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Creator / Stephen Potter

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Stephen Potter (1900-1969) was an English writer, radio producer and academic whose most famous contribution to human civilisation was his codification of the concept of "gamesmanship".

Potter was born into a pretty ordinary middle-class English family in London in 1900, and went to Westminster School, a fairly illustrious public school which had some famous alumni (including Ben Jonson, John Dryden, A. A. Milne, and seven UK prime ministers.) He volunteered for the British Army during WWI and was commissioned as an officer in the Coldstream Guards, but never saw action, partly on account of the war ending just when he got commissioned. He taught literature in the University of London and published a few books (including one of the first critical studies of D.H. Lawrence; The Muse in Chains, a scholarly but very funny book about the history of English literature as an academic subject; and Coleridge and S.T.C., an affectionate but irreverent study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) but teaching didn’t pay enough to support his family, so he joined The BBC as a writer/producer in 1938.


In 1947, it all changed. He took advantage of a ten-day power cut to knock off a short book, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: Or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, which became an immediate best-seller, and after that he was forever known as the guy that made the idea famous. He expanded on the idea in three more bestsellers, Lifemanship (1950), One-Upmanship (1952) and Supermanship (1958), but although they’re all very funny, the terms (with the exception of "one-upmanship") didn’t catch on the way "gamesmanship" did.note  The Other Wiki has more details of his life and work.


Gamesmanship is defined by Merriam-Webster in two ways: “the practice of winning a game or contest by doing things that seem unfair but that are not actually against the rules” and “the clever use of skills or tricks to succeed or do something”. What makes it relevant to TV Tropes is that Potter wrote his books in the form of parodies of self-help manuals. His basic joke is that everyone is trying to achieve some kind of social, sporting, educational, behavioural or cultural superiority over everyone else, and to do this without actually breaking the rules of basic politeness, they resort to gamesmanship (or lifemanship, or one-upmanship), which consists of identifying a trope and weaponising it for use against one’s opponent, in order to ‘break the flow’. In the media, gamesmanship is usually used to identify fairly crude efforts to intimidate or otherwise fake out one’s opponent (Trash Talk being an example), but Potter’s use of it was far more subtle.


For example, one of the basic techniques Potter recommended in sporting contests was that you should never, ever be a bad sport, but if necessary, you should make the other guy feel like he is one. John McEnroe’s tendency to have massive on-court tantrums over lost points may have helped to break his opponent’s flow, but it was bad sportsmanship because it was about points he’d lost himself, and therefore, Potter would have regarded it as bad gamesmanship. If McEnroe had lost his temper over points that had been taken away from his opponent, that would have been superb gamesmanship, because nobody could reasonably have accused McEnroe of being a whiny little brat.

Another characteristically Potterian use of gamesmanship is to make use of an opponent’s techniques against them, but proper timing is essential. For example, if an opponent, at the beginning of a game, complains mildly of a sore knee or other ailment as a pre-emptive excuse for not playing better, the recommended technique was not to reply that you have your own injury and that it’s much worse, but to be genuinely sympathetic, start playing, keep playing, and after a good long interval make some sudden movement or noise that prompts your opponent to ask you what’s wrong, and to reluctantly admit that in fact you’ve recently been fitted with an artificial heart.

The success of his books enabled Potter to visit the USA on two occasions, which he wrote up in a highly entertaining travel book, 1956's Potter On America. He spun out the gamesmanship gags to increasingly little effect in his later years, and died in 1969 after a lifetime of being a dedicated smoker.

Gamesmanship, as Potter defined it, only works against people who are capable of shame, and so isn’t always much use in contemporary conflicts, such as certain sporting events, or political elections. But, in its recognition of the existence of tropes and its skillful deployment of them, it deserves wider recognition, as does its creator.

Tropes present in the work of Stephen Potter:

  • The Ace: Invoked in Gamesmanship. When playing against the kind of steady, competent, dedicated sportsperson who is immune to the usual tactics, you should invent a fictitious version of this who you talk about admiringly until your opponent decides that he or she is being too boring and adopts a slapdash kind of play that doesn’t suit their talents at all. Then you start playing with steady competence, while doubling down on your admiration for The Ace.
    • Also parodied in Potter's own tone as an author: he constantly alludes to fictitious books, pamphlets and articles that he says expand upon whatever he's talking about in far more detail, but which you can't be expected to understand, and which in any case you'll just have to wait for because they're not finished yet.
  • Based on an Advice Book: The 1960 movie School for Scoundrels was based on his work.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Gamesmanship and Lifemanship are all about invoking this, rather than playing it straight: all you need to do is convince your enemy that you are Crazy-Prepared, and whether you are or not, they will suffer a fatal lack of confidence.
  • Deconstructive Parody: Of self-help books. In Potter's universe, the only thing that matters is that you're one-up: all social interaction of any kind is nothing but a battle for supremacy, and his books profess to show you how to achieve this.
  • Fan Boy: Irwin Cannery in Supermanship weaponises this trope, being a Fan Boy of Fandom itself. When confronted with hearty, outdoorsy Strawman Political Corny Sticking, he defeats Sticking by professing to love how much of an H. G. Wells Fan Boy Sticking is, and when he is introduced to D.H. Lawrence Fan Boy the Lawrenceman, he squees with delight ("Are you really a Blake man! So am I! And I bet you don't think much of Bertrand Russell!") Since Sticking and the Lawrenceman don’t understand that they themselves are Fan Boys of their respective heroes, they don’t know how to talk to him, and so Cannery wins.
  • Humble Hero: Gattling-Fenn uses this trope (in tandem with The Real Heroes) to earn the respect of former serving military men who actually fought in WW2, whereas he was only an ARP member in a suburb of Manchester: he tells the story of a cinder from an incendiary bomb landing in his garden and him stamping it out as though he single-handedly prevented a firestorm.
    "I stamped out the flaming stuff with my foot," said Gattling. [...] "It wasn't a question of feeling frightened, I just found myself doing it. It was as if somebody else was acting in my person."
    [...] For all my admiration, I really couldn't let Gattling get away with this. "While Mostyn, here, was raiding St. Nazaire," I said...
    "Oh, my God, don't I know it," said Gattling. "Those chaps were risking their lives not only every day, but every hour of the day and night. That's why one longed to be doing, doing, doing something. To make some contribution. And that is why I was glad, that day at Sale..."
  • Manipulative Bastard: The Upmanship books essentially train the reader to be this, by offering techniques by which you can bewilder and undermine your opponents in such a way that they cede superiority to you:
    If it is true that the typical Britisher never knows when he has lost, it is true of the typical gamesman that his opponent never knows when he has won. The true gamesman knows that the game is never at an end. Game-set-match is not enough. The winner must win the winning. And the good gamesman is never known to lose, even if he has lost.
  • Real Person Cameo: Many of Potter's friends and acquaintances appear in the books under their own names, as people who've contributed this or that idea to the study of gamesmanship or lifemanship, including the poet John Betjeman, the actors Peter Ustinov, Celia Johnson and Joyce Grenfell, the playwrights Herbert Farjeon and Terence Rattigan, the conductor Walter Goehr, the academic and broadcaster C.E.M. Joad and the golfer Joyce Wethered. Potter almost always cites them in mock-scholarly form as "J. Betjeman", "C. Johnson", "T. Rattigan", "H. Farjeon", etc.
  • Trope Codifier: He was this in Real Life, for the concepts of gamesmanship and one-upmanship.

Example of: