The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames


Author: Stephen Potter
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
Reviewer: Joe Huber

Joe's Bookshelf

Every book I've written about so far was sitting on my bookshelf when I started writing this series of reviews. This is the first exception; upon reading one of these reviews, Dave Shapiro was kind enough to send along an unusual book he'd finished with. A very, very unusual book—one entirely unlike any I've read before. Written in the late 1940s, it purports to offer the reader a method to avoid losing games—even unfamiliar ones against superior opponents.

I've always thought of trash talking as a modern invention, but The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship or The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating advocates the art, if not by its present name, along with dozens of other psychological tactics. Indirectly suggesting poor sportsmanship on the part of one's opponents, playing to the audience, whistling a familiar melody with one note intentionally wrong, and faking injury or illness and playing through it are all suggested as useful methods to improve results.

To provide a specific example, the following techniques are recommended when playing Bridge:

  • Intimidation. When making a misplay in rubber Bridge, claiming to have been considering the correct matchplay line, claiming opponents are guilty of tournament improprieties—then casually dismissing the penalty while noting just what it is, and inventing a convention.
  • Misdealing. Not just minor misdeals, but putting as many as four cards in the wrong hand, bidding the hand irrationally, and then noticing the problem.
  • Sowing discord between your opponents. One suggestion being to casually whisper—loud enough for everyone to hear—that a particular lead was especially helpful—regardless of whether or not it in fact was...

Two of the most notable aspects of the book are the invention of terms for the various techniques suggested and the inclusion of bizarre diagrams throughout the book. Besides "gamesmanship", the author notes such techniques as "clothesmanship", "nice chapmanship", "ruggership", "limpmanship", "luncheonship", "drinkmanship" and dozens of others. The invention of terms would be one thing, but the use of them as if they were intimately familiar is rather amusing. Even more amusing, however, are the various diagrams included throughout the book. From a diagram of irrelevant positions on a tennis court to a map of London giving an example of providing poor but valid directions to the bizarre cover picture (with the letter M by the mouth and N by the neck, for no particularly good reason), each of the diagrams is vaguely connected to the text and absolutely useless, frequently in amusing ways.

The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship is clearly intended as dry humor in an academic style, and succeeds passably, though I must admit that the humor wears by the second half of the book. There is no reason to search out the book, but should you happen upon a copy it really must be read to be believed. There certainly are nuggets of truth hidden behind the conceit of the book, but nothing I can imagine ever utilizing. After all, the idea behind the book (as indicated within the subtitle) is winning games. At least for me, the fun is in the playing.

- Joe Huber

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