Everyone has heard of ‘gamesmanship.’ So too, ‘oneupsmanship.’ Fewer people, unfortunately, know the creator of these terms, or the books that made them famous.
The author was Stephen Potter. Potter was born in 1900 and died too young (as everyone, aside from a few well-known politicians, seems to do) at the age of 69. Obviously, he was a mere youth cut off in the prime of life. A graduate of Westminster School and Merton College, Oxford, he studied English and graduated with honors. He taught English literature at the University of London and then became a writer and producer at the BBC.
His four rather slim volumes are: Gamesmanship, Lifemanship, One-Upsmanship and Supermanship. Gamesmanship is an analysis of ‘how to win games without actually cheating.’ The essential element in most of the ‘ploys’ is wrong footing the opponent by not doing the expected thing. For example, there is a full page drawing showing “the wrong clothes in which Miss E. Watson beat Mrs. De Griem in the finals of the Waterloo Cup Croquet Tourney, August 18, 1902.” The happy winner is draped in a gauzy, full length gown reminiscent of the diaphanous robes Greek goddesses ran around in, when they bothered to dress. Obviously, this is not the usual 1902 sporting costume for (English) ladies, and the ‘wrong clothes ploy’ so flummoxed Mrs. De Griem that she was put off her usual steady stroke. (I did not witness the match in person, of course, but I have read about it, extensively. Indeed, who hasn’t?)
Another similar rule of thumb for tennis is “If you can’t volley, wear velvet socks.” The tactical brilliance of this advice is, I submit, self-evident.
Now and then the gamesman will run into someone who is trying the ‘wrong clothes ploy’ on him. (Or, possibly, ‘her.’) In that case, the accomplished gamesman anticipates the gambit and checkmates his opponent by wearing the ‘right’ clothes. (I’m often asked – is it possible to learn the difference between the right and wrong clothes? Yes, of course. But most effective gamesmen seem to be born with the knowledge.)
Golf is a fertile field for gamesmanship. A classic ploy is to make the opponent suddenly aware of his stroke. As in, ‘I admire the way you always stop your backswing at precisely an eighty five degree angle. I wish I could achieve such remarkable consistency.’ This should be said with sincere admiration. At this point, the opponent will begin to think. He will become aware of his mechanics, and the golf swing that had been so natural will disintegrate into a series of tentative jerks and spasms. ‘Breaking a hundred’ from then on will be a dream deferred.
Subsequent Potter volumes deal with similar techniques that can be applied to all aspects of life, such as ‘winesmanship,’ which is the art of talking about wine ‘without knowing a hock from a horse’s neck.’ When commenting on a wine, for example, Potter recommends: “Don’t say too much about the wine being ‘sound’ or ‘pleasant;’ people will think you have simply been mugging up a wine merchant’s catalogue. It is a little better to talk in broken sentences and say ‘It has … don’t you think?’ Or, ‘it’s a little cornery,’ or something equally random like ‘too many tramlines.’ I use this last phrase because it passes the test of the boldly meaningless.”
Saying anything that’s ‘boldly meaningless,’ especially if it’s said with friendly sincerity and a total absence of pomposity, will generally wrong foot the opponent. And Potter operates on the premise that everyone is an opponent.
Or consider music appreciation: “The general aim in music is to make other people feel outside of it – or outsiders, compared to yourself. Don’t look solemn when music is played; on the contrary be rather jolly about your musical appreciation. Say, ‘Yes it’s a grand tune, isn’t it? …. Ludwig said that this theme represents the galloping hooves of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But to me it’s just a grand tune.’”
Scattered throughout the books are references to various experts – all fictional – but all presented as though they were household names. (This is itself a classic ploy against the reader who feels wrong footed because he has never heard of these supposedly well known characters.)
Sometime in the 1960’s the Brits made a movie based on Potter’s work. It starred Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael, as a wimp turned Gamesman after a brief enrollment at Potter’s institute. It’s not a great movie, but it’s worth noting, simply because someone thought making a movie from Potter’s works was a good idea. Bravo, Brits. Ian Carmichael, by the way, also played Lord Peter Wimsey on the BBC TV productions and the audio books of Dorothy Sayers’ classics.
The last time I checked, Amazon had Potter’s four books available in a single edition called The Complete Upsmanship. Do yourself a favor and get a copy. Of course, it’s possible that you may not be the kind of person who appreciates Potter’s brand of English humor. If so, I wouldn’t worry about it … all that much. I really don’t think it’s a character flaw, and I’m sure many people would agree with me.