Gamesmanship, Upmanship, Brinkmanship… Art of Winning without Actually Cheating: The Fine Line between Gamesmanship and Cheating…

Gamesmanship, Upmanship, Brinkmanship… is the art or practice of successively out doing a competitor, typically, using a conscious practice of ‘creative intimidation’; making others feel inferior and thereby gaining the status of being ‘one-up’ on them. The term has been extended to a generic, often punning extension, upmanship, used for any assertion of superiority; all life being a game– if you’re not one-up, you’re one-down.  

The principles of gamesmanship were first popularized by Stephen Meredith Potter in his book; ‘The Theory & Practice of Gamesmanship: Or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating’, where Potter expounds upon ways in which a player(s) of a game(s) may gain an advantage over their opponent, and ultimately prevail. He proposed that gamesmanship, by structure, is the opposite of sportsmanship.

The latter is to play a game simply for the enjoyment, or sport, of playing, while the former is to play a game simply to win. Some might say to win at any cost, but that is quite debatable, since winning at any cost would include cheating. Most definitions of gamesmanship, specifically mention that it does not include; cheating or actually breaking any rules of the game. Several definitions follow:

  • The technique or practice of manipulating people or events, so as to gain an advantage or outwit one’s opponents or competitors.
  • The art of winning games or defeating opponents by clever or cunning practices without actually cheating.
  • Use of dubious, although not technically illegal, methods to win a game.

Also, it’s debatable that gamesmanship is the true polar opposite of sportsmanship. While there is a tension between the ultimate goals of persons subscribing to these philosophies of play, both strive to compete within the bounds of the rules. It’s the cheater who strive to gain unfair advantage and win at all costs, and so become the bane of both gamesmen and sportsmen alike.

According to ‘Scarecrow182000’; Gamesmanship can provide the player with the means to ‘best’ an opponent who is better– fit, talented, or otherwise equipped to win. The most effective forms of gamesmanship are often subtle, and can appear to be, in fact, in good sportsmanship. Mr. Potter, in his book, outlined the most common forms of gamesmanship:

  • Breaking the Flow. Potter insisted: ‘there is only one rule: Break the Flow’.
  • Causing the opponent to take the game less seriously or over think their position.
  • Intentionally making a ‘mistake’ that gains an advantage over an opponent.

Gamesmanship, inside the rules, is a way to gain an advantage over your opponent. It may not always be exactly ‘sporting’, but it doesn’t have to be unfair or mean. Of course, any gamesman strategy is often undone by experienced and focused opponents. These tactics will not always work, so the best way to reliably win is; learn the game, its strategies, and play to the best of your abilities. ‘He, who is not one up, is one down.

In the articleThe Timelessness of Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship by Burling Lowrey writes: Ironically, the current cultural climate has sharpened and broadened relevance of gamesmanship, although in a crasser more debased heavy-handed form. Such phenomena as; looking out for number one, revival of cut-throat laissez-faire economics,  Vince Lombardi ethic in sports… come to mind. According to Alden Whitman; he noted that the proposition underlying gamesmanship is; ‘the courteously clever can and perhaps should be superior to the merely expert.’

A variation on this hypothesis, according to Whitman, is that the ‘psychologically well-equipped person can win at the games of life without really playing them well.’ The ultimate goal of ‘games’ psychology is disarm one’s opponent by ‘ploys’, to be constantly in the position of ‘one-up’; thus, assure that one’s opponent will always be playing well below their usual skill level.

In Michael Maccoby’s ‘The Gamesman’, a sociological study of corporate executives, he ostensibly attempt to classify corporate personality types with such labels as; ‘jungle fighter’, ‘company man’, ‘draftsman’; but, the core of his analysis is the characterization of the executive as a ‘gamesman’.

According to Maccoby; the modern business gamesman is best defined as a person who loves change and wants to influence its course. They like to take calculated risks and are fascinated by technique and new methods… Unlike other business types, he is energized to compete not because he wants to build an empire, not for riches, fame, glory, or exhilaration of running his team and gaining victories. But, their main goal is to be known as a winner, and their deepest fear is to be labeled a loser…

In the article its Not Cheating Unless You Get Caught by Tim Sloan writes:  What we’re seeing more these days, unfortunately, is behavior that goes beyond the simple leveraging of rules practiced in gamesmanship. We’re seeing fundamental rules being deliberately broken to gain an ongoing advantage. Getting caught cheating really involves two things: Actually doing something illegal, and then having an official (i.e., person(s) of authority) step-up and take action.

