Gamesmanship

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flopping

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.’ 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 British author 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 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.’ 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 contest. Potter and Joad went on to win the match.

Common techniques of gamesmanship include: breaking the flow of an opponent’s play (Potter insisted ‘There is only one rule; BREAK THE FLOW’); causing an opponent to take the game less seriously or to overthink his or her position; and 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.

Examples of ‘flow-breaking’ methods include: in darts, a player intentionally taking a long time to take their darts out of the dartboard; feigning injury to delay the game, or reduce advertized ability (the skilled gamesman can counter this tactic by waiting until the game has been in play for some time, before revealing that he or she suffers from a far more serious condition, such as a heart defect); in billiards or snooker, intentionally standing in the opponent’s line of sight, and then suddenly moving when the opponent is about to shoot under the guise of getting out of their sight line (‘more or less at the last moment, leaping into the correct position with exaggerated agility, and stand rigidly with head bowed’); and distracting the opposing player by complaining about other people who might be (but were not) distracting the opposing player. Potter, who always insisted that the good gamesman must give the appearance of being a good sportsman, recommended this approach. For example, if an opponent is about to take a shot at billiards, it is bad gamesmanship to fidget and whistle but good gamesmanship to distract him by loudly requesting silence from spectators: ‘Simulate annoyance, on the opponent’s behalf, with the onlookers.’

Other ways to break an opponent’s flow include: maintaining eye contact on winning points and avoiding eye contact on losing ones; in cricket, coming out to bat with two right-handed gloves and then wasting time sorting out the problem (in baseball, a batter can disrupt a pitcher’s flow by calling time just before he delivers the pitch); and when losing an outdoor game, feigning a deep, informed and more than amateur interest in e.g. botany or ornithology, in order to convey a breadth of interests and suggest to the opponent that losing is not of concern. This can cause the opponent to relax their attention, or at any rate rob them of the satisfaction of winning. Potter termed this ‘the natural hampette…See Gardens for Gamesmen, or When to be Fond of Flowers.’

Flow breaking in amateur ice hockey can involve intentionally icing the puck, lining up at the wrong face-off dot, or shooting the puck over the glass (in professional hockey the team that ices the puck is not allowed a line change, while shooting the puck over the glass leads to a two-minute penalty). In American football it is common for coaches to call a timeout an instant before the other team attempts a game-winning field goal. This is known as ‘icing’ or ‘freezing’ the kicker.

Examples of methods designed to cause the opponent to over think or to not take the game seriously enough include: giving intentionally vague advice in the hope of making the opponent focus on his play (in such ‘Advicemanship,’ ‘the advice must be vague, to make certain it is not helpful,’ although Potter also noted that ‘according to some authorities the advice should be quite genuine and perfectly practical’); asking one’s opponent’s advice for a (fictitious) match the following day, against an implied stronger opponent; claiming that the game being played ‘just isn’t my sport,’ or claiming less expertise than the player actually possesses (a mild form of hustling).

Examples of intentional ‘mistakes’ designed to gain an advantage include: in bridge, intentionally misdealing and then engaging in chaotic bidding, knowing that the hand will be void anyway (in the hope that ‘opponents will…be unable to form a working judgement of the opponents’ bidding form’), and in poker, intentionally raising out of turn, to induce players to give a free card. Both are considered very close to cheating, and the abuser of gamesmanship techniques will find himself penalized in most serious competitions. 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 twenty seconds to the competitor’s time. This penalty is rarely given, partly because of its highly subjective nature.

Association football (soccer) has a rich history of gamesmanship. 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. While not illegal or against the rules of the sport, it is heavily frowned upon. A high-profile example occurred during a match between Portugal and Netherlands in the 2006 World Cup, where the game, already marred by numerous cautions and even red cards, further deteriorated because of such an incident. Also, in a 1999 English match 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.

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’, for example). Potter acknowledged repeatedly that ‘the way of the gamesman is hard, his training strict, his progress slow, his disappointments many’, and recognized 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’. Yet one of his ‘correspondents’ owlishly admits, ‘there is no doubt that a knowledge of the game itself sometimes helps the gamesman.’

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’. 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.’

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