Tales from Bedbug Island by Richard Sharp
In the fourth of this series, the author and fellow inmates of Bedbug Island welcome ashore Yermak Plinc, Russo-Danish savant and acknowledged world master of Diplomacy.
It’s a sumpfink draw, you sumpfink cretin!’ Bert Spike screamed hoarsely. He had been screaming it once a day for weeks. ‘That’s a sumpfink stalemate line, innit, like what you told us in one of your sumpfink lectures.’ He paused, gasping for breath. ‘Sumpfink sumpfink,’ he added, as an afterthought.
Yermak Plinc smiled the serene smile of a man in full command of the situation. ‘Draws,’ he said, ‘are for other people. Not for me. The Parma Theory, of which this game is the apotheosis, does not recognise draws: only wins for myself.’
‘Nuts,’ said Ferrucci. ‘Look, we gonna kick the hell outta Bulgaria this move – the Polack’s got to cover Constantinople so that army gets the chop, so you have to come down to 16 units. And you ain’t never going to break through nowhere else.’
‘We shall see,’ said Yermak. ‘Autumn moves the same time tomorrow?’
The party broke up, snarling.
Yermak Plinc was a surprise visitor to Bedbug Island – indeed, no one was more surprised than he. The great Russo-Danish savant was the acknowledged world master of Diplomacy; his mighty work on the subject had been translated into 136 languages (including 14 Chinese dialects, Esperanto, and even Latin, the Pope having asked for a review copy). Every day he wrote a 12-page letter to Pravda expounding further subtleties of the method – it appeared regularly on the same inside page, just below the day’s list of missing dissident poets. Every evening he broadcast for three hours on Radio Moscow. In England B.B.C. Television had serialised his lectures in 24 parts (starring Susan Hampshire), and was now repeating them for the third time. Yermak, in short, was a household word.
So it had seemed only natural that the Russian Government should offer him a world lecture tour, though he had been surprised to learn that the first stop would be Bedbug Island. He had been even more surprised when, during the second day of his lecture, he had glanced out of the window to see the ship that had brought him disappearing over the horizon.
Adapting quickly to his adversity, he had soon taught us all to play Diplomacy after a fashion. Some learnt easily: Swindelman, for example, as a former member of Her Majesty’s Government, was a most accomplished professional liar, and had no difficulty; Dalek’s progress was rather slower. But eventually our guru felt we were ready to take him on, and on Allan Calhamer’s birthday the first Bedbug Island Diplomacy Championship was launched.
We had agreed to play one move a day: Yermak could not spare more time, as he had discovered what he claimed was a ‘super-penguin’ on the south shore of the island, and was teaching it to play Backgammon.
During the early days of the game, the Parma Theory was revealed in all its eccentric majesty. The name stands for ‘Please Allow Room for My Armies’, and the principle is to spread one’s forces all over the board, keeping a finger in every diplomatic pie, and retaining a tenuous alliance with every other player up to the moment of the final, grandiose 6-way stab.
But, of course, we were well trained; and despite the maestro’s obvious superiority we had managed to construct a stalemate line: only Dalek obstinately clung to his alliance with Yermak. Normally an alliance between England and Turkey is of little relevance to the game, but with the Parma Theory in action anything could happen.
At the time of Bert’s latest outburst we had just played the
Spring 1926 moves, and the position was as follows:
ENGLAND (Yermak Plinc): owns Lon, Lpl, Edi, Nor, Swe, Den, Kie, Hol, Bel, Bre, Par, Mar, Spa, Por, Tun, Ank, Bul; units F(BAR), F(NWG), A(Swe), F(NTH), A(Den), A(Ruh), F(ENG), A(Kie), F(MAO), F(WES), A(Bur), A(Mar), A(Spa), F(TYS), F(ION), A(Ank), A(Bul).
GERMANY (von Hinten): owns Ber, Mun; units A(Ber), A(Mun).
RUSSIA (Swindelman): owns StP, War, Sev; units A(StP), A(Pru), A(Sil).
TURKEY (Dalek): owns Con, Smy, Mos; units A(Smy), F(AEG), A(Liv).
