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Letter Passing: Cause for Hanging?

by Mark Fassio




For those of you who have been circling some distant planet since the advent of postal Diplomacy (or for those who live in California -same thing) "letter passing" is the art (?) of sending one person's letter, meant for your eyes, to some­one else. (Usually the other person is the one mentioned in the letter to you.) The tactic of letter passing invokes headydebates on both sides of the fence as to its ethical employment in actual game situations.


If we can make a relatively safe assumption, most Dip players don't like to think of themselves as a schizophrenic bunch. They look on letter-passers as the pariahs of the hobby; nothing more than greedy opportunists who compro­mise a trust between two correspondents. This attitude con­jures up the old "gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail" theme that was prevalent around the turnof the century. However, the people who condemn the intrigues of letter ­passing are the same pirannahs who love the game for all its attendant lying, scheming, backstabbing, and other such similar rot! You figure the math... On the opposite side, casual (or hardcore) letter-passers shrug off such monickers, saying that the tactic is merely one extra weapon in the arsenal of a good play-by-mail Dip player.


What are the advantages and disadvantages of such a tactic? The obvious advantage is in gaining the trust of the person you send the letter to. Let's say Turkey sends a Winter 1900 letter to Russia which contains a letter from England. The Englishman mentions how nice it would be for Turkey to join him in a quick carve-up of Russia! Well... it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure who Russia is going to look favorably upon (especially if the Spring 1901 move is cor­rectly predicted!)


This has enormous potential in our Turkish example. Having gained the trust of the Czar, he can string him along, feeding him both truths and fibs (i.e. the name of the game) and chop him at the knees at an opportune time. This chop will be easier than if there had been mistrust from Russia in the beginning. For gaining an immense psychological advantage with a neighbor, a passed letter ranks near the top for best ­used tactics.


Another advantage of letter-passing is that you can "play" someone along, especially if you suspect (or know) him/her to be a letter-passer.  What better way to convey false information as near-truth than if someone else (the passer) blabs something "personal" to your intended target?  I usually send some identical tidbit to two players in opposite alliances on the board.  One of those players (or someone they pass the info along to) helps perpetuate the (false) info, making the hit much more effective when it does occur -usually not when they both repeat and/or pass along my data.


Now, to the main disadvantage of letter passing. As I stated earlier, a lot of players see letter-passers as "lower than whale feces" on the Scale of Evolution. Using the schizo­phrenic association mentioned above, they see nothing wrong with doing every other trick except unleashing a Pandora's Box of letter-passings per game. I cede them this point; after all, the game would rapidly degenerate into a silly exercise if everyone began passing letters for "effect," and then, later, for "payback" to the original letter-passer. No communication would be sacrosanct, and it would create a veritable psychotic's black press/gunboat environment... Blah, the quantity squared.


What is the optimum style for letter-passing, then? For some, there will never be a good reason topass along a letter. For others, it's so common that they don't give the matter a second thought. Both viewpoints, in my opinion, are mis­guided and should be rethought. A letter-passing episode, done at the right moment, for the right reason, can be a game deciding action.


Let's consider you and another person are in a semi-­friendly "alliance of convenience" and are rolling up the board. If you two haven't made some blood-brother vow of alliance in 1900 for the duration, you can imagine the tense paranoia that arises as you both approach 11, 12, 13 centers. Is the guy gonna stab me? Then, bingo -player X sends you this guy's proposal to ditch you like a bad blind date so that he can go solo. You decide to show your "partner" the error of his treachery. The rest of the board now has a reprieve; new alliances can possibly be undertaken; and people can make quite a few new moves secure in the knowledge that you, the recipient of the passed letter, have your "trust meter" regard­ing your former ally now set at "zero." One passed letter, at the right time, is all it takes. The true wizened Diplomacy sage knows from experience just when the right time is.


The other side of the coin is that perpetual letter-passing is Bad Karma. In such a small hobby as ours, even a secret letter-pass may be revealed during the course of a game, or in future meetings. If a person gets a reputation as a "letter ­passer" any people will forever equate the guy with "check forger", "wife beater" or even (shudder) "Democrat"!  And despite the avowed goal of all of us to play each game new, with no cross-game ties to previous matches and people, we all know that personalities drive our negotiations to a very great extent.


If you don't appreciate letter-passing, what's the first thought you'll have if you're adjacent to a known, perpetual letter-passer and it's Winter 19001 I rest my case. It will be Ostracism City for that player, and I say "bully" for it


By now you should know that I, unlike others, admit to be schizophrenic when it comes to letter-passing. I frown on it when it's done routinely, because it cheapens the game and brings bad reputations on both the passer and original author in most cases. However, comma, when done judiciously and with just the right sense of timing, I accept the tactic as a normal game action. I admit to passing about 5 or 6 letters myself since 1976,and I am considered neither a Dip Hall of Famer nor a candidate for effigy or Mafia assassination.


Did the passed letters impact the games in any way? In one match, absolutely; in the remaining games, not a whit But that's true of all the tactics you have available as a master gamesman. Like Kenny Rogers sang in "The Gambler": you got to know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em.  Don't reject any tactic until you've tried it (except blatantly illegal or unethical ones, naturally.)


Next article: Forgery -The Overlooked Art. (Nab, just kidding!)


>Mark Fassio is an Air Force Detachment Commander in Berlin, Germany, and has been playing Diplomacy since 1976, mostly in the zines Terran and Europa Express.