Stephen Potter: Oracle of Gamesmanship

Since the dawn of the first tee-time, golfers have been rattling opponents with silly chatter and oafish manners, or by invoking irrelevant rules or otherwise crossing the bounds of decency to induce anxiety. But it wasn't until shortly after the end of World War II, when an intellectual British writer and golf nut, newly unemployed, took pen in hand and wrote an exquisite little book of sports humor bearing as its title the term he had coined, "Gamesmanship," that the world had at last a name for the odious ploys, stunts, and tactics practically every golfer uses at one point or another.    

It's been 55 years since Stephen Potter devised that word and codified nearly all the bad behaviors we associate with it: "The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: Or, The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating" achieved overnight popularity when it was published in 1947.


Today, the man who came to see his concept placed securely in the lexicon of sportswriters, broadcasters, athletes, and fans is now practically forgotten. But Potter achieved cult status throughout the late 1940s and 50s with a succession of slender books of humor, mostly of a "-manship" variety -- One-Upmanship, Lifemanship, Supermanship -- also mostly brilliant, mostly funny, and mostly successful.

Stephen Potter's obsession with games in general, and the infinite ways that subtle comments and gestures could tip the scales of competition, anticipated the invasion of sports psychology by 40 years. And though he spent a lifetime playing tennis, snooker, squash, and countless other contests, it was golf that most kindled his fascination with gamesmanship. Potter left us a body of golf humor that deserves a wide audience. His accomplishments and enormous wit merit Potter's inclusion among the finest writers in our game's history.

Born in 1900, Potter was the only son of a London insurance accountant, and along with his older sister, enjoyed a comfortably though hardly luxurious middle-class lifestyle. Too late to see action after enlisting as an officer in the first World War, he was sent by his parents to Oxford, an expense they could scarcely afford. Along with the intensely social and academic life he found there, Potter played all manner of sports and games, honing a deep competitive streak through rowing, tennis, squash, golf, and snooker.

The first half of Potter's life can be summed up in the title of the initial (and only completed) volume of his planned autobiography, Steps to Immaturity. This period included marriage and a stint teaching secondary school and college.

Potter's first novel made nary a splash, but he won acclaim for a critical book-length essay about D.H. Lawrence -- the first ever written about the controversial author. This work, along with the academic books he published throughout the '30s, gained him a number of influential friends among the intellectual and social elite, associations which later brought him entree to the exclusive world of country and city clubs.

In 1937, things started coming together for him: he was elected to the exclusive Savile club, and he was playing enough golf to bring his handicap down to 5. His connections got him a job writing and producing radio shows for the BBC, where he worked his way up from learning programs and literary adaptations to documentary broadcasts. The humorous touch and innovative, free-spirited tone of his productions caught the notice of critics, including a young writer named Joyce Grenfell, who soon teamed with him as collaborator for Potter's wartime programs.

With Grenfell -- who eventually came into her own as an singer and actress, appearing in several dozen films -- Potter turned out nearly 200 wartime documentaries, some fictionalized, many with a propagandistic bent. Toward the end of the war, he began a series of light-comic programs called the "How" series: "How to Talk to Children" was followed with such subjects as "How to Argue" and "How to Woo." The straight-faced dissection of customs and foibles presaged the keen observational raillery that would enliven his later work.

Postwar life was a trial for all of Britain. Potter, ever in search of rent money, moved his family in and out of six different houses during the war. With two sons to put through school, he moved his family back to London, which in 1946 was still a city largely in ruin, with bombed-out shells of buildings and rubble everywhere.   

That year the England was hit by its harshest winter in 53 years. Fuel supplies were nearly exhausted -- at one point in early February the country was down to six days' worth of coal stocks -- so the Government shut down much of industry, including the BBC's Third Programme, which had employed Potter. Though he had been supplementing his income with freelance writing, it wasn't enough to support his family. Potter calculated that a small, humorous book to amuse the still-reeling country might be the ticket. So he sat down -- by candlelight, thanks to the fuel crisis -- and penned the first draft of Gamesmanship.

