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September 14, 2012

Steven Potter, Genius, and Master of the Art of Being A Dick

I had this as part of the last post, but it was confusingly inserted, so I've stripped it out to stand on its own.

Lately I've been obsessed with the humorous "how-to" books of Steven Potter, Oxford don, and master of the skill of "Lifemanship" (sabotaging social rivals with cheap rhetorical ploys).

His basic schtick is this: Why should the smart people get the credit for being smart? Or the polite people the credit for having good manners? Or the experts for earning expertise? Or champion chess players the glory of being champion chess players?

Why should they get all the social credit? What about the rest of us?

So he wrote a series of "How To" books for Young Gentlemen Who Aren't Particularly Talented Or Scrupulous. The point of the books is to teach you how to win, not by cheating per se (although some light cheating is always advisable), but by being a dick. But, also: By being a dick in a way that appears to be polite and helpful, so you get away with it.

For example, if someone is beating you at golf, and having a very good day, you can sabotage him thus: By complimenting him on a new form he's using when he strikes the ball.

Even though he's not actually employing a new form. But if you compliment him and say, "Wow, the way you're shifting your back-foot at the moment of impact is really text-book! You're giving me a master's class out here with that shift at the end of your strike!," he will begin thinking about shifting his back-foot, and trying to shift it, and thus will wind up destroying his game.

Bear in mind, he wrote in the 40's and 50's, and in the polite land of England. A lot of his advice is now sort of outdated, particularly in these more rough-mannered times, and would probably get you punched in the mouth.

In fifties England, though, this stuff flew.

He then extended these cheap-ass ploys to all situations, including interrupting the flow of, for example, an expert commanding attention at a cocktail party.

You see, if you allow him to exhibit superiority over you, even in his field of expertise, you lose. You are one-down to him. So you must even the score, and, if possible, even get one-up on him.

What is Plonking?

If you have nothing to say, or, rather, something extremely stupid and obvious, say it, but in a ‘plonking’ tone of voice – i.e. roundly, but hollowly and dogmatically. It is possible, for instance, to take up and repeat with slight variation, in this tone of voice, the last phrase of the speaker. Thus:

TYPOGRAPHY EXPERT: ... and roman lower-case letters of Scotch and Baskerville have two or three thou. more breadth, which gives a more generous tone, an easier and more spacious colour, to the full page –

YOURSELF: The letters ‘have width’.

T.E.: Exactly, exactly, exactly – and then if –

YOURSELF: It is a widening.

T.E.: What? – Oh yes, yes.

This is the lightest of trips, yet, if properly managed, the tone of voice, will suggest that you can afford to say the obvious thing, because you have approached your conclusion the hard way, through a long apprenticeship of study.

‘Plonking’ of a kind can be made by the right use of quotation or pretended quotation. (See under Conversationship, p.88.) Here is the rough format:

MILITARY EXPERT (Beginning to get into his stride, and talking now really well): There is, of course, no precise common denominator between the type of mind which, in matters of military science, thinks tactically, and the man who is just an ordinary pugnacious devil with a bit of battlefield instinct about him.

YOURSELF (Quietly plonking): Yes, ... ‘Where equal mind and contest equal go.’

This is correct quotation plonking (a) because it is not a genuine quotation and (b) because it is meaningless. The Military Expert must either pass it over, smile vaguely, say ‘yes’, or in the last resort, ‘I don’t quite get...’ In any case, it stops flow, and suggests that whatever he is saying, you got there first.

Not Plonking, But Another Ploy: Potter made the central insight that the true goal of a game is not to be good at the game, but to be thought of as good at the game.

If you skip trying to be good at the game, it saves a lot of time. You can just employ various cheap ploys to make people think you're good at it.

For example, here are some suggestions on being perceived as good at chess.


The prime object of gamesmanship in chess must always be, at whatever sacrifice, to build up your reputation. In our small chess community in Marylebone it would be modesty on my part to deny that I have built up for myself a considerable name without ever actually having won a single game.

Even the best players are sometimes beaten, and that is precisely what happens to me. Yet it is always possible to make it appear that you have lost your game for the game’s sake.

‘Regarded la Dame’ Play

This is done by affecting anxiety over the wiseness of your opponent’s move. An occasional ‘Are you sure you meant that?’ or ‘Your castle won’t like that in six moves’ time’ works wonders.

By arrangement with another gamesman I have made an extraordinary effect on certain of our Marylebone Chess Club Rambles by appearing to engage him in a contest without board. In the middle of a country lane I call out to him ‘P to Q3’, then a quarter of an hour later he calls back to me ‘Q to QB5’; and so on. ‘Moves’, of course, can be invented arbitrarily.

JUNIOR MEMBER: I can’t think how you do it.

SELF: Do what?

JUNIOR MEMBER: Play chess without the pieces. Do you have a picture of the board in your brain... or what is it?

SELF: Oh, you mean our little game? I am actually up at the moment. Oh, you mean how do we do it? Oh, I’ve always been able to ‘see’ the board in that way, ever since I can remember.

Potter’s Opening

This is supposed, now, to be the name of an effective opening, simple to play and easy to remember, which I have invented for use against a more experienced player who is absolutely certain to win. It consists of making three moves at random and then resigning.


