by Kevin Burt

I had the opportunity to visit the Italian city of Milan, Milano in advance of the International Tournament in May.

Strolling around the site, I imagined the assembled players huddled over maps, and whispering in duos or groups in corners. I was envious that I wouldn’t be able to attend the event.

The man was tall, with close-cropped hair, and, with what I would describe as very keen eyes. In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar described Cassius — one of his 27 subsequent assassins — as “having a lean and hungry look”. The man I saw did have a lean look, but I couldn’t discern hunger. Hunger, I pondered, in what regard: food, money, sex, power?

I would describe his visage as complacently pleased with himself. He looked as if he was privy to some gossip, inside information, or as if he’d just received some press (to use the modern Diplomacy vernacular) regarding a secret alliance, or a sudden stiletto-borne betrayal.

He was wearing what I chanced was the latest Italian fashion of bathrobe. Nothing remarkable, the lobby was full of Italians, and tourists in various states of dress, and undress. Perhaps a role-player, the Club Player described by Paul Windsor in “What’s Your Point” within these pages. Was he reconnoitering the tournament site in advance?

The mysterious figure

He turned to leave, with something of a chagrined look – as if the facilities were a disappointment.

Mi scusi, signore.” I said softly, so not to startle him. “Davide Cleopadre?

Parle con mi?” he replied stopping his retreat. I struggled with my phrasebook.

Grazie. Ti disturbo?

No. No, per niente.

Permette. Kevin.

"Mi chiamo Niccolo,” he replied very softly, but with even more of an inscrutable smile.

I took this as an invitation. “Di dove’è?

No, de Firenze.

Molto lieto, Niccolo.

Niccolo… Machiavelli?!

Si,” he bowed slightly.

Niccolo looked me over, my sandals, t-shirt, and Nationals’ baseball cap. Was that an expression of disdain? “È americano?


He abruptly switched to a fluent English that would embarrass most American educators. “Why are you here, in Milano?”

“There is a game, called Diplomacy, and the International Tournament is Fine Maggio. I’m not speaking too fast for you am I?”

La capsico perfettamente!” He looked on the verge of laughter. “The English used when I was much, much younger was more difficult than yours.”

“The game involves diplomatic and military skill — statecrafts. Do you think you would be interested in the game?” I asked. “It is played face-to-face, and also by mail, and the Internet.

“It is a Fanta-diplomacy, like our game fantacalcio [fantasy soccer]?


“And how many players in this game?”

“Well, there are many variations of the basic game. The basic calls for sette players, representing the seven powers in Europe, Asia, and Eurasia—“ His face took on a quizzical look.

“In my life time, there were more principalities and republics, in Italy alone!”

“Indeed, sir. You may know many of the nations were unified in the recent past. Garibaldi, unified Italy in the 1860s.”

“Bah, that man and his red shirt army! The Ignorantti,” he laughed with his coined term.

“Well, there are seven powers: Austria, England,” he nodded knowingly. “France.” He frowned. “Germany, like Italy, became a unified nation state in the nineteenth-century, and Russia, and the Ottoman Turks,” I concluded.

“And this is a game, you say?”

“Yes, and a highly enjoyable one.” I smiled broadly at him.

“Well, I’ll see. Maggio Fine, you say?

Si,” I smiled even more broadly.

He hesitated, and then began to turn toward the doors.

Signore Machiavelli, may I ask you some questions?”

“Certainly. I always have time to provide answers and advice,” he stopped and stepped back toward me. “I shall advise, these players of yours, these Princes.”

Suddenly he interjected “Ho una fame da lupi!” He was, in fact, hungry despite not looking so. He said he was hungry as a wolf.

“Let’s get something to eat, and some caffè,” I invited.

We enjoyed some coffee and Italian pastry. I, with a map I had in my backpack, attempted to outline the goals and objectives of the game. I explained, to him, however, that it was like learning to swim. It was best to just jump in.


“Never mind. I won’t be able to play in the tournament. I’m afraid I’m not smart enough to compete at this caliber—“

He made a sweeping gesture to himself and said “The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”

Grazie, Signore Machiavelli-“

He interrupted again to explain assessing one’s opponents: “Because there are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless.”

