Calhamer’s Gift


Allan Calhamer, who has just passed away, is someone of whom you may not have heard, but he certainly enriched my life and that of millions of other people. He was a postman by trade, but should be remembered for his invention of the game Diplomacy.

From early teen years, how I loved this game. No chance involved, no dice on which risk your fortune, just negotiation and interaction. The feelings the game could generate were intense: I am still rather irritated with my freshman college roommate for stabbing me in the Spring of 1906 by slipping a navy into Hol, the swine.

At some point the game maker converted the fabulous wooden pieces to cheap, yucky plastic. But a fellow in state prison started carving pieces on his own for disappointed players — we wrote him for re-supply and passed his details on to those who had just purchased the game.

The Internet was made for Diplomacy. It is hard to get 7 people together for the 5-10 hours a full game would take. Play by postal mail was too slow and many people would lose interest and drop out. But email solved those problems, a perfect match of new technology with an older pasttime. That was a new joy, especially because the first time I played on line I won with Italy (Italy!).

Thank you Mr. Calhamer, from me and all the other fans of your fantastic game.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “Calhamer’s Gift”

  1. So many fond memories of this, especially the coed games where negotiating became somewhat more… interesting. I don’t know if I’m down with an email version. How can you spy on other people that way?

  2. Story making the rounds at Stanford circa 1963: the game was banned in Physics Corner because one grad student tried to toss another out a third floor window after being double crossed.

  3. A group of us tried playing Diplomacy freshman year in college, but quickly realized that having players leave the room to have secret negotiations was not ideal: everyone knew who was talking to whom. Bill Noyce rose to the challenge and came up with a very early (1972) form of e-mail on the time-sharing system, so that we could send secret messages to each other. I’m not sure we ever completed a game using his system, but it was a nifty hack.

    1. Why wasn’t everybody talking to everybody? It’s a good practice to talk to everybody every turn, regardless of what your intentions are.

  4. I played this a bunch when I was younger. One group I played with got frustrated with me because one other guy and I realized that we were the only trustworthy ones in the bunch and so we tended to work together and stick together. We liked to play Italy and Austria-Hungary, a pair of countries that are weak by themselves but make a very formidable alliance.

    The rest of the group complained that we were taking the fun out of it by always standing by our commitments. Our response was that they could always band together and wipe us out if they really thought it was that bad. They could rarely go long enough without backstabbing each other to get that job done.

    1. Oh, and I have a copy of this with the wooden pieces still sealed in their bag from the factory. I picked it up dirt cheap right before I moved out of the area and I never found a group to play it with up here.

    2. As you know, if you have the trust between Italy and A-H, the Lepanto Opening is devastatingly effective.

  5. “No chance involved, no dice on which risk your fortune, just negotiation and interaction.”

    Even though it has no dice, cards, spinners or other randomizing elements, Diplomacy involves chance because it’s what game theorists call a “game of incomplete information,” like rock-paper-scissors or matching pennies.

    You don’t know what you’re opponents are doing, so you have to guess. And your guess can be lucky or unlucky.

    This is in contrast with a “game of complete information,” such as chess, checkers, or go.

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