Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Diplomat

by John Woolley, Master Aenigmatist

The Double Elimination Conundrum

It was a foggy London evening in the Spring of 1901. My dear wife Mary was visiting friends in the country, the housekeeper was ill; and I found myself staying temporarily with my friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes, in his lodgings in Baker Street -- lodgings which it had been my honour and pleasure to share with him for many years, and which had been the starting-scene of many strange and interesting adventures, none of which, however, demonstrated more of the great detective's sheer intellectual acuity than the one my record of which I now lay before the public.

It was, as I said, a foggy evening. Holmes had been busy for hours arranging and rearranging his collection of Sumatran Coleoptera, and I was amusing myself with a novel, when suddenly we were startled by the ringing of the down-stairs bell. It was (as any reader of my chronicles will have instantly surmised) a telegraph messenger.

Mrs Hudson admitted the boy into the room; the boy handed his message to Holmes and was rewarded for his trouble with a sixpence. Holmes tore eagerly into the yellow envelope. "Curious," I heard him murmur; and then he practically threw the telegram to me, saying in his imperious way, "There, Watson, read that."

This is what I read: "Holmes, might you be so good as to meet me this evening at the Calhamer Club regarding a most fascinating diplomatic puzzle? R. Fortescue."

"R. Fortescue?" I asked. "Not Lord Reginald Fortescue, the Foreign Secretary?"

"The same," answered my friend. "He is one of the Committee of the Calhamer -- a club of which, although I seldom attend, I am proud to be a charter member." And then, taking up his coat, added, "Quick, Watson! The game is afoot!"

We arrived by hansom at the Calhamer Club a little after eight o'clock, and were immediately shown into a private gaslit sitting room where sat none other than Lord Reginald Fortescue. His Lordship's countenance was as handsome and imposing as ever, but I thought I discerned a hint of worry in the lines around his blue eyes. He greeted us in the most casual and cordial way, however, crying out, "Ah, Mr Holmes, Dr Watson, there you are! I didn't think you'd be able to resist my invitation."

"Indeed not, Lord Reginald," Holmes replied. "We found ourselves, as your Lordship no doubt predicted, simply overwhelmed with curiosity. Your message mentioned a 'most fascinating diplomatic puzzle.' From the fact that you summoned me in preference to my brother Mycroft, and from the fact that we were to meet at the Calhamer Club, I surmise that your puzzle has to do with the game of Diplomacy, and not with the real-world activity? (At which last, I might add, only a handful of men could hope ever to equal your skill.)"

I was astonished. "The game of Diplomacy! Yes! How clever of you, Holmes!"

"Well, yes, it has to do with the game, as you say," said Lord Reginald, "but with the real-world activity as well, in a way. I take it you're familiar with the game, Mr Holmes?"

"Holmes familiar with Diplomacy?" I could barely restrain my indignation. "I should say so! Why, man, did you not see his monograph last year on Hand's Russian Slingshot opening? Or my modest little piece in the Strand on 'The Curious Case of the Undesired Convoy?'"

Lord Reginald went on. "Well, good, good -- I can skip elementary explanations then, and get to the meat of the problem. As you no doubt know, Mr Holmes, for this last year Her Majesty's Government have been most anxious to conclude a naval treaty with the Hereditary Sultan of Suwat; and negotiations had in fact proceeded almost to the point of the treaty's being signed, when the old Sultan simply up and... shuffled off. Died, in fact. And this new fellah, the old Sultan's nephew -- well, he's a strange one. There are Other Powers scheming to work their way into Suwat; and to decide between an alliance with them and one with Great Britain, what do you think the new Sultan has done?"

"He has posed a puzzle," said Holmes.

"Yes," replied his Lordship; "he has posed a puzzle."

"Holmes," I cried in admiration, "how ever do you do it?" But neither man paid me any attention.

Lord Reginald was speaking still. " ordinary puzzle, either. This one is..."

"Fiendishly difficult?" I suggested.

"Yes, I think you might say so, Doctor. Fiendishly difficult, indeed. And it's not just one puzzle, either -- the puzzle we've been given is merely a qualifying heat, as it were. The real puzzle, the solution of which will be rewarded with a long-term lease of the deepwater facilities of Port Suwat -- an object of no little importance to the Empire, I might add -- this second puzzle is to be revealed by the Sultan's embassy if, but only if, we correctly answer the preliminary puzzle. And since even the preliminary has us all stumped, both at the FO and here at the Calhamer, the Prime Minister suggested, Mr Holmes, that you might be so kind as to turn your attention to our difficulty -- under the usual arrangements, of course."

"Good, good!" cried Holmes. "I was beginning to tire of exotic fauna, anyway. Well, my Lord -- to the chase! Pose your puzzle!"

