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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

(page 3 of 3)

“The Kennedys are said to play it at the White House, and I understand the Western Alliance is demanding early assurances that Jack sometimes wins,” a columnist at the London Evening Standard reported.

Sylvania, the defense contractor, was so impressed it offered Calhamer a job in operations research, hoping he would develop a program based on his game. But Calhamer never took to corporate life: Deep down, he saw himself as a game inventor, harboring the hope that Diplomacy would rescue him from a desk job.

Despite its success, Diplomacy’s royalties were never enough to provide Calhamer with a living. He left Sylvania after six years and ended up on welfare while he looked for a computer-programming job in New York. While “drifting around hither and yon,” he met his wife-to-be, Hilda, a Dominican immigrant. That’ll focus any guy on work. Calhamer ran out and got a job at the Statue of Liberty. When he took Hilda to La Grange Park, she fell in love with the quiet, arbored suburb. So Calhamer brought her to his home and settled down to life as a postal worker.

“That proved to be pretty worthwhile,” he says. “It doesn’t sound like a high-level job, but it was completely reliable, and it paid. I was pretty good at sorting mail. You have to be accurate.”

In any case, Calhamer’s claim to fame was secure. He wouldn’t always be a mailman. He would always be the inventor of Diplomacy. The game has outlasted its imitators—most military strategy games were unwieldy monstrosities with thick rule books and hundreds of pieces—and transcended the war-game genre it helped create. Games magazine named Diplomacy to its Hall of Fame, along with such rainy-day classics as Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, Yahtzee, and Sorry! On a visit to the State Department in Washington, Calhamer was a celebrity, sought out by generals and undersecretaries. In the sixties and seventies, he competed in Diplomacy tournaments, although he wasn’t one of the more successful players, says Edi Birsan, a veteran gamer from the San Francisco area.

“He doesn’t take into account the personalities of the players,” says Birsan, noting that game inventors rarely master their own creations. “His personality is such that he’s not an aggressive communicator.”

(“I think I play it fairly well,” Calhamer says, pointing to several tournament victories. “I try to offer deals that are good for both sides and are self-regulating.”)

It’s not surprising to hear the inventor of Diplomacy called a poor diplomat. It could be that Calhamer incorporated something he lacked in life into the fantasy world of the game. The inventor of Monopoly, after all, was stone broke.

Gordon Leavitt, now a retired actuary in New York, seems disappointed at how things turned out for the neighbor kid who was so fascinated with armies, maps, and World War I.

“He should have been a history professor,” says Leavitt, who nonetheless nominated Calhamer for the Lyons Township High School Hall of Fame. He never heard back. “They didn’t understand what he’d done. They’re used to corporate vice presidents. ‘Game inventor? What’s that?’ If somebody had written a book that’s still in print 50 years later, that’d be quite an accomplishment. That’s what Allan did. He invented something that’s still being used 50 years later.”

Dreyfus is less surprised by his classmate’s path. Calhamer was never interested in money, power, or public approval. A better businessman might have gotten rich off Diplomacy. As it is, Calhamer’s old age is made comfortable by a family inheritance.

“He did that consciously,” Dreyfus says. “I think he wanted his own time. I don’t think he wanted to work for any immediate boss.”

* * *

Before the Harvard class of 1953 gathered for its golden reunion, a questionnaire went out to every member. Asked his most important professional achievement, Calhamer responded, “Invention of the game Diplomacy.” Asked what he would have done differently with his life, he gave an answer you probably won’t often hear from a Harvard man: “I probably would have done everything differently.”

Calhamer missed out on the material rewards of an Ivy League education—the partnership, the private club, the summer house, the sailboat. The unconventional mind that created a landmark board game was never suited for a conventional career. But Diplomacy clubs will still be meeting after his classmates’ lawsuits and lectures are forgotten. He may have some regrets about the course of his life, but he has a legacy. Asked which life he would have preferred, Calhamer taps a copy of his game.

“It’s better to have this,” he says. “It makes you feel like you did something.”

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