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Gamesmanship is the use of dubious (although not technically illegal) methods to win or gain a serious advantage in a game or sport. It has been described as "Pushing the rules to the limit without getting caught, using whatever dubious methods possible to achieve the desired end".[1] It may be inferred that the term derives from the idea of playing for the game (i.e., to win at any cost) as opposed to "sportsmanship, which derives from the idea of playing for sport. The term originates from "Stephen Potter's humorous 1947 book, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or the Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating).



Potter cites the origin of gamesmanship to be a tennis match[2] in which he and the philosopher "C. E. M. Joad competed against two younger and fitter men who were outplaying them fairly comfortably. On returning a serve, Joad hit the ball straight into the back-netting twelve feet behind the back-line. While the opponents were preparing for the next "serve, Joad 'called across the net, in an even tone: "Kindly state clearly, please, whether the ball was in or out"'.[3] Being young, polite university students, their opponents offered to replay the point, but Joad declined. Because they were young and polite, the slight suggestion by Joad that their etiquette and sportsmanship were in question was extremely off-putting, and distracted them for the rest of the contest. Potter and Joad went on to win the match.


Common techniques of gamesmanship include:

  1. Breaking the flow of an opponent's play (Potter insisted 'There is only one rule; BREAK THE FLOW.')[4]
  2. Causing an opponent to take the game less seriously or to overthink his or her position
  3. Intentionally making a "mistake" which gains an advantage over an opponent

While the first method is more common at higher levels of sports, the last two are more powerful in amateur games.

Breaking the flow[edit]

Examples of "flow-breaking" methods include:

Causing the opponent to overthink[edit]

Examples of methods designed to cause the opponent to overthink or to not take the game seriously enough include:


Intentional "mistakes"[edit]

Examples of intentional "mistakes" designed to gain an advantage:

All of the above are considered very close to "cheating, and the abuser of gamesmanship techniques will find himself penalized in most serious sports and games tournaments, as well as being deemed (if caught) a "bad sport".

The rules of the "International Defensive Pistol Association for its "practical shooting matches specifically state that any illegal action taken with the intent of gaining a competitive advantage is penalized as a ""Failure to Do Right", adding 20 seconds to the competitor's time. This penalty is rarely given, partly because of its highly subjective nature.

Association football[edit]

In "association football, it is considered good sportsmanship to kick the ball out of play if a player on the opposing side is injured; when the ball is to be thrown in, it is also considered to be good sportsmanship in this situation to kick it (or throw it) back to the other team who had intentionally kicked it out. Gamesmanship arises in this situation when, rather than passing the ball back to the side who kicked the ball out, the injured player's teammates keep the ball after the throw-in. Whilst not illegal or against the rules of the sport, it is heavily frowned upon.

A high-profile example occurred during the game "Portugal vs. Netherlands in round 16 of "FIFA World Cup 2006, where the game, already marred by numerous cautions and even red cards, further deteriorated because of such an incident. Also, in a 1999 English "FA Cup fifth round tie between "Arsenal and "Sheffield United, Arsenal's winning goal scored under these circumstances was so contentious the Arsenal manager "Arsène Wenger offered to replay the match. Sheffield United accepted, though Arsenal went on to win the second game by the same margin, 2-1.[10]

Feigning injury to cause the ball to be kicked out is another example of gamesmanship intended to break the flow of play, though if detected, it may be regarded as ungentlemanly conduct, which is a breach of the laws and hence is no longer gamesmanship. In response to claims of feigned injuries during the 2006 World Cup, the Premier League has asked players, managers and referees to end the custom as of the 06/07 season, instead preferring a referee alone to determine whether a break in play is needed.

When a free kick is awarded, members of the defending team will often pick up the ball and drop it back behind them as they retreat. Whilst not throwing the ball away, which would be an infringement, the purpose is to prevent a swiftly taken free kick.

Usage outside of games[edit]

The term "gamesmanship" is also used for similar techniques used in non-game situations, such as "negotiations and "elections.

Each form is frequently used as a means of describing dubious methods of winning and/or psychological tricks used to intimidate or confuse one's opponent. Technically speaking, these tactics are "one-upmanship, defined in a later book by Potter as the art of being one-up on somebody else.

The term also appears in art theory to mean playfulness, as in "literary gamesmanship".[11][12]

The gamesman versus the pure player[edit]

Potter's double-edged ironies did not spare the gamesman himself (he slyly named one prominent protagonist 'Bzo, U., holder (1947) Yugo-Slav Gamesmanship Championship',[13] for example). Potter acknowledged repeatedly that 'the way of the gamesman is hard, his training strict, his progress slow, his disappointments many', and recognised that as a result 'the assiduous student of gamesmanship has little time for the minutiae of the game itself - little opportunity for learning how to play the shots, for instance'.[14] Yet one of his "correspondents" owlishly admits, 'there is no doubt that a knowledge of the game itself sometimes helps the gamesman'.[15]

Hence 'perhaps the most difficult type for the gamesman to play is the man who indulges in pure play. He gets down to it, he gets on with it, he plays each shot according to its merits, and his own powers, without a trace of exhibitionism, and no by-play whatever'.[16] The book gloomily concludes, 'we amateurs have to fight against the growing menace of young people who insist on playing their various games for the fun of the thing...indulging rather too freely, if the truth were known, in pure play'.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lumpkin, Stoll and Beller, 1994:92
  2. ^ "The Timelessness of Stephen Potter's Gamesmanship" by Burling Lowrey. Virginia Quarterly Review Autumn 1993 pp.718-726 Archived 2009-09-07 at the "Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Stephen Potter, The Theory & Practice of Gamesmanship (London 1947) p. 17
  4. ^ Potter, p. 56
  5. ^ Potter, p. 79
  6. ^ Potter, p. 60
  7. ^ Potter, p. 72
  8. ^ Potter, p. 45 and 123
  9. ^ Potter, p. 86
  10. ^ "Arsene Wenger offers FA Cup rematch". Arsenal F.C. Retrieved 10 October 2012. 
  11. ^ http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/ugresicd/jaws.htm
  12. ^ http://www.mcsweeneys.net/authorpages/eggers/eggers15.html
  13. ^ Potter, p. 123
  14. ^ Potter, p. 51 and p. 43
  15. ^ a b Potter, p. 117
  16. ^ Potter, p. 41


Books extending Potter's theories of gamesmanship[edit]

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