All in the Game
How a brilliant Harvard student invented the classic board game Diplomacy—and then went on to a long career as a La Grange Park postman
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For 21 years, Allan Calhamer walked a mail route in La Grange Park, the town where he had grown up and graduated from high school, where he had chosen to settle down and raise his two daughters. He was a tall, soft, abstracted man, who examined the world through thick, scholarly glasses, and went home at night to study history. No one noticed those distinguishing details under the blue uniform, the patch that read “Letter Carrier.” Suburban mailman is a job that guarantees anonymity, and that’s exactly what Calhamer found on the sidewalks of his hometown.
Outside La Grange Park, though, Calhamer wasn’t anonymous. As a young man—one of the brightest young men the town ever produced—Calhamer had gone away to Harvard. In the early fifties, while still an undergraduate, he invented the board game Diplomacy. A thinking man’s version of Risk, Diplomacy invites players to take the role of a great power in pre–World War I Europe, and negotiate, cajole, wheedle, and backstab their way to continental domination. Since it was published in 1959, the game has sold more than 300,000 copies. John F. Kennedy played it in the White House. Henry Kissinger played it to hone the skills that would make him secretary of state. As simple to learn as chess and as difficult to master as mergers and acquisitions, Diplomacy has an obsessive following, from the local club Windy City Weasels to an international tournament circuit and webzines that publish articles such as “Rethinking Russia’s Opening Strategy” and “The Belgian Gambit.”
Diplomacy was a pioneering war game—“one of the early signs of organized gaming,” according to Derk Solko of the Web site Board Game Geek. But it never made Calhamer rich—he once bought a Mercury Monarch with the royalties—and it led him astray from the career path most Harvard men follow. After inventing the game, he drifted through an aborted stint at Harvard Law, a few months in the foreign service, a career as a systems analyst. In the late sixties, living on welfare in New York City, he took a job as a guard at the Statue of Liberty.
“It might have been bad in a sense,” Calhamer, 77, says today of Diplomacy. “It might have been a distraction to my conniving my way up.”
For one great achievement, was it worth it?
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Illustration: Sean McCabe