AUSTRIA (Bert): owns Vie, Tri, Bud, Ser, Gre; units A(Boh), A(Tyr), A(Ser), A(Apu), F(Gre).
ITALY (Ferrucci): owns Rom, Nap, Ven; units F(Rom), A(Nap), A(Pie).
FRANCE (R.S.): owns Rum; unit A(Rum).
It will be observed that I was not having a good game; Yermak had taken all my centres, in what he described as an ‘unfortunate misunderstanding’; as for my current position, I prefer not to discuss it. Suffice it to say that the honesty and fair dealing for which I have always been known did not fit into the Diplomacy scene.
After lunch (the usual Thursday affair of Cormorant Pie with Mixed Algae), Bert came to visit my cell; as I had expected, he requested my support to put his fleet into Bulgaria, and having no use for the place myself I agreed. As Bert was leaving, he glanced out of the barred window and uttered a hoarse cry.
‘Look at that, guv,’ he burbled.
I followed his pointing finger (a shrivelled, nicotine-stained object). Down on the south shore, a curious threesome was gathered. Yermak had a fatherly arm around Dalek’s hunched shoulders and was addressing him at length, watched with evident incredulity by the super-penguin, which from time to time tapped Yermak on the shoulder with an impatient flipper. When Yermak finally shooed it away, it lay down disconsolately on the rocks and went to sleep. Eventually Dalek shook Yermak warmly by the hand and lurched back towards the encampment.
‘ ‘E’s going to sell us dahn the sumpfink river, i’nt ‘e?’ Bert said.
It looked like it.
For the rest of the day the five of us made numerous attempts to see Dalek; but he was barricaded in his cell, guarded by the super-penguin, which rattled its dice menacingly when anyone approached. Eventually we gave up, and awaited the next day’s moves with trepidation.
And indeed the moves, when they came, were memorable. It was Yermak’s turn to read his out first, and he had an attentive audience.
‘A(Swe) S A(Den),’ Yermak intoned gravely. ‘A(Den) S A (Kie). A(Ruh) S A(Kie). A(Bur) S A(Mar). A(Spa) S A(Mar). A(Mar) S ITALIAN A(Pie).’ (‘Hey,’ said Ferrucci indignantly, ‘who you trying to finger?’) ‘A(Bul) stands.’ A dramatic pause: now we were coming to it. ‘F(ION), F(TYS), F(WES), F(MAO), F(ENG), F(NTH), F(NWG) and F(BAR) convoy TURKISH A(Smy)-StP.’ This was all read out in a triumphant crescendo; in the ensuing babble I heard Yermak mutter quietly, ‘Oh yes, and A(Ank)-Smy.’
The genius tries to eat his orders
Swindelman read out his orders next – A(SiI) S GERMAN A(Mun), A(Pru) S GERMAN A(Ber), A(StP) stands. But we were hardly listening: a beaming Dalek had sold the game to Yermak for the promise of a build!
‘A(Smy)-StP,’ Dalek read proudly. ‘A(Liv) S A(Smy)-StP. F(AEG)-Bul(sc).’
There was a howl of derisive relief; Yermak went white as a sheet. ‘You ordered what?’ he screeched at Dalek. ‘You Trotskyite revisionist hyena, you’ve forgotten the convoy! How do you think your army in Smyrna is going to get aboard a fleet two hundred miles away? You have desecrated a work of art – a Davidson Coup.’
Dalek was embarrassed. ‘I’m terribly sorry,’ he muttered. ‘I’ll get it right next time, I promise.’
‘I don’t think there’s going to be a next time,’ Swindelman said sweetly. ‘Where did you say your army in Ankara was going, Yermak?’
‘Nowhere,’ Yermak said hastily. ‘A(Ank) stands.’
‘That’s not what you read out,’ I said firmly.
Ferrucci, ever the man of action, knocked Yermak over and sat on him. In this extremity the Russo-Danish genius did the only thing open to him: he tried to eat his orders. But Ferrucci ruthlessly prised open his mouth and extracted the sodden scrap of paper. ‘A(Ank)-Smy,’ he read triumphantly.
