The Magazine

Lives of the Eccentrics

Joseph Bottum, diplomatic player

Apr 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 31 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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In 1859, John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, a book that included, among its other peculiarities, a complaint that Victorian society was destroying eccentricity, and thereby individuality, and thereby freedom. 

David Clark

David Clark

I’ve always liked Macaulay’s response—a snort that Mill was crying fire in the midst of Noah’s flood. In truth, England, during that strange century between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I, had the wealth, worldwide scope, and cultural confidence to allow what may be the greatest goofiness ever known. London alone held thousands of cranks, and all around the globe, the sun never set on true British nuttiness. 

The most interesting part of eccentricity may be just how wasteful it usually is. Real eccentricity, I mean, the genuine, whole-life thing, not the mere attempt to cultivate a rebel charm or indulge a little quirkiness. Authentic eccentricity—the oddball in full—devotes itself to wasting time: the pouring of more into containers than those containers should actually hold. Intelligence is the key, often enough, but also charisma, interest, talent. Any human excellence, from a genius for Sanskrit to a gift for tiddlywinks, can be pursued far off to the side of what culture places at the center of human concern.

As, for instance, “On Strengthening the Hand of Austria-Hungary,” the essay Allan B. Calhamer published in 1960, undeterred by the fact that the empire had come to an end in 1918. And he’s surely right: The threat to garrison Tyrolia early in 1901 would have aided Austria-Hungary’s diplomatic efforts with Italy. 

Would have aided, that is, if the dangerous balance of European powers that would explode in 1914 had been merely a bloodless board game. And that’s what prewar Europe appeared to Calhamer, when he invented the game Diplomacy in 1954 while a student at Harvard Law School. 

Personally, for all the hours I wasted playing Diplomacy, I blame Halford Mackinder, whose 1904 essay “The Geographical Pivot of History” Calhamer read as a Harvard undergraduate—a wonderfully reductionist and nutball theory that history is nothing more than the geopolitical struggle to control central Europe and Asia. Still, in his account of the game’s origins, Calhamer equally attributes the idea to Sidney Bradshaw Fay, his professor and author of the 1928 Origins of World War One, a curiously pro-German (and anti-Austro-Hungarian) volume that traced the disastrous fantasies of European diplomacy after 1901. 

What makes Diplomacy different from most board games is that it allows no role for chance. Played on a map of Europe, the territories of seven great powers facing one another, the game uses no dice or luck of the draw. With its simple military action balanced almost perfectly, the key to Diplomacy is the deals the players make, promising between turns to support one another. And then keeping those promises or breaking them when the turn actually comes. Henry Kissinger is said to have loved the game, along with John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, and thousands of time-wasting college students ever since.

After dropping out of Harvard Law in boredom, Calhamer self-published Diplomacy in 1959, eventually licensing the game to Avalon Hill and other companies. Despite selling over 300,000 copies, it never brought him a fortune, and most of his life was passed in mild eccentricity: a very intelligent man who camped for a while at Walden Pond, worked as a park ranger, and invented a few other games (all unpublished). Imagining he had a deep understanding of strategy, Sylvania hired him in the 1960s to analyze technology in future military conflicts, but he lasted only six years before boredom overtook him again. 

From the 1970s until his retirement in the 1990s, he delivered mail in his hometown of La Grange Park, Illinois—entertaining himself along his route by factoring into primes the license-plate numbers of the cars he passed. He would occasionally attend Diplomacy conventions, but he was never a champion player: too kind-hearted, by all reports, to use the cutthroat tactics that victory requires.

Allan Calhamer died in February at the age of 81, to a surprising number of obituaries around the nation—almost all from writers who had fond (or bitter) memories of playing his game. And yet, to read those obituaries is not primarily to see a game inventor like Alfred Butts with Scrabble or Charles Darrow with Monopoly. It is to observe instead a genuine American eccentric—a man who happened to invent a popular game and who devoted his high intelligence to mild and modest pursuits, pouring attention and interest into bottles too small to contain them. 

A happy life, you have to think.


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