and can easily be adapted for use in a discussion on, say, botany, or architecture, or even as a spectator at a sporting event.
The technique which Potter uses in his books is to make his points through the medium of anecdotes about the successes, and occasional failures, of various gamesmen and lifemen, and these stories are frequently extremely funny. Obviously most of his characters are fictitious, but some are perfectly genuine, such as Professor Joad and the journalist and politician Tom Driberg. They are treated in exactly the same way as the fictitious characters.

I can claim a few small successes myself. Some years ago, when I used to attend lots of gymnastics events, I was once asked if I was the editor of the "International Gymnast" magazine. I was honest enough to admit that I was not that person; but the point is, why should anyone think I was? But I have also come across some sad cases of opportunities spurned. A former colleague of mine was once seen wearing the distinctive tie of the M.C.C., the Maryleborne Cricket Club; a most exclusive society, very difficult to get into for anyone who is not a top-class cricketer or is without the right social connections. Since my friend was hardly a cricketer at all, I asked him how he had contrived to gain entry to such a prestigious club. He admitted that he wasn't actually a member, but had simply bought the tie at a jumble sale. I was most disappointed at this feeble response, and recommended instead something on these lines:- "Well, I'm afraid I'd never get in nowadays.... I can hardly swing my bowling arm at all..." (make suitable creaky movements of the shoulder) "These endless repetitions always get you in the end, you know.... And what have I got to show for it? Look, even the calluses on my hands have worn off..." The obvious value of this approach is that one's fundamental ineptitude as a cricketer need never be revealed.

Gamesmanship as Stephen Potter envisaged it is thus perhaps now of limited relevance, but lifemanship still lives on!

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