Motivational Interviewing, Gamesmanship, and the Fine Art Of Manipulative Chess


It was my exposure to Monty Python in the early days of my life (for some reason, my Texas born, depression-era father found them funny, all the while parsing out that appalling Benny Hill) that perhaps led to my love of rhetorical tomfoolery.  I don’t know. I do know, however, that they were fully aware of the caliber-to-ballistics ratios of their foolishness.

Years later, I came across a copy of Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship in a used bookstore.  back then, I had the impression that it was supposed to be funny–I mean the illustrations led one down the garden path of “this thing’s a hoot,” but I just didn’t absorb the subtlety of the sarcasm and wit; I was used to nuclear grade sarcasm, taken straight with a sardonia root chaser.

Now all these years later, I come across a compendium/omnibus/chrestomathy (paging H.L Mencken) called The Complete Upmanship.

And now, I get it.  The psychological gambit is far more intriguing to me than any out and out witticism joust on the field called Smarmy.

For those not in the know, Gamesmanship–a phrase one will hear in the political arena and in media all the time–is the art of winning a “game” without actually cheating.  Chances are it’s a game one might normally lose.

The fun of it all comes with Potter’s extravagant elucidations.  One of his initial examples is  in playing tennis against a formidable opponent.  The idea is not to try to actually match them skill for skill (for the assumption is bald disproportion at the outset), but to plant a seed of doubt in their mind. Case in point: practiced reflexes–those elements of professional muscle memory that are confined to what Maslow calls “unconscious competence” can be brought to the forefront with what appears as a compliment:

“You are placing those serves even more dead center than I’ve seen all week.  You must’ve made an adjustment!

At this point, their technique that was confined to the unconscious periphery–raising the chances and probability for a “choke.” This works in Chess as well, where Potter says:

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.

Saying things like “ooh, your Rook isn’t going to like THAT square six moves from now,” under the pretense of helpfulness, can be a literal killer at the chessboard. A less subtle tennis tactic would be to show up to the match completely outside the club policies of dress code–therby stressing out the poor, dues-paying prude to the point of self-conscious resignation.

Enter into the picture Miller and Rollnick with Motivational Interviewing. This–tome–and it’s progeny have become a sort of professional liturgy amongst law enforcement organs–and especially the juvenile divisions in which the potential for rehabilitation is still considered viable.  This process of speaking to people–which involves putting up and removing barriers to change through the normal give and take of conversation–IS effective.  But I saw right through it.  Stephen Potter was alive and well.  It was just far more subtle, less nefarious, and had an actual goal in mind other than a pyhrric victory over cribbage. The trick is, to find the positive in this:

“I’m not quitting drugs, and besides, my kids are too young to know what I’m doing.’

Now the uninitiated might see only negatives.  But the skilled practitioner will at least see her vague concern for the kids as a leverage point, and say reflectively:

“You must love your kids to keep this from them like that.”

At this point, the focus is an open “question” that allows them to start enumerating the value of the kids–and thus driving a wedge between them and their drugs.  At least in the short term.

I got sent to this class as a cave-canary in my department  because they knew–KNEW I love fooling with the language. Before I knew it I was in instructor school.  When I noticed that the manipulative DNA was similar to Potter’s twisted, labyrinthine path to Quot Erat Demonstratum, I pointed it out.

It was not appreciated.

This is where the tactics from a third book come into play with me.  A Whack On The Side Of The head, by Roger von Oech, literally spells out as productive–ALL the chicanery that got me tossed from class at the height of my Goonies phase. This book is chock full of creative catalysts–meant specifically for breaking creative blocks.

One of my favorites was the idea that deliberalty coming up with AWFUL ideas frees the person (i.e., ME) from the almost artificial onus of coming up with the “right” answer–especially since scenario work was part of the completely pedestrian-and-narcolepsy-inducing phase of the day.  AND after lunch, when half the class made it look like a gas leak was taking us out piecemeal.

So during one of the creative exercises, I did exactly that: I used every single possible parameter to galvanize scenario work into the antithesis of Motivational Interviewing:

  • Probationer tells caseload manager he wants to make his life better
  • Caseload manager asks him open questions about life/priorities
  • Probationer states he would feel more supportive if he could hold a job
  • Caseload manager reflects back that he would be “seen as a breadwinner”
  • probationer states that transportation is a major factor in both employment and sobriety classes.
  • Caseload manager sells him a car

And just like that.  I was met with crickets. No sense of humor whatsoever.

I guess I’ll have to try M.I. on them next time I see them.

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1 Response to Motivational Interviewing, Gamesmanship, and the Fine Art Of Manipulative Chess

  1. Pingback: I’ve written stuff so good, I am forced to MENTION IT myself. | Master Of None


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