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LaGrange Park mailman who invented board game Diplomacy is dead at 81

Allan Calhamer inventor board game 'Diplomacy'

Allan Calhamer, inventor of the board game "Diplomacy"

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Updated: April 4, 2013 6:47AM



To people in La Grange Park, Allan B. Calhamer was the postman who delivered the mail.

But to people who played “Diplomacy” — the addictive board game he designed as a law student at Harvard — Mr. Calhamer was a geek god.

With its shifting alliances, deception and backstabbing, Diplomacy resembled a Fortran-era version of TV’s “Survivor” — set in pre-World War I Europe. Reportedly, it was popular with President Kennedy, broadcaster Walter Cronkite, and Nixon-era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It’s in the Hall of Fame of both Games Magazine, and boardgamegeek.com, where fans worldwide are mourning his passing.

He died Monday at 81 at Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital.

Mr. Calhamer said the game can “make some people almost euphoric and causes others to shake like a leaf,’’ in an article he wrote for diplomacy-archive.com.

“It’s pitiless, because in the game Diplomacy, there will be one winner,” said game designer Steve Jackson, founder of Steve Jackson Games. “You negotiate, you make deals, you lie.”

Mr. Calhamer’s invention isn’t just a fan favorite. Industry analysts say “Dip” influenced generations of designers.

More than 50 years after he invented it, enthusiasts sometimes engage in Diplomacy all-nighters. Long periods of quiet strategy are punctuated with shouts like: “You gave me your word you would attack Berlin!” and “My own mother took part of Russia from me!” That’s according to chatter on boardgamegeek.com. More profane invective is heard from an enthusiast at a “DipCon’’ — Diplomacy Convention — on YouTube, where Mr. Calhamer sat in at the table.

It’s jokingly referred to as a pastime that has been “Destroying Friendships since 1959,” said Mike Webb, vice president of marketing and data services for Alliance Game Distributors.

It doesn’t use dice or chance. Instead, players represent a power: Austria-Hungary, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia or Turkey. They manipulate armies, fleets, supply centers and negotiations to try and control Europe.

“In many ways, the hobby game industry as we know it owes its existence to Allan Calhamer,” Webb said. Diplomacy “moved away from pure strategy games like chess and from straightforward die rolls for conflict resolution, and introduced bluffing, lying and manipulation. . . . Diplomacy opened up entirely new dimensions to gaming, truly bringing a new level of social interaction into gaming, a legacy that can be seen today in hundreds of hobby games.”

“It sort of started a new genre of games, because you’re playing up to seven players, and making secret deals, and then coming back to the board and making your moves,” said Wayne Schmittberger, a game designer and editor in chief of Games Magazine, who used to stay up all night to play it at Yale University.

Diplomacy spawned books about strategies and armies of enthusiasts who engage FTF (face-to-face), or PBM (Play By Mail, or zine) and PBEM (Play by email).

One fan, Jim Burgess, wrote about how he reconciled his religion and the game’s treachery in an article on diplomacy-archive.com: “Why I am a Christian” and a Diplomacy player.

On that same website, Mr. Calhamer suggested the game may have had its origin in 1945, when he was about 13 — and intrigued by a Life magazine article about the Congress of Vienna.

His childhood friend, Gordon Leavitt, said a vintage find also stoked his interest in world affairs.

“He had an old house with a big attic, and they kept some schoolbooks there . . .” Leavitt said. “We looked over this old schoolbook that had a map of Europe before World War I, with Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian empire. . . . It seemed to be when he got interested in politics, and power and history.”

“His mother was a schoolteacher, and she believed in exciting the imagination,” Leavitt said. “She would encourage us to draw maps of imaginary countries and flags.”

Leavitt and a young Allan Calhamer attended Lyons Township High School together. Both landed scholarships to Harvard, where Mr. Calhamer enjoyed studying geopolitics.

“They weren’t really going to a lot of parties or meeting girls,” said his daughter, Tatiana Calhamer. “They would just stay up all night, talking about politics and history, and dad started working on this game.”

After a year at Harvard Law School, he worked as a systems analyst for Sylvain Labs and as a tour guide at the Statue of Liberty, she said.

In New York, he met Hilda, who would become his wife of 45 years. She was from the Dominican Republic. With their mutual grasp of world affairs, they determined that Hilda would speak Spanish to Tatiana and another daughter, Selenne Calhamer-Boling, so they would be fluent.

He continued to collect royalties from Diplomacy, but tyat didn’t pay the bills. Working for the Post Office did. As he walked La Grange Park on his rounds, “He would look at license plate numbers, and figure out their prime factor,” his daughter said.

Leavitt repeated an opinion he offered to Edward McClelland, who wrote a 2009 Chicago Magazine profile of Mr. Calhamer: “He should have been a history professor.”

He wasn’t always socially adept, and it didn’t really bother him. His preferred lullaby to sing his kids to sleep was “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He might sign greeting cards to his family with the rather formal “Regards, Allan.”

But he had a wickedly deadpan sense of humor that kept them in stitches.

Once, Tatiana presented him with a Valentine’s Day card that mentioned those “three little words.”

“Breakfast served anytime,” he intoned in his deep professorial voice.

When he used a label maker to make little signs for objects around their home, he added one that was quirkily endearing.

He placed a label above the cat’s bowl, at feline eye level.

It read: “It is essential in this life that you be your own cat.”

Sometimes, Dip geeks would appear at his home, unannounced.

“They would show up at the door — ‘I’m so-and-so. I play Diplomacy,’ ’’ Tatiana Calhamer said. “My mom would bring them orange juice, and they would sit and talk with dad.”

He invented a couple of other games after Diplomacy, but they never really took off.

It was a little bittersweet for him that he never matched the popularity or recognition of a game like Monopoly, she said.

“He made one wonderful game, and he made two no one has ever heard of,” Jackson said. “But the one wonderful game is really enough.”



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