It was Dalek’s turn to go pale. ‘How could you do that?’ he asked piteously. ‘You promised. Why, we spent half an hour discussing whether I should build in Smyrna or Constantinople, and you knew all the time that it would have to be Constantinople.’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘You didn’t think he was going to disband that army retreating from Bulgaria, did you? God, how naive can you get? He only had to retreat it to Constantinople to win the game!’
Dalek stared at Yermak aghast, ‘You planned all this,’ he accused him. ‘And I trusted you.’ He shook his head, uncomprehending. ‘In my country,’ he said vaguely, ‘only the Government is allowed to tell lies.’
‘It was a slip of the pen,’ bleated Yermak, his composure shaken for once. ‘In any case, it’s only a game. And besides …
But Dalek wasn’t listening. ‘My father made a slip of the pen once,’ he reminisced. ‘He voted for the opposition candidate in an election. The Government congratulated him on his independence and offered him a free trip to Russia.
‘What happened?’ someone said.
‘He refused, of course. But they took him anyway.’
‘If you’re going to stab me… ‘
The rest of the moves went off without incident: Bert duly captured Bulgaria and Yermak retreated to Constantinople. (‘I wasn’t going to, really I wasn’t,’ he told Dalek. ‘I was going to disband it and build an army in Liverpool. But if you’re going to stab me, what choice do I have?’)
In grim silence Dalek removed his ill-fated A(Smy), while Bert built a new fleet in Trieste. Yermak had lost his only ally, but it was long odds against our stopping him now. Dalek’s removal was interesting though: by removing A(Liv) he could virtually have guaranteed the draw, but his actual choice meant Yermak could take Smyrna, and we should have to play for a win.
During the next few days we survived the crisis and began to make some progress. Yermak was preoccupied with the super-penguin, and missed the obvious line of attack; Swindelman moved his A(StP) to Finland and pulled his redundant A(Pru) back to Livonia. In this way he was eventually able to retake Moscow. (‘Take it, take it.’ Dalek insisted. ‘I wish I was dead. My ally betrayed me.’) Thus Swindelman was eventually able to build a new fleet in St Petersburg and breach the English line. It was touch and go in the south, but Bert’s new fleet saved the day, and the time came when the English empire began to crumble. ‘Some people never learn,’ jeered Swindelman. ‘Looks as if the British have elected another socialist government.’ Norway fell, then Sweden; von Hinten retook Kiel; the English armies in Turkey disappeared and Bert’s fleets began to move westwards through the Mediterranean to join up with Ferrucci. By autumn 1935, after a mere ten weeks’ play, England was reduced to seven centres. But a much more significant event had also occurred: the French army had laboriously returned home, and since no one had bothered to retake Rumania I was able to gain my first build since 1905.
With the decline in the English fortunes, the game was wide open once more, and the members of the former Grand Alliance began to look around for new enemies. Soon there were a number of promising little wars taking place all over the board; the only time co-operation reared its head was for joint action against Yermak. In my short acquaintance with Diplomacy I have noticed one strange phenomenon: once a player has attained what looks a dominant position, any alliance formed against him is likely to survive long after he has ceased to be a threat, so that second chances are rare. Conversely, a country that has been reduced to one or two units is written off by the other players as dead, and can enjoy a peaceful period of resurrection without anyone seeming to notice. Both syndromes were in evidence here: by Spring 1944 I had managed to build my position up to a healthy 9 centres, while Yermak was reduced to 1. Since it is very difficult to scatter a single unit across the board, he had largely lost interest in the game, and had even been seen allowing the super-penguin to order his unit by rolling its dice.
The time had come to strike
The position at this stage was
ENGLAND: owns Edi; units F(NWG).
GERMANY: owns Ber, Mun, Kie, Hol, Den, Swe, Bel; units
A(Swe), F(GOB), A(Fin), A(Sil), A(Mun), A(Ruh), A(Kie). RUSSIA: owns StP, Mos, War, Sev, Nor, Rum; units A(StP),
A(Mos), F(BAR), A(Sev), F(BAL), A(Rum).
TURKEY: owns Ank, Smy; units A(Arm), F(BLA).
AUSTRIA: owns Vie, Tri, Bud, Ser, Gre, Bul, Con; units A(Tyr),
A(Boh), F(ADS), A(Con), A(Bul), F(ION), F(AEG).
