How to improve your ploy

or, How to interview Stephen Potter, who discovered gamesmanship (the art of winning games without actually cheating), without actually losing your marbles

Leslie F. Hannon December 17 1960

How to improve your ploy

or, How to interview Stephen Potter, who discovered gamesmanship (the art of winning games without actually cheating), without actually losing your marbles

Leslie F. Hannon December 17 1960

How to improve your ploy

Leslie F. Hannon

or, How to interview Stephen Potter, who discovered gamesmanship (the art of winning games without actually cheating), without actually losing your marbles

INTERVIEWING STEPHEN POTTER is a nerveracking delight. Before we met I read every word of his books — Gamesmanship. Lifemanship. One-Upmanship and Supermanship. I went to see his movie. School for Scoundrels, and made notes in the dark. I cheerfully admit to practising a few' ploys and gambits (Potter's own words for the stratagems that will put you one up) on my wife and some Fleet Street acquaintances. But. in a Potter phrase, it was to no avail.

Take the time we played a little snooker in Soho Square. First. 1 was genuinely concerned about Potter's limp, which, he told me. he acquired when he slipped in a dark stone passageway at the permanent Picasso exhibition at Antibes. Surely the most cultured limp in Europe. When he walked around the billiard table. I naturally made way for him. He rewarded me with a small curt smile. I recall once being about to nudge the black into the centre pocket—it was a clear poke of about six inches. Potter had set the thing up—but perhaps his

game leg was hindering him? I settled into the shot, and then felt my elbow held in a vise grip. "I say." Potter coughed. "Remember Alvarez in the International at Monte Carlo—straight stroke, straight forearm!" “Alvarez?" 1 muttered. and the ball hobbled back and forth between the jaws of the pocket, coming to rest outside. "Alvarez?" I repeated.

So it goes with Potter. The speck of fluff so courteously and sportingly removed from in front of your ball as you are about to address it; the rasping of chalk on his cue as you size up a tricky one: the statue-like pose he adopts just aside from your line of fire; the offhand comments about his tussles with Cecil So-andSo for the West of England title. It would be mere common sense for anyone to pay for the table first and then play him.

If there is anyone isolated enough not to have heard of Stephen Potter, I'll put down hurriedly that he is a sixty-year-old very English Englishman. He is tall and slim and somewhat florid. He was raised in a semi-detached house

in Clapham in a middle-class family who taught him Beethoven and tried, briefly, to make him an accountant like his father. He went to Westminster—a very good school indeed—where he caught the pancake on Shrove Tuesday, sang in the Glee Society, and rubbed his bottom rawrowing in the School Four. (The scars are long since healed but his sculls still dominate his study w'alls.) He turned literary at Oxford, became an expert on Lawrence and Coleridge, and published a novel called The Young Man. He was ten years with the BBC as a writer-producer and made a national mark with satirist Joyce Grenfell in a long-lived radio humor show called the How Series—How to Learn French. How' to Train a Dog. How to Be Good at Games. He became a newspaper book critic for a year and then editor of a short-lived semiintellectual magazine called the Leader. None of this brought him notice overseas. Then London publisher Rupert Hart-Davis took an inspired gamble and issued in hard covers a slim volume of Potter’s fey and wicked nonsense called The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship or The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating. It has since been reprinted thirteen times and gamesmanship has entered the language as Potter himself has entered the special hall of fame for inspired screwballs.

How does it go? Here’s gamesman Potlei at the billiard table, with his layman opponent just about to take his shot:

Potter: l ook . . . may I say something? 1 ayman: What?

Potter: lake it easy.

I ayman: What do you mean?

Potter: I mean — you know how to make the strokes, but you’re stretching yourself on the rack all the time. Look! Walk up to the ball. Look at the line. And make your stroke. Comfortable. Lasy. It's as simple as that.

In other words, the advice must be vague, to make certain it is not helpful. But. in general, if properly managed. the mere giving of advice is sufficient to place the gamesman in a practically invincible position.

My memorizing of this did me no good whatsoever.

