Double Cross Words

Diplomacy addicts smile and lie as they gamely try to conquer the world.

That, of course, was a long time ago. Birsan is now considered Diplomacy's elder statesman -- a man who has several world championships, dozens of articles and nearly three dozen Diplomacy conferences under his belt. His style today is one of shrugs and why nots more than outright lies. People leave private conversations with him thinking, "It's nice to work with such a mensch."

Also at today's table is Edward Hawthorne, winner of last year's Denver tournament. "There are some people who are loud and belligerent -- which works for them," says Hand. "People are afraid to stab them because they'll yell and scream and badmouth you." Hawthorne is the opposite. His face is a study of calm impassivity. "Yelling or being forceful is not good in any venue," he explains.

Early on, Birsan good-naturedly takes over most of Germany. "Sorry about that," he tells a tall man representing the country as the guy departs the game table only a couple of hours into it (Diplomacy games can take as long as eight hours).

"No, fine," Germany responds, not really meaning it. "You're a good player. It's fine."

Birsan shrugs as the man strides away. "It's important people don't take this personally."

"We tell each other, 'Don't take it personally,' but we're all so invested in selling our plan that we get depressed when others don't see it our way," Hawthorne admits.

Still, that is the high point of Birsan/France's game for quite a while. England (Smith) and Russia (Hawthorne) have formed an alliance that is making him nervous. And with good reason. Soon, England attacks -- despite Smith's assurances that, of course, he would do no such thing.

So Birsan turns to Italy, represented by thirteen-year-old Aaron Bernhardt, who showed up at the tournament with three of his middle-school friends. Pulling the teenager aside, Birsan seems hurt. "Why are we fooling around with each other?"

"Wellll," Bernhardt answers uncertainly. "You attacked me."

"Yeah, but it was with Turkey," Birsan points out. "Besides, that's all changed now. So why don't we change? We gotta stop putzing around. So stop the obsession with Tunis, and work with Austria to take Serbia back."

Bernhardt shrugs. "Okay," he says.

Later, Birsan also manages to convince England to betray Russia, which takes Hawthorne off guard. "I had left my whole backside open," he says. "That's by design. You need to display trust with your ally -- but also be able to recover quickly."

"Trust, but verify," says Birsan.

Meanwhile, despite an impossible position, Turkey continues to hang on only out of spite; he resents a doublecross by the teenager. "I basically know I'm dead," he tells Birsan. "My main motivation now is to attack Italy. That's the only reason I'm hanging around."

"I understand," Birsan says sympathetically.

The game ends in an unusual -- and unsatisfying -- five-way draw, with every country but Germany and Austria holding on to some part of Europe. After a tense drinking incident late Saturday night, which caused several diplomats to withdraw from the competition (just like real life!), the World Diplomacy Championships end Sunday morning. Hawthorne finishes second, Birsan 29th.

The title is taken by a Frenchman named Vincent Carry, who has the peculiar negotiating skill of relying on his extremely poor English skills to not say much of anything. Upon learning of his victory, he leaps up and runs screaming in French up and down the hotel hall.

"Oh, well," sighs Hand. "I suppose they have to be good at something."

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