Roy Plomley: (Being interviewed by Stephen Potter on the BBC). Mr. Potter, as I've known you for so many years, do you think that on this programme I might call you Stephen?
Potter: Well, why not—Plomley.
At a time when literary humor on both sides of the Atlantic appears to be close to obliteration by the popular culture monolith, the time seems appropriate to reevaluate one of the great British classics of this genre—Stephen Potter's The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, Or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating.
Potter's quirky and amusing analysis of perverse sportsmanship was published in 1947, a time when sophisticated readers would occasionally switch their attention from apocalyptic think-pieces on the Op-Ed pages to devour such masterpieces of nonsense as Thurber's My Life And Times, Robert Benchley's The Treasurer's Report, and S. J. Perelman's The Road to Miltoton. In spirit, Potter's Gamesmanship was an extension of these American classics of written humor.
Over a span of more than four decades Potter's book has become the ne plus ultra of that branch of British humor characterized by urbanity and understatement. It is the by-product of the Oxford-Cambridge-BBC-Punch axis, which was broadened into the theatrical revue, Beyond The Fringe, and in the zany television series, "Monty Python."
Like other memorable works of satire, Gamesmanship did not, upon its publication, receive much attention. Readers and critics tended to regard it as just another bit of fluff written in the dry, deadpan style of Punch. But the book soon acquired a cult following in university English departments, and eventually its audience spread to sophisticated circles outside the academy, perhaps including the same people who reveled in having "discovered" recordings of Tom Lehrer's underground satirical songs. Ironically, the current cultural climate has sharpened and broadened the relevance of Gamesmanship, although in a crasser more debased heavy-handed form. Such phenomena as the Looking Out For Number One, the revival of cut-throat laissez-faire economics, the remnants of Thatcherism, and the Vince Lombardi ethic in sports come to mind. The book has clearly become more than it was intended to be.
According to Potter, the inspiration for Gamesmanship surfaced during a doubles tennis match in which he and his partner, Dr. Cyril Joad, a university lecturer, were being trounced by a couple of cocky undergraduates. After one crucial exchange, Joad stepped up to the net and inquired of their young opponents, "Kindly say clearly, please, whether the ball was in or out." The remark had such a disarming effect that Potter was prompted to conclude: "There is nothing more off-putting to young university players than a slight suggestion that their etiquette or sportsmanship is in question. We all know this. Yet how often we forget to make use of it." It is this masterful use of understatement that gives Gamesmanship its uniquely British flavor.
Alden Whitman, writing in the New Yorfe Times on the occasion of Stephen Potter's death on Dec. 2, 1969 at age 69, noted that the proposition underlying Potter's humor was that "the courteously clever can and perhaps should be superior to the merely expert." A variation on this hypothesis, according to Whitman, is that the "psychologically well-equipped gentleman can win at the games of life without really playing them well." Potter himself characterized this concept as "the moral equivalent of assault and battery." He further reasoned that the ultimate goal of this "games" psychology is to disarm one's opponent by "ploys," to be constantly in the position of "one-up" (a term that Potter seems to have single-handedly placed in the English language) and thus assure that one's opponent will always be playing well below his usual level of skill.
Other than his early obsession with games such as squash, tennis, golf, croquet, and snooker, there was little in Potter's formative years to suggest that he would end up writing a universally acclaimed classic on reverse and perverse sportsmanship.
He was born in south London in 1900 and raised in comfortable circumstances, which allowed him entry into an upper-class education, culminating in his earning a "second" in English language and literature at Merton College, Oxford.
It is not clear why Potter, who had a somewhat mischievous and quirky personality, chose an academic career following his graduation from Oxford, but he became a lecturer in English at Birkbeck College, London, where he taught from 1926 to 1938.
For a time, at least, Potter took his job as an academic seriously. He even earned the respect of his colleagues as a literary critic with his book, Coleridge and S. T. C., a study of Coleridge's internal conflicts. It seems clear, however, that Potter could not have gone on indefinitely turning out critical tomes, for, like "professor" Vladmir Nabokov, who spoofed the pedantry of American academicians in Pnin and Pale Fire, his sense of detached bemusement over some of the ritualistic absurdities of Academe and the constriction of university culture led him in other directions, where his comedic sense could flourish.
In 1938 Potter quit teaching and joined the British Broadcasting Company, whose encouragement of many forms of discourse, provided a happy outlet for his verbal playfulness.