Potter’s opening
(1) KP-K4 : KP-K4
(2) B-Q B4 : B-Q B4
(3) Kt-B3 : Kt-B3
(4) White resigns

The dialogue runs as follows:

SELF: Good. Excellent. (Opponent has just made his third move. See above.) I must resign, of course.


SELF: Well... you’re bound to take my Bishop after sixteen moves, unless... unless... And even then I lose my castle three moves later.

OPPONENT. Oh, yes.

SELF: Unless you sacrifice there, which, of course, you wouldn’t.


SELF: Nice game.


SELF: Pretty situation... very pretty situation. Do you mind if I take a note of it? The Chess News usually publishes any stuff I send them.

It is no exaggeration to say that this gambit, boldly carried out against the expert, heightens the reputation of the gamesman more effectively than the most courageous attempt to fight a losing battle.


Ace here. And it's much easier than spending hours and hours actually practicing the game.

Finally, "Winemanship." Lightly edited to dispose of some jokes that I don't think work.



A schoolboy definition of Winesmanship is ‘How to talk about wine without knowing a Hock from a Horses Neck’. But in fact Winesmanship is itself a philosophy if not an ethic, and can be used in Young Manship, in Jobmanship, even in wooing.

Winesmanship Basic

A few phrases and a ploy or two, to get our bearings. Consider the simplest first. If you are taking a girl, or even a former headmaster, out to lunch at a restaurant, it is WRONG to do what everybody else does – namely, to hold the wine list just out of sight, look for the second cheapest claret on the list, and say, ‘Number 22, please.’ Never say the number, anyhow, because it suggests that you are unable to pronounce the name of the wine you are ordering. Nominate the wine in English French, and make at the same time some comment which shows at least that you have heard of it before. Say, for instance:

‘They vary, of course, but you seldom get a complete dud.’

Or simply:

‘I wonder...’

A useful thing is to look at the wine list before the waiter comes and say, ‘Amazing. Nothing here you can be sure of. Yet the food is quite good. But I’ve got an idea.’

Then, when the waiter comes, say to him, ‘Look. You’ve got a Château Neon ’45 somewhere secreted about the place, I know. Can you let us have a bottle?’

(You know he’s got it because you have in fact read it off the wine list, cheapest but one.)

When the waiter leaves, you can say, ‘They keep a small cache for favoured customers.’

With a little trouble a really impressive effect, suitable for average city-man guest, can be made by arriving fifteen minutes early, choosing some cheap ordinaire, and getting waiter to warm and decant it. When guest comes, say, ‘I know you’ll like this. Should be all right. I got them to get it going at nine o’clock this morning. Not expensive but a perfectly honest wine – and a good wine if it’s allowed to breathe for three or four hours.’

For Home Winesmanship, remember that your mainstay is hypnotic suggestion. Suggest that some rubbishy sherry, nine bob, is your special pride, and has a tremendously individual taste. Insist on getting it yourself ‘from the cellar’. Take about four minutes uncorking it. Say, ‘I think decanting destroys it,’ if you have forgotten, or are too bored, to decant it. Keep staring at the bottle before you pour it. When you have drawn the cork, look particularly hard at the cork, and, of course, smell it.

Don’t say too much about the wine being ‘sound’ or ‘pleasant’: people will think you have simply been mugging up a wine-merchant’s catalogue. It is a little better to talk in broken sentences and say ‘It has... don’t you think?’ Or, ‘It’s a little bit cornery,’ or something equally random like ‘Too many tramlines’. I use this last phrase because it passes the test of the boldly meaningless.

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 flavour of carbolic which has been surprising your guest will seem to him to acquire an interest if not a grace.

Alternatively you may admit, frankly, that your four-and-sixpenny is a failure. ‘They were right,’ you say. ‘The twenty-fours should have been wonderful. Perfect grapes, perfect weather, and the vestre – the Dordogne wind. But for some reason or other they mostly sulked. Taste it and tell me what you think. You may like it.’

Or if your four-and-sixpenny is only two years old and unbearably acid, you can say, ‘Let it rest in your mouth. Now swallow. There, Do you get it? That "squeeze of the lemon", as it’s called...’

Then, if there is no hope of persuading Guest that what he is drinking has any merit whatever, you can talk of your bottle as an Academic Interest treat.

‘Superb wine, but it has its periods of recession. Like a foot which goes to sleep, has pins and needles, and then recovers. I think that was André’s explanation. At the moment it’s BANG in the middle of one of its WORST OFF-COLOUR PERIODS.’

Watch your friend drink this wine, and if he shudders after it, and makes what we winesmen call ‘the medicine face’, you can say... ‘Yes! You’ve got it? Let it linger a moment.’

‘Why?’ says Guest.

‘Do you notice the after-sharpness, the point of asperity in the farewell, the hint of malevolence, even, in the au revoir?’ If he says, ‘Yes’, as he will, look pleased.


After saying (not of course really having a cellar) ‘I’ll get it from the cellar,’ enter any cupboard (preferably beneath stairs), close door, and make sound with feet as if descending to and (after pause) mounting from a wine-cellar.


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posted by Ace at 05:50 PM

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