There is a saying in poker that goes along the lines of "If, after the first twenty minutes, you don't know who the sucker at the table is, it's you." Well this saying holds true in Diplomacy too, as I found out on the top board of WDC 2010.
So on the Sunday morning of WDC XX, it just so happened that I found myself playing France on the top board for the bid to become world champion. Alongside me striving for the same goal was Xavier Blanchot in England, Igor Kurt in Russia, Fabian Strauss in Italy, Gwen Maggi in Germany, Chris Brand in Turkey and Frank Oschmiansky in Austria. The game was to finish after eight game years with the person with the most centres being declared champion, and in the case of a tie, the person who chose his country last would win the tiebreak.
Against this consistently high quality of opposition, all aspects of play immediately become much tougher. Offensively, it is harder to find openings in an opponents defence to capitalise on, while on the flip side, one is not able to get away with as many errors as is possible against weaker opposition. On what was my first top board experience, I found that under ever-increasing pressure, I was making mistakes throughout the game, that started out with minor errors such as a misplaced fleet here or there, building up to major blunders that form the subject of the rather interesting last few turns.
The game started out rather sedately in the north as I manoeuvred in an ultimately fruitless manner attempting to find a nonexistent opportunity to profit at the expense of one of my neighbours. Eventually in an attempt to create some movement in the north, I allowed Xavier's F NTH-ENG to succeed in order to allow Gwen's German fleet into the North Sea.
But then all of a sudden, I had lost Marseilles to Fabian's Italy and found myself in a Western triple. This triple, together with some surprise Italian misorders allowed me to regain sole control of Mareseilles and Iberia and propelled Gwen's Germany to outright favouratism, with the most likely challengers appearing to be Fabian and Frank in Italy and Austria respectively.
Fast forward now a couple of years to 1907, where Fabian has unilaterally pulled all of his forces east to allow myself and Xavier to put some pressure on Gwen's Germany, turning what was threatening to be a cakewalk into a contest. And we come to what was undoubtedly talked about stab of the tournament in Fall 1907 (remember this is a full year before time is called).
A lot has been made of the fact that on this turn Xavier showed me one set of orders and had secretly compiled another set of orders which he ultimately submitted. From my point of view, the really disappointing thing was not Xavier's party trick with the two sets of orders, but that I had allowed myself to be talked into a situation where I was submitting such an odious set of orders that facilitated the possibility of an English stab. From a diplomatic perspective, I felt that Xavier had gotten stronger and stronger as the game progressed, while my own play took the opposite trajectory. Under the pressure, I had wilted to the point where I was agreeing to things I would not or should not normally agree to, and I felt I was stabbed in a setup that was reminiscent of some of my earlier tournament experiences when I was a tournament beginner that was stabbable with ease.
And now we get to the aftermath which is 1908, the final year of the game where the world champion is crowned. I have only three centres left and it has become mathematically impossible for me to win the title. I have read others on the topic of how everyone on a top board goes into the game with ambitions of winning, but come the latter stages of the game, when one is no longer in the running, then one can tend to choose a favoured candidate amongst those still alive based on their conduct throughout the game. For me I was thinking that yes I want to win. But now that this was not possible, I want the winner to have genuinely to have earned his title, and above all, I don't want to be considered to be the fish on the board whose weak play unbalances the board, determining the winner.
Now in 1908 Xaiver's England has come back from the dead, is suddenly on six centres going onto eight, and I feel a responsibility to the rest of the board for allowing this to happen. My aim now is to see if Xavier can be prevented from winning, but the prospects for this happening look bleak. So in the final move of the game, out comes the big move - I order PAR-BRE, BEL-RUH! and PIC S (German) HOL-BEL. With Gwen gaining Belgium and winning a guess in Scandinavia, he also goes up to eight centres, which ensconces him as the new world champion by virtue of having the advantage of the tiebreak.
And finally, one little twist at the end. Fabian's Italy also managed to get up to eight centres, and he also had the advantage of the tiebreak over Xavier (but not over Gwen). That this occurred came as a complete surprise to me. I had only taken a cursory glance at the southern half of the board, but it didn't look to me that there was anyone there who would be able to muster the required number of centres to win. If I had known that Fabian was also going to get to eight centres, then I would never have walked out of Belgium. The gifting of centres isn't the way that I play, nor is it the way I think the game should be played, it just happened to be the only solution I could find to the problem I faced at the board.
Congratulations must go to Gwen, who did play a fantastic game to win, and many thanks to Frank Oosterom and his helpers for making the whole event a success. Now for Sydney in 2011!
This article first appeared in Diplomacy World #111, Fall 2010, with some pictures from Laurent Joly.
The moves for this game were recorded and uploaded to stabberfou. If anyone has them, please contact .