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Gamesmanship, and some incorrect uses of the term

June 21, 2010

I’ve been restraining myself from posting anything related to the World Cup, but here’s a thought. The Guardian’s report on Italy’s embarrassing failure to overcome New Zealand contains the opinion that “Italy taught New Zealand more lessons in gamesmanship than football.” What the reporter really means by “gamesmanship” is that the Italians resorted to the kind of cheating that is likely to go undetected by referees (Daniele De Rossi throwing himself on the ground to win a penalty, Fabio Cannavaro reacting exaggeratedly to harmless aerial challenges from Rory Fallon in order to convince the referee that Fallon was an overly-physical brute against whom they needed protection, and so on); as opposed, of course, to easily detectable cheating. I’ve heard the word “gamesmanship” used quite a lot in the last couple of weeks, and to be quite plain the term is being used incorrectly. There’s something pathetic about the actions of the Italian players, and I’d like to rescue the idea of “gamesmanship”, which I rather like, from association with this kind of behaviour.

What reporters and commentators are really describing is, at best, a very crude attempt to employ Machiavellian techniques in compensation for the team’s deficiencies. Gamesmanship, it should be stressed, is the word, concept and branch of science invented by Stephen Potter and dedicated to “the art of winning games without actually cheating”. Potter’s rather devilish little book, published in 1947, introduces a fictional set of rogues who develop the art of gamesmanship, and records methodically the gamesmen’s various ploys. The gamesman’s intention should be (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) to make the other fellow feel that something is not quite right – it’s a sort of act of derailment, and the subtler the better.

Potter’s account of the origin of the term can be found here.

As in games, so in life – so Potter transposed his coinage, in subsequent publications, to cover the wider subjects of Lifemanship and Oneupmanship. What’s glorious about some of the simpler suggestions from Lifemanship – such as wearing one alarmingly shrunken sock, made visible by slightly too-short trousers, to an interview – is their lack of clear objective. Potter’s books display the precision and certainty of life manuals, guide books, self-help volumes – with the brilliant and beautiful difference that they strip the “guide” of its utility function and instead make advice a matter of irrational creativity.

If you were being really critical, you could suggest that there’s something gruesomely English about gamesmanship as described by Potter – that it involves a certain meanness and ambition masked (of course) by charm.

Here’s what I’d say in defence: Gamesmanship is ostensibly a guide to aid the supremely competitive, but really gamesmanship isn’t about competition at all. Instead, it makes rather merry with the often arbitrary rules of games, for the sake of play itself. In my understanding of gamesmanship, the derailment of order is ultimately more significant than any personal gain. Rather than offering know-how for the maliciously ambitious, Potter promotes that most serious of pastimes, pottering about. In fact, gamesmanship is for the most part a very private game-within-a-game, so if De Rossi et al were in fact practicing gamesmanship, the fact would probably not be immediately obvious to millions of viewers worldwide.

(As an afterthought – it occurred to me that according to all the (incorrect) cliches of football journalism, “gamesmanship” is something that the Italians do, whereas the same behaviour by an African team (see Keita’s reaction to get Kaka sent off in the Ivory Coast – Brazil game, later on the same day) is almost never described as gamesmanship.)

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