Ironically, a ten-day power outage in 1947 at the BBC prompted Potter to scribble on scrap paper the wonderful nonsense that eventually became a seminal book on the subleties and vagaries of perverse sportsmanship.
Like C. Northcote Parkinson, who became the living embodiment of Parkinson's Law, Potter was never able to shake the public's perception of him as the world's leading authority on how to deal psychologically with one's opponent in the playing of games. But for one brief moment he lapsed into seriousness with Steps to Immaturity, a memoir of his school days, which prompted one his friends to note, "Potter never grew up, and always seemed an immensely likeable overgrown boy."
Like all memorable satirical works—Gulliver's Travels and Animal Farm come to mind—Gamesmanship achieves a workable fusion of style and structure. In developing his critique of diabolical cynicism, Potter chose the format of a primer-level "How To" sports manual, with "straight" chapter headings such as "The Pre-game," "The Game Itself," and "Winmanship." The chapters are fleshed out with such rhetorical devices as axioms, hypothetical situations, and silly graphics—all communicating in a mock-serious tone the kind of trivia that only British humorists seem to be able to generate.
Much of the pleasure that one derives from reading Gamesmanship rests on Potter's clever use of axioms, stated in classical form and reflecting gambits with which all sportsmen and athletes are familiar. For example, on the symbolism of attire Potter states: IF THE OPPONENT WEARS, OR ATTEMPTS TO WEAR, CLOTHES CORRECT AND SUITABLE FOR THE GAME, BY AS MUCH AS HIS CLOTHES SUCCEED IN THIS FUNCTION, BY SO MUCH SHOULD THE GAMESMAN'S FAIL. Potter's analysis of this ploy is replete with sharply observed nonsense. At another point we are advised: LET THE GAMESMAN'S ADVANTAGE OVER AN OPPONENT APPEAR TO BE THE RESULT OF LUCK, NEVER OF PLAY. And again: LET YOUR ATTITUDE BE THE ANTITHESIS OF YOUR OPPONENT'S.
In his analysis of another axiom—BREAK THE FLOW— Potter gives us the full flavor of his deadpan professorial persona:
But it is worth remembering that some of the earliest tentative ploys in what Toynbee calls, in his amusing essay, "The Paleogamesman Period," were directed to the essential breaking of the flow. They consisted of such naive devices as tying up a shoe lace in a prolonged manner, after the opponent at squash or lawn tennis had served two or three aces running; the extended noseblow, with subsequent mopping up not only of the nose and surrounding surfaces, but of imaginary sweat from the forehead and neck as well; leaving your driver on the tee and going back for it, etc., etc.
This passage represents another comic thrust of Gamesmanship, unnoticed when the book first appeared, that transcends the matter of ploys used in sports. It is a spoof of ivory tower pedantry. The style of the book comes across as a parody of the "Publish or Perish" mode of scholarly prose that pervades the upper levels of academe and culminates in the pages of the Modern Language Association Journal and its British counterparts. Here Potter takes on the entire gamut of abuses and excesses—the name-dropping of obscure tomes, the maddeningly turgid prose style, the minutiaeridden footnotes, the incomprehensible charts, the pointless indices. But this aspect of Gamesmanship is understandable when one considers Potter's rebellion against the constrictions of his own academic career rebellion and his parting shot: "All those years of lecturing and scholarship left me with a kind of repugnance that could account in part for my desire to abandon the field and have a little fun out of it as well."
1This axiom became vividly clear to me when a fiercely competitive tennis opponent of mine, who was normally a brilliant raconteur, would remain speechless during a "friendly" match and would haughtily avoid eye-contact with me at the exchange of sides. The ploy worked.
Although Potter expanded his joke to include areas other than sports, where scoring points through mastery of the symbols of status comes into play, he did not foresee the degree to which psychological game-playing would pervade the managerial culture in American corporations, and, in doing so, cease to be an object of ridicule. The phenomenon is delineated in Michael Maccoby's 1976 sociological study of corporate executives, The Gamesman. Maccoby's book is ostensibly an attempt to classify corporate personality types with such labels as The Jungle Fighter, The Company Man, The Draftsman; but the core of his analysis is the executive as "Gamesman." According to Maccoby,
The modern gamesman is best defined as a person who loves change and wants to influence its course. He likes to take calculated risks and is fascinated by technique and new methods. . . . Unlike other business types, he is energized to compete not because he wants to build an empire, not for riches, for fame, glory, the exhilaration of running his team and gaining victories. His main goal is to be known as a winner, and his deepest fear is to be labeled a loser.
