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World Domination: the Game

"Your name is too strong, Dave, you understand," says Hudson Defoe of Baltimore, who is Italy. "You're number one, realistically. I'm just telling you straight up."

Hood seems unruffled. "If you wanted to work with me, you could make it happen," he tells Defoe. Then Hood finds Nathan Barnes, an up-and-comer from Seattle, who is Austria. They seem to have a genial, if inconclusive, chat, but Hood smells danger. "He wants to kill me," Hood says afterward. "He wasn't being forthcoming at all about what he wants to do. This is not looking good."

(Ian Pollack)

Russia is similarly guarded. Hood then chats with Bad Tom, who, as France, is too far away to be a short-term threat or immediate help. Together they size up the rest of the board. Germany is an unfamiliar player -- what Bad Tom calls "fresh meat." The England player, Carl Willner of Washington, "is an alliance player, but he's aggravating as hell," Hood tells Bad Tom. "Remember, he works for the Department of Justice. There's not a lot of interesting people who work for the Department of Justice."

With most conversations taking place between pairs, there is often an odd man out, and Hood finds himself alone at the table when time is up. When the others return, they write down their orders. From Turkey, Hood sends an army into Bulgaria, a neutral supply center, and another one east, toward Russia. In the fall, Hood tries to move up into Rumania; Barnes, playing Austria, has promised him support, but when the orders are revealed, he has written them down wrong. Russia also tries to take Rumania, but without Austrian support it's a standoff. Barnes claims he made an honest mistake, but Hood doesn't believe him. "That was a misorder on purpose," he says. What's more, Italy and Austria have allied against him, making a series of moves known as the Lepanto Opening, a gambit named for a 16th-century Ottoman defeat.

Hood tries to make nice with Russia, but it is too late. He holds out long enough to avoid being the first knocked off the board; the fresh meat is run out of Germany by 1903. Then Turkey gets carved up by Defoe's Italy and Barnes's Austria. But even before Hood retires to his room for the night, the conquering alliance has frayed, and Defoe is losing his grip on his supply centers.

Now in cahoots with Bad Tom, Barnes knocks Defoe out at about 11:30 p.m., just in time for Defoe to join fallen emperors from other boards at an unoccupied green table in the Garden Room for a friendly game of no-limit Texas Hold 'Em. Like professional athletes with friends on rival teams, seasoned Diplomacy players are able to grapple intently, then leave what happens on the board. Paradoxically, betrayal binds them together, and Diplomacy circles have yielded many solid friendships. Andy Bartalone, a Potomac Tea & Knife Society stalwart from Bowie, says of one friend, "I would trust him with the payoff mortgage on my house -- in cash. But I wouldn't trust him to stay out of Belgium."

IN 2000, THE HUNT VALLEY INN WAS THE SITE of the World Diplomacy Convention, an annual event that attracts players from North America, Europe and Australia. Also in attendance was Allan B. Calhamer, the creator of Diplomacy. "The biggest lie we ever tell around the Diplomacy board is likely to be, 'I'm going to back you up,' " Calhamer said in his keynote speech. "They tell a lot bigger lies in the real thing."

Born in 1931, Calhamer grew up in the Chicago suburb of La Grange Park, the son of an engineer and a schoolteacher. "We used to draw maps of imaginary countries," recalls Gordon Leavitt, his boyhood neighbor and lifelong friend. "Once we discovered in the attic a geography book that showed a map of Europe before World War I with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the old boundaries." Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Calhamer's 10th birthday, and, though he discounts this coincidence, World War II clearly had a profound impact on him. In high school, he participated in debates about universal military service and world government. He read in Life magazine that the postwar world would have seven major powers.

"It didn't work out that way, of course, because the United States and Russia were so much more powerful than the rest," Calhamer says now. "But the article gave this idea of the complex balance of power. And it would make a heck of a parlor game, so I basically translated complex balance of power onto a board."

Calhamer won a scholarship to Harvard, where he played on the chess team and majored in history, then went on to Harvard Law School. Calhamer was developing a board game, and one day he invited six classmates to his room to test it out. "It required somebody who had a lot of patience," says classmate Herbert Prochnow. "After an hour or two, I started looking at my watch."

Nevertheless, Calhamer made a breakthrough that day. "In the first game, we did the diplomacy by writing messages," he says. "It got to be crazy, jotting these things off and throwing them across the table. So after that, we just talked face-to-face. That was a tremendous improvement."


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