More often than ever, the problem with that sequence is not breaking of rules, but having the official take effective action. An official, worth their salt, will penalize blatant act of cheating– but, what about dealing with cheating or unethical behavior that’s not so clear-cut? According to Michael Josephson; he believes officials have fallen into the trap of trying to give sports (contests) what they think they want; rather than, simply, enforcing the rules, as written.

That often stems, he says; from the belief that leagues (sports) want officials who don’t upset the flow of the game by calling fouls that have become common events. “Every time we don’t make the call, we move the line back,” Josephson contends. We change the de facto rules, not the real rules, and that changes the attitude of the participants. … It changes the nature of the competition and the best cheater wins instead of the best athlete.

Some think that Josephson’s no-compromise approach is somewhere between naive and purist– that life isn’t nearly that lily-white and officials do need-to-go with the flow, in many cases. He flatly disagrees and challenges officials with an interesting acid test: “If gamesmanship is really part of the game, we should teach it to the highest level of proficiency,” he says: “We don’t because it’s cheating– we know it’s wrong. To a person of honor, doing the right thing is doing it beyond the point, and willing to pay consequences.”

In the articleThe Secrets of Effective Brinkmanship by Charles Dominick writes: Brinkmanship is defined as ‘the art or practice of pushing a dangerous situation or confrontation to limit of safety;  especially, to force a desired outcome. In business, brinkmanship is pushing a negotiation to the point of nearly killing a deal in order to achieve the most favorable terms when that deal is finally agreed upon.

Brinkmanship often produces a negotiator’s greatest successes, but it can also result in worst mistakes and, therefore, it must be used carefully. Some ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ for using brinkmanship when negotiating:

  • Do use brinkmanship when at least one alternate supplier has comparable cost, quality, service, availability, and financial stability. But, don’t– if your organization would have to negatively alter its entire business model, if you no longer have the option to use the supplier.
  • Do use brinkmanship at the end of a long, deadline-bound negotiation. But, don’t– when a supplier hasn’t yet fully engaged, or has time to adjust its strategy.
  • Do use brinkmanship on a ‘worthwhile term’. But, don’t– bother with an ‘insignificant term’– the risks are too great for something immaterial.
  • Do set your negotiating target substantially past the supplier’s expressed upper limit. But, don’t– be unrealistic by setting your target ‘too far above’ the supplier’s limit.

We all use versions of gamesmanship in business, although some call it– negotiation, upmanship, or perhaps most apt of all, brinkmanship. The art of being unreasonable is a common occurrence in business and the principles are regularly applied by business leaders.

According to ‘Rosabeth Moss Kanter’:  Sometimes the worst of circumstances can teach the best lessons, and there are four things business leaders can learn from conflicts, competitions, and compromises:

1. Survival is more important than heroism: As a wise mentor once said, the first rule of business is ‘stay alive.’ If you can’t get the best possible deal, a lesser deal that keeps doors open for the future means living to fight another day. Sometimes backing down averts a major crisis and keeps the debate alive.

2. Walk fine line between standing on principles and stubborn ideology: Naturally you think that there are principles on your side, but rigid adherence to impractical ideology on the other side– your guy is noble; the other guy is stubborn. Sometimes common ground is hard to find. It’s cliché to say that negotiations work better when you find common ground, but indeed, finding an even bigger principle that allows compromise can loosen rigidity without weakening principled stands.

3. Everyone needs to take away a little something: Winner-take-all competition leave festering residue of resentment. Face-saving compromise with consolation prizes and dignity are important. This is often under-rated in the desire to make everything a contest and find one victor. But it’s especially true, if you are going to work together again. Moreover, players might switch sides, whether on the next issue or in the next season. Let everyone find their silver lining, and they must show their ‘side’ that their efforts mattered.

4. Leaders must be calm professionals: Leaders must see the bigger picture, think longer-term, and consider a range of consequences. Great leaders learn to shut out the noise and focus on their vision of what’s best for the business: Not on winning an argument or petty game, but on delivering results.

All good is hard. All evil is easy. Dying, losing, cheating, and mediocrity are easy. Stay away from easy. ~ Scott Alexander