In the course of my interviews I took Potter to lunch at Antoine’s, in Charlotte Street. I had booked a table at a dillcrent restaurant. I suggested four other good restaurants. But. over the phone. Potter managed to convey that each of them was not quite right somehow. He can do it with a simple hesitation in his dry old-boy voice. He also makes use of the pregnant silence: I remember his saying. "Dover sole of course . . . twelve different ways . . . superb.” 1 cancelled the table I had reserved elsewhere and booked at Antoine's. Potter was sixteen minutes late but when he came across the small room. Antoine to heel, hand outstretched, tie and hair flowing, obviously having broken away from some vital global matter, 1 was delighted to see him.

I had almost finished a lonely cocktail. Fie looked at it closely, and said. “Gin? Oh. perhaps not. before lunch ... a glass of my sherry, I think. Antoine.” Countering doggedly, I remarked that I had enjoyed waiting — one got so few opportunities to get one’s thoughts in order. This won a nod of acknowledgment, before Potter snapped open the menu and ordered our lunch. We had sole, of course —the No. I I. as I remember. The sommelier was hovering.

I quote from the pages of One-Upmanship:

An essential point to remember is that everybody is supposed to take it for granted that every wine has its optimum year up to which it progresses, and beyond which it falls about all over the place. E.g. you can give interest to your bottle of four-and-sixpenny British Russet by telling your guest that you “wish he had been able to drink it with you when it was at the top of its form in forty-nine."

Alternatively you can say. "I'm beginning to like this. I believe it s just on the brink.” Or I rather like saying. "I drink this now for sentimental reasons only . . . just a pleasant residue, an essence of sugar and water — but still with a hint of former glories. Keep it in your mouth for a minute or two . . . see what I mean?” Under this treatment. the definitive flavor of carbolic which has been surprising your guest will seem to him to acquire an interest if not a grace.

Potter flashed a new bit for me. from some unwritten chapter. When our Pou illy - Fuisse arrived, he extended a limp palm to the steward and said, pleas-

“Never sip the wine. Only tourists do that. Just sniff the cork"

antly. “The cork.” It was placed with great care in the centre of his palm. Potter lifted the cork to his thin nostrils, instantly flung it to the table and continued his conversation with me. An inclination of the head was the order to pour.

After the man had gone, a mischievous Potter grinned at me. "Never, never sip the wine to see if it's okay. Only tourists do that. Smell the cork. Just one sniff. This will give the sommelier an ulcer and silence the chap who is actually paying for the bottle. Funny thing is, every cork smells exactly the same to me.”

With considerable nerve and considerable success Hart-Davis and Potter dealt the public four doses of this kind of stuif between 1947 and 1958. Devotees wrote pleading for still more. Fdmund Wilson, probably the toughest book critic in the world, wrote: "It is astonishing that

Stephen Potter should have been able to sustain this joke so long. The fourth volume is in no respect inferior to the others. ..."

To get his wind back between these books. Potter churned out (in 1954) a serious study of F.nglish humor and, in 1956, Potter on America, a seldom-scrious account of two lecturing tours in the United States and Canada.

After Supermanship or How to Continue to Stay Top Without Actually Falling Apart. Potter closed the College of One-Upness and Gameslifemastcry in Station Road. Yeovil, and sent into retirement his famous colleagues, Gattling-Fenn and G. Ororcida, because he was already

launched on an even bigger series, albeit on the same subject: Stephen Potter. The first volume of his autobiography. Steps to Immaturity, appeared last fall. This covered only the first nineteen years and he soberly intends to write three more books on his favorite topic. The first one is not funny. In fact, it's a little sad--or so it struck me.

Hours and hours later three o’clock was near and it was time for the school concert. A few mothers, towers of hat. had been walking stiffly round the grounds since lunch. Bad-day-itis had made me nervous. In the after-lunch break I had to practise on the platform. It took twenty-two steps to walk around the grand piano.