ITALY: owns Ven, Nap; units A(Apu), A(Alb).
FRANCE: owns Par, Bre, Mar, Spa, Por, Rom, Lon, Lpl, Tun;
units F(NTH), F(Nap), F(SKA), A(Den), A(Pie), A(Tun),
A(Edi), F(Hol), A(Bel).
I had been experimenting with the Parma Theory myself, and was beginning to notice a subtle disadvantage its inventor had never mentioned. So far I was on reasonably friendly terms with everyone, as the theory required. But any moment now they would notice that I was no longer a minor power, and my defences were very weak. As the group dispersed after the spring moves I began to feel the time had come to strike.
The next twenty-four hours were a busy time. I began with England; Yermak hardly listened to my approaches. He was tearing pages out of his magnum opus and feeding them to the super-penguin, which devoured them with evident enthusiasm.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘I can put you out of the game now – I’ve only got to stand in Edinburgh for one season and you can never get me out. But I don’t want to do that – after all, you’ve given a lot of time to teaching me the game, and I don’t want to be ungrateful. So I’ll convoy myself to Norway, and you support me in with that fleet of yours. OK?’
Yermak said nothing, but the super-penguin nodded briefly. I felt I should have to settle for that.
Von Hinten was a tougher proposition; my latest moves in his direction were difficult to explain in any peaceful context.
‘Get your units out of Holland and Belgium, then I will talk,’ he said. ‘They are ethnically and historically German, as you well know – like any other small defenceless countries within range of German protection.’
Provided you support my army …
‘That’s exactly what I want to do,’ I explained. ‘I told you I only moved there at all because I misunderstood the defensive nature of your attack on my Russian ally. But I can’t move the fleet to the North Sea yet, because I need it there to convoy the army from Denmark to Norway. So I’ll move the fleet to the Heligoland Bight, OK? That way you keep Holland; and provided you support my army to Norway I’ll pull the fleet right out next time.’
‘I suppose so,’ grumbled von Hinten crossly. But his piggy eyes gleamed, and the sabre cut on his left cheek glowed alternately red and purple with excitement. I knew he had taken the bait.
Swindelman still regarded me with suspicion and contempt. He had launched a daring raid to recapture Rumania from me, the defending French army having at the time reached Venice on its way home: he referred to this coyly as ‘that little mistake of mine’, and was clearly afraid of reprisals.
‘Well,’ I told him, ‘I have to admit I was going to get you for that stab – though I also have to admit it was a good one.’ (That, I thought, should win the Lie of the Week Award.) ‘But I can’t get these other idiots to help me; they’re all afraid of you. So I’m calling off my northward moves. If you can hold Norway you’re welcome to it – I’ll even cut the Swedish support for you. Come to think of it, you can support that. You can forget about von Hinten; he’s got enough to worry about with me attacking him at home, and he won’t risk pushing his luck against you.’
Swindelman smiled his electioneering leer. ‘I thought you’d be reasonable about it in the end,’ he said. ‘That Rumanian thing’s best forgotten, eh?’
‘That’s jolly decent of you, Ephraim,’ I said gravely. You fink.
Bert Spike was not too difficult. He had designs on Tunis, and had been trying for some time to get me to surrender it peacefully in exchange for some nebulous promise of assistance against Italy. We came to a simple agreement: if he would convoy my army to Smyrna I would let him take Tunis the following year. Thinking he was driving a hard bargain, Bert got me to agree that his share of the Italian carve-up would be Rome, Tunis and Naples, leaving an entirely encircled Venice as my share of the loot. After much haggling, I bowed to the inevitable and accepted his terms, provided he also supported me to Venice now.
‘You could afford to be more generous though, Bert,’ I said reproachfully. ‘But I’ll keep my promise: I won’t try to occupy Tunis again, and next year I’ll do whatever you want.’
It remained to assure Dalek that Bert had no intention of moving to Smyrna (true) so that he could safely pursue his ‘attack’ on Russia (false); and Ferrucci was the easiest of the lot. All I had to do was tell everyone I met that I would be holding Rome; Ferruci’s keen ears would detect this, his lightning brain would spot the obvious bluff, and he would attack Rome.