“One of the critical stages of the game, I imagine, as in war, now, and in your times is the ‘opening’. The first movements, and alliance augur the game’s outcome,” I said. “What advice would you have for the opening moves?”

I could see that the gentleman would have been a fine role-player. His grasp of the history he had lived through and saw him lose himself in thought. “It was so very early when we met this morning. May I ask you, just out of curiosity: Did you attend Mass?”

He nodded his head, “There is nothing more important than appearing to be religious.” He flicked a pastry crumb from his toga. “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are—”

“Are you saying, with candor, that you—“

He interrupted and advised “Appear as you wish to be.”

“You were a disciple of Christ during your days on earth?!” I exclaimed.

“… All armed prophets have succeeded and all unarmed ones have failed; for in addition to what has already been said, people are by nature changeable. “The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar,” said the man of lean and hungry look.

“For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities and are often more influenced by the things that seem, than by those that are.”

I felt uncomfortable with this cynical, I thought, line of talk, and changed the subject.

“Our game seeks the formula of military prowess and the diplomatic arts to achieve success.”

He held up a hand to stop me. “A ruler… should have no other concern, no other thought, should pay attention to nothings aside from war, military institutions, and the training of his soldiers. For this is the only field in which a ruler has to excel. In time of peace he should be even more occupied with them.”

“Don’t be wishy-washy, Nicky…” I murmured.


“You wrote about two forces in life: virtue and fortune — you called them virtù and fortùna. The Diplomacy players that gather here are familiar with ‘skill and luck’. Which is more important?”

“For my part I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under, it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.

“I conclude therefore that, fortune [or luck as you say] being changeful and mankind being steadfast in their ways — so long as the two are in agreement — men are successful, but unsuccessful when they fall out.

“And this aged witch has two faces, one of them fierce and the other mild; and as she turns, now she does not see you, now she beseeches, now she menaces you,” he said with a bitter voice.

I thought to myself that the man must have regrets about his career. He was exiled more than once. He failed to regain his position of power. He was blaming bad luck, rather than his skill.

Despite that he continued “And since you can't go from being an ordinary citizen to a ruler without either talent [virtù] or favorable circumstances [fortùna], we must suppose that one or the other of these factors will be offsetting, at least in part, a great many difficulties. That said, those who haven't relied too much on lucky circumstances have lasted longer.”

We Americans have a trifling parlor game “What would you be? Let me ask you, what animal you might be—”

“The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.

“… Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand matters.”

“Can we talk about morality in your lifetime, and even in this board game? There is an aspect of the game that’s become to be known as ‘stabbing’, or suddenly betraying another player. Now, morality would dictate—”

“Politics have no relation to morals,” he began.

““Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep his word, and to behave with integrity rather than cunning. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account, and have known how to beguile men’s minds by shrewdness and cunning. In the end these princes have overcome those who have relied on keeping their word.”

I asked “Would there be degrees of immorality? Some not as bad, as others? In a game, at least?

“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”

“Niccolo,” I stirred him from his reverie.

“The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it,” he said. “But, yes, you wanted to know about beginnings, openings…”

I told him “We study a good deal about how the game begins. We call them ‘openings’. They can sometimes augur the outcome of the game.”

“I cannot, now, speak of beginnings. It is the end of our morning. I must go.”

Unfortunately, there were so many more issues, so many more particulars in the game, I could have continued with him for a week.

He indicated this game appeared more geared to the vulgar. He was really more interested in the variant Machiavelli, and especially Machiavelli 2. I shared my ‘checkers is to chess, as Diplomacy is to Machiavellibon mot. He smiled wanly.

“Yes, the real contest in applying one’s virtue in ordering units, managing income and expenses, against the vagaries of that two-faced aged witch of fortune with famine, plague, bribes, assassinations, excommunications,” he paused. “That game is game afoot!”

If I get back to Italy sometime, and there is any reader interest in further discussion with Signore Machiavelli, I will seek him out, and report the discussions.

For information about the Tournament, click here.

Great food, great place (the biggest Ludoteque in Europe), the most elegant country in world…

What’s a ludoteque, Niccolo?

Kevin Burt

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