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Where there’s a will, there’s a gamesman

Published:Sunday | February 22, 2015 | 12:00 AM

I was in a meeting of the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association (JMA), a young public-relations officer, one morning in the 1960s, when the now legendary Robert Lightbourne, Jamaica Labour Party minister of trade and industry, was to make an appearance. For some time before, the JMA members had been, publicly, criticising him about a variety of unmet expectations. When the JMA secretary, the unflappable Eddie Hall, announced Mr Lightbourne's imminent arrival, a hush fell on the room.

His leonine figure strode in. As he made his way up the crowded room, he began stripping off his suit jacket. Approaching the podium, he tossed it aside and rolled up his sleeves. His jaw set, his piercing eyes glaring, he proceeded to dismantle the members' complaints. It really didn't matter whether he successfully countered their arguments because even before he began speaking, he had won the day with his withering display of gamesmanship.

Whether Mr Lightbourne had ever read British humorist Stephen Potter's slim volume The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, or How to Win Without Actually Cheating, published in 1947, we will never know. But for me, it was probably an instinctive display of one of the often non-too-subtle techniques codified by Potter.

Stephen Potter originally applied his theory of gamesmanship to sport, beginning with a tennis game in which he and his partner played against indisputably better opponents and conclusively beat them. His book goes on to suggest ploys and gambits to distract one's opponent at whatever game or endeavour in which he finds himself engaged. Clearly, the minister of trade and industry distracted, even destroyed, the JMA opposition with an entrance of almost Shakespearean intensity.

Potter initially concentrated on identifying ways to break your opponent's concentration. In tennis, this could include turning up late for your game or making dubious line calls or suggesting your opponent is guilty of foot-faulting, whether true or not. If I may be allowed to digress, he even took on the medical profession, claiming they presumed to be in possession of secret knowledge that gives them not only authority, but power over us.

His outrageous suggestion was to pre-arrange a woman with a sexy voice to telephone at a time when one - obviously male - is sitting undressed in the doctor's office and take the call, chatting away, to the physician's discomfort. This Potter defined as an extension of gamesmanship in a follow-up entitled One-Upmanship, which gives the practitioner an equal, if not superior, advantage in any situation that develops.

But to return to tennis. readers of this column - to the best of my knowledge, this comprises largely ladies in the dentists' waiting rooms - may recall me recounting how Dominika Cibulkova overcame Maria Sharapova's gamesmanship - the squeals, inordinate service ball tosses, her back to her opponent between services - to win the Australian woman's open tournament last year. For the record, Ms Sharapova may have engaged similar tactics this year to which Dominika Cibulkova succumbed. The evergreen Serena Williams nevertheless had the last word, presumably with ploys of gamesmanship of her own to take the title from Maria Sharapova.

Having recounted the Lightbourne saga, I am not aware that gamesmanship is all that often practised in Jamaica. We have our own brand of winning, which usually is more overt. But perhaps I haven't been too observant of late. There is no doubt in my mind that gamesmanship has a place in modern Jamaica, for instance, to combat the inroads of the cellular phone on our peace of mind or the indulgence of those who boast owning an ever bigger SUV. When confronted with an individual who insists on telling you how much their cell phone has changed their life, divert the conversation - Potter would have advised - by pointing out how many lives were saved in World War I by employing carrier pigeons to carry vital communications across the trenches. You get my drift.


memorable experiences


But my own (former) life on the tennis court has provided me with my most memorable experiences of the application of gamesmanship. In the 1980s, two captains of commerce wielded their racquets and their cunning with consistent success. M. Hall would claim "he drew the error" when his opponent muffed one of Hall's tame returns, thus creating an aura of psychic skill around M. Hall. C. Johnston, his partner, with an air of injured innocence, would successfully rebuff his opponent's assertions that their shots were inside the court. Was C. Johnston possessed of some mystical ability to determine a ball 'out' from 'in' that ordinary mortals were not capable of?

Undoubtedly, the master of gamesmanship was O. Clarke, a man Stephen Potter would have described as "the publisher of the local rag". Said Clarke engaged in gamesman gambits that would have left the founder of the movement (if it could be so described) in a state of bewilderment. His signature ploy was to aim an overhead smash directly at an opponent, hoping to make contact between his victim's neck and waist. On accomplishing this, he would say sympathetically, "I hope it didn't hurt?" On those occasions, his aim was slightly lower than the waistline. It certainly did hurt, to which I can attest.

A lady who shall remain nameless, who joined the Saturday morning contests on occasion, used the technique of tucking the second ball she might require somewhere up her skirt. This was somewhat disconcerting and would give her a definite advantage when delivering her first serve. E. Morgan used the tactic of muttering "next time" if his partner double-faulted, which injected a note of fear into the game. R. Gomes, a well-known physician, used the ploy of having someone call his cell phone at a crucial point in the game. Honouring the Hippocratic Oath, he felt obliged to answer it. As he ambled across the court to where his cell phone rested, he was

clearly aware of having broken his opponent's concentration.

However, my inscrutable partner, N. Marshall, and I could claim to have stolen the most games. On one occasion, we even stole an entire set by misrepresenting the score. In the heat of combat, this seemingly undeliberate error could be overlooked. It was this, as well as other uses of gamesmanship, that led me to award myself the Stephen Potter Invitational Tournament 'Lifetime Achievement Award'. For the record, however, N. Marshall and I achieved an altogether less desirable claim to fame as the pair who were unequalled at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But as Potter puts it, "A gamesman has won even when he has lost."

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to