The Theory And Practice Of Gamesmanship, Or, The Art Of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating by Stephen Potter

There is something melancholic reading about a world that no longer exists but that was real to you. To think that when this was written everybody played games all the time. It’s what we all did for fun. If this were written now nobody would read it and I guess the fact that such a big seller in its day has all of 88 ratings on goodreads just goes to show the likely truth of that. My copy is inscribed ‘To Davis, in anticipation of another keen contest on the tennis court. Kathryn’.

What might Davis have learned in advance of that contest? Perhaps he took note of the pages on Hampettes.

“Hampettes”, or minor hampers, exist in plenty. Many of them are of occasional use to the losing gamesman. Many of them come under the heading “Of course, this isn’t really my game” (see “Ruggership” p. 31) While playing squash, let it be known that rackets is your Game, and that squash is that very different thing, a game which you find it occasionally amusing to play at, for the fun of the thing. R. Simpson first drew my attention to this gambit when I was playing lawn tennis with him on a damp grass court on the borders of Lyme Regis. I happened to be seeing the ball and for once in my life really was driving it on to that precious square foot in the back-hand corner of the base line. After one of these shots, Simpson was “carried away” enough to tap his racket twice on the ground and cry “chase better than half a yard”. I only dimly realised that this was an expression from tennis itself, which had slipped out by accident; that he was familiar with the great original archetype of lawn tennis, compared with which lawn tennis itself (he wished to make and succeed in making me understand) was a kind of French cricket on the sands at Southend.

I lost that game. But I learnt my lesson. I walked about the real tennis-court* at Blackfriars (Manchester) two or three times “in order to be taught the game”. I took lessons from the pro (I showed no aptitude). I put by a few shillings in order to buy that most gamesmanly shaped, ungainlily twisted racket. I keep it in the office. And although it has never hit a ball since those Manchester days, I make admirable use of that racket almost every week of my life.

*’Real tennis’ is the name by which Royal tennis has generally been known since the early twentieth century or thereabouts.

Surely you don’t need to know anything about any form of tennis to follow that this is hilarious. But even if that’s so, and even if it is a book about life masquerading as a book about games, I can see that doesn’t mean a modern audience is going to pick it up. What a pity. I’m not surprised to read that the series gets repetitive, but this little book does not.

I noticed that Potter’s development into a humorist might itself have made a chapter in his own book. He had serious ambition to be a serious writer. Whether or not he had it in him to be that, it all got off to a hilariously disastrous start. After a well-received autobiographical volume he turned to a critique of DH Lawrence with unfortunate consequences as described in wiki:

In 1930 he wrote D. H. Lawrence: A First Study, the first book-length work on Lawrence, which appeared in print within a few days of the death of its subject, unfortunate timing because it seemed like an inadequate memorial rather than what it was intended to be, a critical reappraisal. It also suffered from a regrettable misprint, rendering the heading “Sea and Sardinia”, as “Sex and Sardinia”. This was soon amplified by rumour into “Sex and Sardines”, none of which helped Potter’s reputation as a serious writer.

Not that he gave up trying, but his critical analyses were never whole-heartedly embraced and there seems to have come a point where he started diverging with The Muse in Chains: a Study in Education which satired the very area in which he had been working. One can see why this book was so well received, if his insight into George Saintbury was not a solitary shot:

“It is recorded that for eighteen years he started the day by reading a French novel (in preparation for his history of them) – an act so unnatural to man as almost in itself to amount to genius.”

I’ve made a note to get a copy of this book. I guess it was but a small segueway from a line like this to the series that made Potter a household name for many years.

2 thoughts on “The Theory And Practice Of Gamesmanship, Or, The Art Of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating by Stephen Potter

  1. Potter was a radio broadcaster. He coined the word ‘gamesmanship’ was certainly a wag. However dated, his philosophy survives today. I think he worked with Joyce Grenfell and had quite a following. I doubt his books have ever not been in print and charmingly quaint they are too.

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