kitchen table math, the sequel: gamesmanship

Saturday, July 19, 2008


I've been asking friends about sport psychology lately, mostly on C's behalf. Having missed out on sports as a child, I know nothing about athletics and wish I did. Ed is teaching me tennis, so I've started...)

One thing I didn't know: the importance of the "mental game." Actually, I'm not sure I was fully aware that there was a mental game. All I knew was what Ed's college friend, Ricky, who began life as a sportswriter for USA Today, once told us about the greats. The difference between the great athletes & the near-greats, he said, was that under ferocious pressure the greats got better. That image has stayed with me.

Just found this passage in a WSJ article:

If a masterpiece is both sui generis and gives abiding pleasure, then Stephen Potter's odd books "Gamesmanship" (1947), "Lifemanship" (1950), "One-upmanship" (1952), and "Supermanship" (1958) surely qualify.

I first read "One-upmanship" at age 19, and not long after attended a lecture by the book's author, an Englishman who, had his accent been any plummier, would have been indecipherable....

Of the lecture itself, I remember only that afterward a graduate student rose to ask, in the best wooden academic fashion, how it came about that he, Potter, a recognized Coleridge scholar, a man who had proved his seriousness, as it were and if you will, had veered off to write such ostensibly frivolous books as "Gamesmanship," etc.

Pausing interminably while clearing what seemed like three or four liters of phlegm from his throat, Potter leaned close to his microphone and, in five staccato beats, replied: "Out of work, you know."

A perfect answer, I should say, for the author of books whose reason for being is instruction in how to stir doubt, undermine confidence, spread unease, and encourage hopelessness in one's fellow human beings.


Stephen Potter's own description of his career before writing his -manship books runs: "Failed academic lecturer, failed novelist, failed literary biographer, reasonable compiler [of anthologies], reasonable educational pamphleteer, failed editor, failed book critic, failed rowing blue . . ." He also wrote a play, which, he reports, "got as far as a read-through by a Sunday Society and is perhaps the only play which died on the first rehearsal."

All this failure is important, for it never would have occurred to a successful man to devise the four strange books that were the making of Potter's reputation as a comic artist. The idea for these books first arose while Potter was playing tennis with the philosopher C.E.M. Joad as his partner, against two younger and better players. After hitting a ball that was obviously well out of court, Joad called, "Kindly say clearly, please, whether the ball was in or out." By suggesting a slight lapse in etiquette on the part of the younger players, good sportsmen both, it threw them off stride, a stride they never regained, and Potter and Joad went on to win the match. "For me," writes Potter, "it was the birth of gamesmanship."

"Gamesmanship" is devoted to "the art of winning games without actually cheating." Actually is the key word here. In tennis, golf, chess, poker, cricket, bridge, hunting and other games, Potter suggests delicate ways of breaking the flow of concentration in your opponent so that he stumbles and falls off his game. A gamesman does what he can to make sure that the best man does not win.

The Success of Failure
by Joseph Epstein
July 19, 2008 Page W14
Wall Street Journal

In fact, I figured this out in a high school P.E. class one day. We were playing softball, and I was pitching to one of the naturals. As I recall, my opponent was not only naturally athletic, she was popular and she had made the Pom Pom squad, which I had not.

So I was pitching to this paragon of athleticism and teen success, and I found myself saying to her solicitously, after she had uncharacteristically missed a first swing, "Are you OK? Do you feel alright?"

Her normally confident expression changed to a look of uncertainty and then to near bewilderment as her swing fell apart and she struck out.


C's tennis teacher told me to get Brad Gilbert's Winning Ugly, which I did.

It's about beating people who are better than you.

The tone of Potter's books combines the amiability of P.G. Wodehouse with the humorous malice of Evelyn Waugh. Behind them is the Hobbesian presupposition that man lives in a natural state of war. Well, perhaps not all men -- only those of us who are not dazzlingly handsome, impressively athletic, widely learned and deeply cultured, always at ease in the world. Natural advantage is the enemy for Potter, whose books offer guidance in the art of redress -- or how to go from well down to one-up.

That was pretty much my view of high school.

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