Why Italy? (DBNI Champion's report)

by Peter McNamara

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've already seen the DBN coverage of their invitational tournament, held over three weekends this February. It's not often that invitational tournaments like this come up, so with an elite field of 28 players, I was looking forward to the challenge as soon as I was confident I had secured my qualification. Doubly so once I heard that the games would be untimed.

The country selection was done via an auction in the preliminary rounds, which allowed me to choose the green pieces for my first game, which I went on to solo, guaranteeing me a place on the top board. I repeated the choice of country when I found myself with the option of choosing my country first on the top board. Given Italy's reputation as a weak power, one can ask why?

For most players, myself included, Italy was the hardest country to play when new to the game. At the top level however, I believe that Italy is one of the strongest. For me it was watching Fabian Strauss' masterful 2010 performances at WDC and EDC (missed winning WDC on a tiebreak, then won EDC, playing Italy on both top boards) that started to really open my eyes to the opportunities available to Italy in top level play.

So what are the advantages? Firstly, Italy is rarely the target of a concerted attack by multiple countries in the opening, so usually makes it intact to the midgame. This is important, you can't win if you're eliminated in 1905. This played a big role in my choice of Italy, I prioritised giving myself the best possible chance to be in the mix during the midgame, where the difficult choices are made and the game is often won and lost.

Secondly, Italy occupies a position near the centre of the board, near to so many supply centres, with many different (some very explosive) avenues of growth and methods to control the game. A relevant quote of Goffy I like is "Italy controls the tempo of the game". Being in this central position can also often make Italy a desirable alliance partner for strategic reasons, which can then be exploited during the crucial midgame phase.

My strategy was fairly simple. First, get to the midgame with an intact position. Second, don't let the board get out of control elsewhere. And finally, when the time comes to strike for the win, strike hard and rely on good tactics and opposition disunity to convert the opportunity into a victory. Some luck is required in the last step, but when the stab is timed correctly, and good diplomatic relationships have been developed with the other players, the board can be topped more often than should be possible.

In the qualifying rounds, I waited until France finally pulled away from the Tyrrhenian Sea to made my move in Fall 1908, stabbing Austria to go from 6 to 8 and securing the board top shortly after, before the board's defense degenerated completely and I was able to walk into a solo.

The top board was much more work and much more stressful. The position of the pieces in the Balkans gave me a chance to stab Russia in Spring 1910 to go from 8 to 10 and be the clear board leader. It wasn't the best stab in the world, but was enough to allow me to grind out the majority of the centres on the eastern side of the board. Russ (F), Andrei (G) and Matt (R) were slow to come up with a plan to stop me, but eventually put me to the test, with Russ managing to break through into the Ionian as I made some tactical errors.

The draw eventually passed in Spring 1918, with me holding the lead at 13 centres to Russ' 8, still owning my home centres and with Sevastopol as a guaranteed capture. Upon hearing the draw passed, I was greeted with a mixture of delight and relief. Eight years is a long and stressful time to be out in front alone, desperately trying to hold on, searching for and failing to secure the stalemate line to hide behind. In the end, a misordered convoy and a lack of willingness to push from Andrei and Matt after what was already a very long game finally secured the draw.

I've won a few tournaments in my life, but this is only the second major title I've picked up. It's a great honour and accomplishment to be able to say that I could come out on top amongst the best. I would like to thank all the DBNI organisers and GMs for running a great event, all the other players for a hard-fought tournament played in great spirits, and everyone involved in the virtual FtF community for what we have collectively built over the past year. I think we've used this pandemic to create something special and I can't wait to see to what heights it grows to in the future.

This article first appeared in The Briefing, 12/03/21.
Further information:
DBNI results (before the top board)
My first qualifying board (backstabbr)
The top board (backstabbr)
DBN coverage (youtube)
Interview on Diplomacy Games (podcast)