So I was to start the concert. Wh\ not Denys Roberts? He was the realh young one. I caught sight of my sister in the audience, and she gave me a friendly smile. One or two of her friends smiled, too, and the result of this was to make me walk up on the platform with unsuitable stumping gait, to show I was not afraid, even trying to be funny, it must have seemed — m\ everlasting bad habit when shy, or feeling things against me.

Potter had tin attack of his Bad-dayitis on his first and only visit to Canada, in the fall of 1955. LTc flew in toward Toronto from Cleveland, pleased by the originality of Ohio place names—Fuclid. Novelty, Aurora. Ontario’s Kitchener. Waterloo and London seemed redundant. From Toronto he flew straight on to Winnipeg. which he found depressing. "Never.” he wrote, "talk about the depression of Sunday until you have seen an October Sunday evening in Winnipeg. Streets too wide—spacious about nothing. Here and there little warped boarded shops, sagging, dirty, belonging to the early settlement, next door to forbidding concrete banks and twenty-story hotels. . . . The hard shop-window lights glare on a lot of rather expensive rubbish, as if trinkets for Indians." Catching the CPR for the west to fulfill a lifelong ambition. Potter comments: "How' uncosy are these towns. The people rather bleak and sad. as if they vaguely felt they were missing something by being on the edge of things." He cheered up a bit at the sight of working men in check shirts who “looked really tough, not actor-tough, like some types of U. S. masculinity." and again when he got the front seat in the observation dome of the club car in the Rockies. Even this curdled, however, when a guide entered the car.

"There is a sort of Canadian accent." Potter observed, "which is harsher and has less of the lifeblood of intonation than the least inflected American. This crophead guide told us sourly that there were the remains of an old cement works left, that 4.500 moose were once seen on Louise Peak and that we could have this book of technicolor photographs, all six of them, for one dollar fifty." He was shocked by the CPR’s bar and dining-car prices.

But Vancouver made up for it all. He was struck dumb — no mean feat — by the setting sun from the Lions Cíate Bridge. He lectured at UBC, while the students ate soundproof sandwiches and applauded heartily. He liked B. C. Binning. the painting professor, who met him, and Earle Birney. the poet and novelist, who introdueed him. He loved Chinatown and the Capilano golf course.

Golf is gamesman Potter's forte. In his mad kind of logic he refers to it as the "gamesgame of gamesgames."

In the foursome or fourball game, the art lies in fomenting distrust between your two opponents. Do not let the student forget that the basis of Split Play is to make friends with your opponent A. and in that same process undermine his carefully assumed friendship—so easily liable to strain—with his partner, your opponent B. in order that, after the first bad shot by B. the thought "Poor you!" may be clearly implied by a glance from you. a shrug of the shoulders or the whistling of two notes as recommended by Cíale (descending minor third).

Perhaps the most difficult type for the gamesman to beat is the man who indulges in pure ploy. In golf especially he is likely to wear you down by playing the "old aunty" type of game. My counter is to invent, even before the

game has started, a character called Jack Rivers. I speak of his charm, his good looks, his fine war record. Then, a little later. 1 say. "I like Jack Rivers' game. He doesn't care a damn whether he wins or loses so long as he has a good match." Give it time to soak in. Allow' your opponent to achieve a small lead, by his stone-walling methods, and the chances are —even if he has been hearing about Jack Rivers for only thirty minutes—he will begin to think: "Well, perhaps I am being a bit of a stick-in-the-mud." He feels an irrational desire to play up to what appears to be your ideal of a good fellow. He himself was a bit mad once. Soon he is throwing away point after point by adopting a happy-go-lucky method which doesn't suit his game in the least. Meanwhile you begin to play with pawky steadiness and screen this fact by redoubling your references to Jack Rivers.

Potter is such amusing and witty company that you find yourself forgetting he is the very lifeman of lifemen and that he is pulling your leg half the time. Which half, is often the puzzle. It is a fact, though, that he lives at 23 Hamilton Terrace, in St. John's Wood, a London district that houses a number of literary lights, and that, at 60. he is the father of a four-year-old boy. Luke, by his second wife. His first marriage produced two sons, now aged 30 and 28. When Potter was editor of the Leader he decided to write an article about Heather Jenner, who ran England’s most successful marriage bureau. She had "married" 14.000 people, including MPs. doctors, peers and even a canon. She was herself married to a wealthy farmer in Kent and they had a daughter and a son. Potter found Heather to be an engrossing subject and. four years later, with both divorces complete, they married.

