Book Summary: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship

by Stephen Potter


“The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship” is a tongue-in-cheek guide to the subtle psychological tricks and games we play on each other. This book is strictly about sportsmanship, but Potter’s other books cover the same principles as they apply to daily life, work, love, and so on.

How I found it:

It was quoted in “Strategy 28” in Robert Greene’s The 33 Strategies of War.


“The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating,” is the hilarious subtitle, which already gives you a sense of what to expect. This is without a doubt the most British thing I have ever read. It’s hysterical in the absolute driest and most deadpan way imaginable. Presented as a self-help work, the author teaches you how to declare polite psychological warfare, for example, by getting your opponent to buy you a drink without realizing it until he is mid-backswing. Or how to unnerve your enemy by repeatedly whistling a tune with one chronically wrong note. There are footnotes, academic-style references that don’t seem to lead anywhere, and plenty of sketches and diagrams to illustrate, say, the proper position on the tennis court from which to deliver a certain sharp remark. I love the fact that he provides example scripts, which make it all the more tactical. You can just imagine a couple of Englishmen shooting the breeze in their knickers, trying to best each other verbally with wit and subtlety.

The humor us so clever and low-key that you really have to pay attention. More than once I caught myself getting bored with the text, quickly pressing ahead until I found the next joke. Turns out they were there, I was just thoughtlessly blowing past them. When I did catch them, I found myself genuinely laughing aloud, a rare thing when reading a book, and especially one from the 1950s. I got this book as part of “The Complete Upsmanship,” containing the whole four-book “gamesmanship” series, and I can’t wait to read the other three.

Humor aside, there is some really useful strategy here. In Potter’s world, it’s not enough to win by scoring; you have to win psychologically too. Consider his advice on being the “antithesis” of your opponent. It is supreme gamesmanship, he explains, to deliberately and confidently take the opposite approach of your opponent. If he is taking a competitive approach, play the amateur; make casual conversation about something else. Nature, or women. But if the opponent is trying to be leisurely, then act like a professional; offer advice to diminish him, give backhanded compliments, and stay focused on the game. Similarly, if your opponent is underdressed, be sure to overdress, and vice versa. This will make him feel slightly awkward and out of his element. By adopting these methods, you can appear to be the winner in your opponent’s memory regardless of the actual outcome.

The goal, above all, is to get your opponent to over-think and second-guess himself. Get under their skin. Use satire, criticism, misdirection, whatever. But don’t be too overt. If you come on too strong, then your opponent will elicit sympathy from others. Do it with tact, and you can make your opponent feel rushed, bored, overextended, or uncomfortable without ever quite sensing why.

Very funny, surprisingly useful read.


Potter’s Opening:A chess opening “invented for use against a more experienced player who is absolutely certain to win. It consists of making three moves at random and then resigning. The dialogue runs as follows:

SELF: Good. Excellent. I must resign, of course.


SELF: Well… you’re bound to take my Bishop after sixteen movies, unless . . . unless . . . And even then I lose my castle three moves later.

OPPONENT: Oh, yes.

SELF: Unless you sacrifice there, which, of course, you wouldn’t.


SELF: Nice game.


SELF: Pretty situation . . . very pretty situation. Do you mind if I take a note of it? The Chess News usually publishes any stuff I send them.”