Carrying the gamesmanship symbolism further, Maccoby echoes Potter:
To the dynamic corporations, managerial meetings have a locker-room atmosphere, where discussion of game strategy is punctuated with detached, mildly sadistic humor, employed by the superior to keep the inferior in his place. These little put-downs, which may be resented by craftsmen or dignified company men, can be called "homeopathic doses of humiliation" necessary to maintain a minimum of hierachy, to who is boss, without having to humiliate the subordinate definitively by, for example, having him eat in another dining room or calling him "Mister Jones" rather than "Jack."
But the corporate gamesman has a flaw:
The fatal danger for gamesmen is to be trapped in perpetual adolescence, never outgrowing the self-centered compulsion to score, never confronting their boredom with life when it is not a game, never developing a sense of meaning that requires more of them and allows others to trust them.
What emerges from this Americanized application of a uniquely British cultural trait is the seriousness with which the combatants play out their roles. It is the Social Darwinian philosophy of clawing one's way to the top, and, once you are there, keeping those whom you trampled on in their place, but with a contemporary overlay of appearing to be gentlemanly about it. So far as I know, nothing has been written in this country to suggest that we have been able to distance ourselves from the habit of combativeness in the market place. Political rhetoric confirms that notion. When the subject is tackled in print, it tends to be treated in the drab, up-front style of the social scientist rather than the more appropriate oblique point of view of the literary comedian.
2In a 1959 Nation piece on Potter, Edmund Wilson took note of the fact that Potter, although an academic himself, did not exploit the fertile field of one-upmanship among professors, whereupon Wilson proceeded to fill the gap.
A similar cultural distinction exists in our contemporary sports and games. For example, it is interesting to note that American athletes tend to use the term "gamesmanship" with a degree of self-consciousness. They feel more comfortable with the idea of "psyching" or "psyching out." Why is this so? My guess is that, to Americans, "gamesmanship" connotes a rather frivolous gentility, a gentlemanly approach to sports that borders on an outdated effeteness (white flannels, striped blazers, "Tennis anyone?," and all that), and a subtlety about how to win at games that is foreign to us.
"Psyching" is more blatant than gamesmanship, more aggressive, and more hostile. Among American boxers "psyching" takes the form of self-centered hyperbole during weighing-in ceremonies, a ploy turned into an art form by Mohammed Ali. Among tennis players it is manifested by the employment of delaying tactics. And football linesmen commonly attempt to "psych their opponents."
It is all very much devoid of nuance. The sad truth is that over the 40-plus years since the publication of Gamesmanship all the fun has been taken out of athletic competition in this country, from Little League competition to the professional leagues. Sport has lost its innocence. For a number of reasons, most of them having to do with greed and profit, it has become increasingly cut-throat and vicious, a be-all and end-all enterprise.
Despite these cross-cultural linkages, Potter's Gamesmanship is likely to remain intact as a species of social criticism that is uniquely British. It is a book that could only have emerged from an obsesssively class-conscious society, one in which the code of the "gentleman" was a thin veneer covering an instinct to go for the jugular. And England between World Wars, which is the era that Potter is writing about in Gamesmanship, provided him with the perfect milieu for exposing this peculiar form of British hypocrisy. It would not be stretching a point to say that Gamesmanship represents the last gasp of a way of life that was wiped out by the rise of the "Angry Young Man" in literature, the shrinking of the British empire, Thatcherism, and the intensifying economic and social tension on the domestic scene. Even so, the book is far from being antiquated, for Potter is dealing with a constant in human nature—the urge to best the other guy at any cost. Fortunately, he had the sense to see that the absurdity of individuals in a supposedly civilized society being constantly on the attack requires a rapier rather than a bludgeon, as well as total detachment. Still, it seems that we have a long way to go. The fact that the American public goes ga-ga over British Royal weddings and other unintentionally funny monarchistic rituals suggests that we Americans need to sharpen our social perceptions. This in itself seems reason enough for rereading and reconsidering Gamesmanship.
3 John McEnroe's constant tirades and tantrums over line calls appeared to be spontaneous, but, because of their frequency, I always assumed that they were calculated ploys to throw off the rhythm of his opponents.