I expected Potter to crush me when I asked the obvious question — "Do you really use gamesmanship and lifemanship in your own life?"—but he cheerfully insisted that he did, and offered the following example straight oil the cuff:

The previous weekend he had been guest at a sumptuous country home — without his actually saying so you are sure it was a ducal retreat—and I t.-Cíen. Sir Ian Jacob, a former director-general of the BBC. had also been invited. Jacob was. of course, once Potter’s boss. When Potter drove up to the portico in his three-point-four Jaguar he noticed at once that Jacob, who had arrived only minutes earlier, was driving a /uo-point-four Jag. Potter quickly pocketed his car keys to prevent the butler from sending his car to the garage, and it stood all weekend on the neat white gravel. Jacob took it bravel\ and it was sometime Sunday before he broke down and referred to Potter's more powerful, and more expensive, ear. "How do you like the big job?" he had to ask. “Ach, it’s got more horses than I need.” said Potter in self-deprecating tones. “Don’t know why I keep it . . . simply guzzles petrol.”

As any dedicated lifeman knows, this kind of small coup can make the day. Any ordinary, sane reader who doesn’t get the point can only be advised to go back to Book One or let the whole thing slide.

Just as cheerfully. Potter told me how he was once hopelessly put down by H. J. Heinz, the baked-hean baron. Potter was writing a company history for the Heinz concern and he and Heinz were luncheon companions. “You know how Americans arc," Potter told me, “always deferring to Englishmen as being more culturally inclined, more cosmopolitan. Well, it came to the wine and Jack insist-

ed 1 should choose. So I studied the list and suggested a well-bred thing with a hint of happy laughter to it. Jack apologized profusely for butting in and asked if 1 would be kind enough to try the one listed immediately below my choice. He said he’d appreciate my opinion on it because he had bought the vineyard last year."

Potter rubbed a long-fingered hand across a pink cheek. "Absolutely flattened me. Try to think up a counter to that! It was true, too. He did own the damn vineyard.”

Potter says he believes that, admitted or not, the practice of lifemanship is often the deciding factor in most human decisions. Politics is one long ploy, for instance. In Supermanship. he details the basic Khrushchov gambit — he calls it Trojan Horsemanship — and compares Khrushchov’s one-upness to Anthony

Eden’s perpetual one-downness. He also charts the Satellite Gambit and the Sputnik Ploy, points out that the root meaning of diplomacy is duplicity. Falling happily into Poltcrism, The Times commented: “The imagination reels at the thought of all the human activities which may now, through the cunning of Potter, be twisted to dark and subtle designs.” Potter may go to North America on another lecture tour next spring — "If I can afford it.” The prospect of three months of continuous travel and incessant entertainment delights him. "Never in my life have I been entertained half or lionized a quarter as much as 1 would like to be,” he says with that special wistfulness of the clever but lonely little boy. He has been warned off Toronto by so many friends that, as Lifeman No. I. he feels it almost a duty to go there and subdue the natives.

Like many other Englishmen, laymen as well as lifemen. Potter has picked up the curious belief that Canadians go around hanging their heads because they feel inferior to Americans. In helpful mood, he offers the following counters:

Contrast the promise of the sunrise with the fading glories of the sunset. Canada’s greatness, by allusion, is just beginning; the United States is on the downhill slope of decadence. Canadians could also say. "Two hundred millions by the year 2000? No wonder you like to come up here for a breath of fresh air." Or. if the target American is, say, an engineer from New York State, bone up in advance on some little-known N. Y. bridge disaster and when the conversation turns to engineering, slip in with your prepared story in precise detail in an interested voice, remarking, of course, that "it's the kind of thing that could happen anywhere.” ★