Anthony Gambrill, Contributor
This is the time of year when a small band of disciples gather to pay homage to the man who gave the world 'gamesmanship', which he defined as "winning without actually cheating".
The man is Stephen Potter, who, 65 years ago, published his seminal work. Thereafter, he issued a number of other tongue-in-cheek advisories such as "creative intimidation" ('One-Upmanship') and "making your adversary feel that something isn't quite right" ('Lifemanship').
Potter, an Englishman, led a remarkably unremarkable life after graduating from Merton College, Oxford, and taught English at the University of London. His early literary output included a novel, a study of D.H. Lawrence and three books focusing on the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
He began writing and producing for the BBC, abandoning his academic career, and in 1943, he teamed up with Joyce Grenfell, the legendary British comedienne, for a satirical radio series which began with 'How to speak to children'.
With the publication of Gamesmanship in 1947, Potter launched the career for which he is best known: producing life guides, which was his primary occupation for the next decade. How he came upon this ploy of winning without actually cheating occurred during a university tennis competition when Potter and his partner, by subtly suggesting that their opponents' etiquette and sportsmanship left a great deal to be desired, won the encounter. What is astonishing is that he parlayed this basic hypothesis into a series of self-help manuals.
Pushing the envelope
In Lifemanship, Potter took the lessons taught in his inaugural offering and applied them to the simple problems of everyday life as he knew it in his era. It covered a variety of frankly antisocial skills such as lowbrowmanship ("knowing virtually nothing on a subject but by speaking loudly and dogmatically, he generally ended the conversation"); woomanship ("how to deviously attract a desirable woman"); the limelight play ("making sure everyone knows how important you are"); and short notes on writership, actorship, dancingship, clothesmanship, and so on. Despite the fact that Potter was poking fun at the upper-class British, he identified gambits that are still commonplace in our own social interaction today.
The Oxford English Dictionary gave respectability to gamesmanship, defining it as a tactic for winning, or as Potter emphasised, at least appearing to win. With his third volume One-Upmanship, he captured the popular imagination evidenced by the fact that we hear it used on occasion today.
Perhaps the classic example of gamesmanship in all its glory was exposed in the mid-1970s when Bobby Riggs challenged the US women's champion, Billy Jean King, to a tennis showdown in which Riggs predicted: "I will scrape her up. She is a woman and is subject to women's emotional frailties. She will crack up during the match."
First, a word about Riggs. He had been a Wimbledon champion at 21 but soon slipped down the rankings and began supplementing his income by hustling tennis games for prize money and with side-bets. Relatively short and wearing thick glasses, he didn't look like a very good player, which he was to a point, especially using lobs, chip shots and other ploys to throw opponents off balance. On one occasion, he even spiced up bets by handicapping himself using a frying pan as a tennis racquet.
Taking aim at women's lib
In the 1970s, he saw the opportunity of taking on the burgeoning women's liberation movement. "I want to set (women's) lib back 20 years to get women back home where they belong," he said. Riggs maintained strenuously that women were prettiest when pregnant, doing housework and taking care of the kids.
His first victim was the top Australian tennis player Margaret Court. The match took place on Mother's Day. Court, a mother of three, was immediately put off balance when Riggs gave her a huge bouquet of roses. Court, who wasn't involved in the women's liberation movement, probably didn't take the match that seriously and lost 6-2, 6-1.
Billy Jean King was to be a very different proposition. At a time when good women tennis players earned considerably less than inferior men, and she herself being in the forefront of the women's lib movement, she jumped at the chance to challenge Riggs.
The game took place on September 20, 1973, in the Houston Astrodome, attended by 30,472 spectators and watched on television by an estimated 50 million viewers.
The crowd rose to its feet as Bobby Riggs entered the arena on a rickshaw drawn by four barely clad women. King matched him, arriving on a red velvet throne borne by four well-muscled football players in Roman togas. He presented her with a six-foot lollipop; she replied with a small ('male chauvinist') pig.
But once on the court, it was all business, and Billy Jean King thrashed her opponent 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, not only taking home US$175,000, but also winning the gamesmanship prize. Riggs got the consolation money, but more important, the publicity he wanted that lasted him until the end of his "hustling life".
As a perceptive journalist observed in The New York Times a few years ago, Stephen Potter's "major themes - the drive for self-improvement, faking it and sheer malice - are a virtual checklist of modern culture". He concluded that behind Potter's ploys and gambits was the insidious need to humiliate perhaps a little too harsh a verdict. Potter's humour took on British decorum, people's need to keep up appearances, and their reluctance to address unpalatable truths.
But it is on the tennis court that Stephen Potter's thesis can be most successfully applied. Every aspect of the game offers an opportunity for gamesmanship: from what you wear, to your punctuality for matches (or lack of it), to suspect foot-faulting, to dubious line calls, to observations about your opponent's racquet, his health or the health of his mother-in-law, to seemingly innocent, inaccurate scoring, to returning balls at your opponent not to him.
And as Potter put it, "The experienced gamesman made sure his opponent never knows when he has won and the good gamesman is never known to lose even when he has lost."
Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.