AskDefine | Define gamesmanship

Dictionary Definition

gamesmanship n : the use of dubious (although not technically illegal) methods to win a game

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The use of legal but unsporting tactics to gain an advantage over one’s opponent
    They kept the other team waiting on the field until the last possible moment – that was a clear case of gamesmanship.

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Extensive Definition

Gamesmanship is the use of dubious (although not technically illegal) methods to win a game, such as golf or snooker. As opposed to sportsmanship, it may be inferred that the term derives from playing for the game (to win at any cost) as opposed to playing for sport. The term originates from Stephen Potter's 1947 book, "Gamesmanship: The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating."


Stephen 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 queried whether the ball had landed 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 was in question was extremely off-putting. Potter and Joad went on to win the match.


The most common techniques of gamesmanship are the following.
  1. Breaking the flow of an opponent's play.
  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

Examples of "flow-breaking" methods include:
  • Feigning injury to delay the game, or to imply you won't be playing at your best. 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 your opponent's line of sight, and then suddenly moving when you "realise" you're in the wrong place.
  • Distracting your opponent by complaining about other people who might be (but weren't) distracting your opponent. 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.
  • When winning a point you should look directly at the opponent, but when losing one always avoid eye contact.
  • In cricket, coming out to bat with two right-handed gloves and then wasting time sorting it out.
  • When losing an outdoor game, feigning a deep, informed and more than amateur interest in e.g. botany or ornithology, in order to convey the breadth of your interests and suggest to opponent that you are not really concerned about losing. This can cause them to relax their attention, or at any rate rob them of the satisfaction of beating you.

Causing your opponent to overthink

Examples of methods designed to cause your opponent to overthink or to not take the game seriously enough include:
  • Giving intentionally vague advice in the hope of making your opponent focus on his play.
  • Asking one's opponent advice for a (fictitious) match the following day, against an implied stronger opponent.
  • Claiming that the game you are playing "just isn't my sport", or claiming less expertise than you actually possess (a mild form of hustling).
  • The converse approach, suggesting a level of expertise far higher than you actually possess, can also be effective. For example, although gamesmanship frowns on simple distractions like whistling loudly while an opponent takes a shot, it is good gamesmanship to do so when taking a shot oneself, suggesting as it does a level of carefree detachment which your opponent does not possess.

Intentional "mistakes"

Examples of intentional "mistakes" designed to gain an advantage:
  • In bridge, intentionally misdealing and then engaging in chaotic bidding, knowing that the hand will be void anyway.
  • In poker, intentionally raising out of turn, to induce players to give you a free card.
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".


In 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. Feigning injury to cause the ball to be kicked out is another example of gamesmanship intended to break the flow of play. 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.
Another less used tactic in football is to "take out the opposition by means of harming them with the football by direct aim". This is, however, both bad sportsmanship and entirely against the original spirit of gamesmanship.

Usage outside of games

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".


  • The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating is a book by Stephen Potter, from which most of the above derives, although it must be emphasized that Potter was being humorous, and always suggested that one should be a good sportsman first and foremost.

Books extending Potter's theories of gamesmanship

  • Raffles and the Match-Fixing Syndicate, by Adam Corres, concerning the principles of gamesmanship in cricket.


Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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