There were rather more imponderables and variables than I really liked to see, but as it turned out when the Autumn moves were read everything went according to plan.
ENGLAND: F(NWG) S FRENCH A(Edi)-Nor.
GERMANY: A(Swe) S FRENCH A(Bel)-Nor; F(GOB) S A(Fin)
StP, A(Sil)-War, A(Mun)-Sil, A(Ruh)-Bel, A(Kie) stands. RUSSIA: A(StP) S F(BAR)-Nor, A(Mos) S A(Sev), A(Sev)
stands, A(Rum) S A(Sev), F(BAL) S FRENCH F(SKA)-Swe. TURKEY: F(BLA) S A(Arm)-Sev.
AUSTRIA: A(Boh) S A(Tyr), F(ADS)-Tri A(Tyr) S FRENCH A(Pie)-Ven, A(Con)-Ank, A(Bul)-Con, F(ION) & F(AEG) C FRENCH A(Tun)-Smy.
ITALY: A(Apu)-Rom, A(Alb)-Gre.
FRANCE: F(Nap)-Rom, F(SKA)-Swe, A(Den)-Kie, A(Pie)-Ven,
A(Tun)-Smy, A(Edi)-Nor, F(NTH)-Den, F(Hol) S A(Den)-Kie, A(Bel)-Nor.
‘What a boring season,’ said Yermak. ‘Hardly any of the moves succeed. And what a hash you’ve made of it,’ he said to me. ‘People keep supporting and convoying you, and half the time you don’t get the orders right … Oh. I seem to have been eliminated.’
The super-penguin shook its head sadly, and made a curious chirping noise in its throat. It sounded like ‘twit’.
‘Why you tell me the truth?’ screamed Ferrucci. ‘I’ll never disbelieve another word you say, you liar.’
I waved my hands around apologetically while an unusually silent Bert began to work out the adjustments.
‘England,’ he said, ‘loses Edinburgh, leaving zero. Out.’ ‘Germany … gains St Petersburg and Warsaw … but loses
Holland, Kiel, Denmark, Belgium and Sweden … leaving 4. Remove 3.’
‘Disgraceful,’ howled von Hinten. ‘I shall denounce you to the Gestapo.’
‘Russia loses St Petersburg and Warsaw, retreats A(StP) to Livonia, and removes 2.’
‘Shocking,’ I said. ‘Write to your M.P.’
‘I am my M.P.,’ said Swindelman gloomily.
‘Turkey loses Ankara and Smyrna, leaving zero. Out.’ ‘But . . . ‘ said Dalek.
‘Austria,’ said Bert happily, ‘gains Ankara and will announce his build after careful consideration of the position, won’t he? And Italy loses Venice and Naples, removes 2 leaving zero, out!’
‘I got Greece,’ shouted Ferrucci.
‘You certainly have,’ said Bert, looking at him with distaste.
It works, even for idiots
‘What he’s trying to say,’ I explained, ‘is that he’s taken one of your centres, so you don’t build. Not that it matters.’
‘It matters to me, dunnit?’ said Bert. ‘Oh, sumpfink it. Anyway, France gains … er … Sweden, Naples, Denmark, Kiel, Venice, Smyrna, Edinburgh, Belgium and Holland. Gor blimey. He’s sumpfink won it.’
‘Yes,’ said Yermak. ‘The Parma Theory works. Even for idiots. The events are correct; only the result is wrong.’
The super-penguin had been quiet for a long time. Now it put down the book it had been nibbling, waddled over and patted Yermak on the back with a friendly flipper.
Out of idle curiosity I glanced at the super-penguin’s rejected book.
‘I’m afraid he may have found Backgammon too difficult after all,’ Yermak said.
The super-penguin shook its head angrily.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘Look, you read Russian. What is this book?’
Yermak took the volume and read with disbelief: ‘The Sicilian Defence: New Resources for Black in the Boleslavsky System.’
Across the room the super-penguin was eagerly setting up a chess set, beckoning excitedly …
Reprinted from Games & Puzzles No.53 (October 1976)