Stephen Potter:

on match-play demeanor

"But the [Henry] Cotton gambit was a powerful one, as useful in life as it is in golf. No Unnecessary Smiling, as we might name it, is as effective as it is simple.... One can dance mad boleros as soon as one is in the changing room; but Not Smiling within the boundaries of the actual course is a powerful weapon."

on gamesmanship good and bad

"[Do not] attempt to irritate partner by spending too long looking for your lost ball. This is unsporting. But good gamesmanship which is also very good sportsmanship can be practised if the gamesman makes a great and irritatingly prolonged parade of spending extra time looking for his opponent's ball."

on junior golf

"All gamesman love children, and that is exactly why they must be especially on their guard with the child golfer.... when the child begins to play, be careful to stop those full careless swings, which may occasionally, by that thousand to one chance, send their ball further than your own.... In general let them not act as if games were play."

on Scottish traditions

"At St. Andrew's in particular one could or should have known personally the ball-maker. When the carved wooden heads of the earlier clubs went out and iron heads were substituted, though it was not necessary actually to forget these heads oneself, it was requred form to know the famous old character concerned, and if possible to stand in his smithy and see the sparks fly. It was correct to say, with a touch of Scots in your own voice, 'Ay it was a gran' sight to see the sparks flying'.'"

on handicaps and personalities

"There is a weak and colorless 18, with thin red hair perhaps, one whose skin never browns in the sun, a flaccid personality, an acid-drop sucker, never likely to get married, the sort of man who in the country looks as if he wishes he was in a town, and vice versa. But there is also a deep-voiced 18, a man who has recently given up football, a man of strength, who, though often off course, can, using only a spoon and number 8, slash his way round by sheer muscle.... Old 16s are sound sensible people who may have been 7 before the war." 


According to his son Julian, Potter finished the book in the span of a fortnight. Its potential was clear to Potter's publisher, who risked printing 25,000 copies, amid a paper shortage, no less. Upon its appearance in November 1947, Gamesmanship was greeted with praise by critics (including Ian Fleming, pre-James Bond) and became a Christmas best-seller in England.

It's easy to see why Gamesmanship took the world by storm (it topped bestseller lists in Scandinavia and Japan, where Potter was made Honorary Life President of a Gamesmanship Society formed at Tokyo University). Potter's device in the book is to pretend to be a philosophical theorist setting forth the fruits of the latest scientific research -- employing a hollow-ringing false modesty, an arsenal of suspiciously obscure pedantic citations, and detailed pseudo-clinical illustrations (cartoonish drawings sketched by a retired Army officer by the fictitious-sounding but genuine name of Lt. Col. Frank Wilson).   

Gamesmanship is a subtle but intense confection of highly concentrated wit. The jokes are hardly obvious, but nevertheless broad in their understated way, evoking a certain abysmal kind of country-club caddishness, say, or a heated friendly rivalry at tennis or billiards. That Gamesmanship is concerned with the most genteel sorts of knavery -- guiding bad athletes in the most effective ways of all-but-unsporting behavior -- is treated simply as a secret better left unsaid.

Julian believes his father was burdened by the book's success: "In a funny way it landed him in debt, because he spent all the money and then he suddenly realized he had to pay some tax," he says. "That took a long time to pay back -- and the way to earn more money was to do more gamesmanship talks, articles, magazine articles, sequels -- that sort of thing. He wasn't really able to get going again with anything else, not in a big way."

Except for the first volume of his planned autobiography, nearly all of the subsequent books he wrote were "-manship" related. Over the next twenty years, Potter expanded and applied the basic tenets of gamesmanship to matters of the social world with titles like Lifemanship (1950) and One-Upmanship (1955).

But though the inspiration for some of the later books occasionally flagged, flattening the effect of what occasionally seemed like Potter's one joke, such was not the case with Golfmanship, his last book -- and to a golfer, the funniest of all of them.

Stephen Potter died in December 1969 after struggling with heart and bone-marrow problems for several years. It is clear, reading accounts of his life, that he was nothing like the petty and politely mean narrator of his books. To the contrary, he was a jovial, convivial soul, good-humored and truly sporting, according to Julian: "I had a lot of games with him, and he played them absolutely straight -- no larking about with gamesmanship when he was seriously trying to win."