"Not my puzzle, I'm afraid, or I'd already know the answer, heh, heh." Lord Reginald chuckled nervously. "The puzzle...'

I felt obliged to interrupt. "A man needn't necessarily know the answer to his own puzzles, Lord Reginald. Why, as you could read in my unassuming notes on 'The Frightful Conundrum of the Engineer's Earlobe'..."

But Holmes cut me off. 'Watson, if you please!"

I stood rebuked; I had to acquiesce. Lord Reginald went on. "Yes. As I was saying, the puzzle is worded precisely -- excuse me if I refer to my notes -- ah, yes, here we are. The puzzle is this: 'In a game of Diplomacy in which two of the seven powers are eliminated in 1901, which Italian province contains a unit after the Spring 1901 movement phase?'"

"What?" burst out Holmes. "Two eliminations in 1901?'

"Very unusual game," I remarked.

"Not just unusual, Watson," my friend responded, "-- utterly impossible!

Why does Holmes assert that two eliminations in 1901 are impossible? Is he right? (Well, yes, of course he's right -- he's Sherlock Holmes -- but how did he know?) Click here to find out.

Unless ... yes, it must be that the Sultan's puzzle refers to some variant on the usual rules."

My admiration was irrepressible. "A variant, Holmes! Brilliant! It must be Fleet Rome!" (The reader will discern that I was not entirely unacquainted with the arcana of what the cognoscenti refer to as The Hobby.)

Holmes, though, was impatient. "No, Watson, not Fleet Rome.

Click here for Holmes's reasoning.

My Lord, I greatly fear we will be able to find no solution to the preliminary puzzle unless there is some additional information you can give me. If the young Sultan had a variant in mind, there is, of course, no way to determine which of the thousands of possible variants it was, and hence no way to determine what might have been possible under the variant rules."

A smile crept over Lord Reginald's face. "Well, Mr Holmes," he said, "I may just be able to help with that. One of our top intelligence agents -- devilish fine woman she is, too, what? -- was able to, ah, 'scope out' the Sultan's Diplomacy habits. And among other fascinating revelations is this -- that the new Sultan of Suwat enjoys above all others a variant called 'Flexible Setup.'"

"'Flexible Setup'?" I cried. "What's that?"

"It's an unusual minor variant, Watson," answered Holmes, "in which each power receives the same initial forces as in the Standard game, but is free to begin 1901 with its forces repositioned among its initial Home Supply Centers. A fleet can't be placed inland of course -- which means, for instance, that Austria has no flexibility of setup at all, having one fleet and only one coastal Supply Center."

I thought for a moment, and excitedly cried, "Then Russia wouldn't have any choice, either, Holmes -- two fleets and two coastal SCs!"

I felt rather proud of my reasoning, but Holmes merely said, "Hmm," and after a moment, went on. "But Lord Reginald, I had never considered the question of the possible first-year elimination of two powers in 'Flexible Setup.' Let me see a mapboard." There was one hanging on the wall. Holmes walked over to it and stared intently. "Ah yes ... it would have to be ... but no, that wouldn't ... oh, yes, now I see it. How unbearably stupid of me! The Italian province that contains a unit after the Spring moves is ...."

Which two powers were eliminated in 1901, and which Italian province must have contained a unit at the end of the Spring 1901 moves? And how did Holmes know? Click here to find out.

Lord Reginald was beside himself with amazement and joy. "Wonderful reasoning, Mr Holmes, simply wonderful -- you may have just saved the naval treaty! We'll send a message containing this solution to the Suwati embassy immediately." And, ringing for a messenger, he did just that.

"You're a genius, Holmes!" I cried.

"Why, yes, I am rather," he murmured humbly, and relit his pipe.

An anxious hour passed. I stood, paced, smoked; Holmes sat, read, smoked; Lord Reginald sat, read, did not smoke. Finally, the messenger returned, and coming in, handed Lord Reginald a large cream-coloured envelope embossed in gold with the arms of Suwat. My Lord tore open the envelope with hands which I dare suggest were trembling with excitement, drew out a single sheet, and read aloud. "Yes, yes; listen to this, Mr Holmes, Dr Watson. 'A game of Flexible Setup Diplomacy is played in which three neutrals are occupied on the first move, two powers are eliminated in 1901, and neither Russia nor Turkey is able to build in 1901. Determine the initial placement of as many as possible of the original 22 units.'"

"Aha!" cried Holmes, leaping to the table on which he had set up a Diplomacy board. "Indeed, this is not without some points of interest. Let us see ..."

This is it -- the Big Puzzle. How many of the original units' initial placements are determined by the information given, and where were they placed? Can you equal, or better, Holmes's solution? Click here for his reasoning.

The rest, of course, is history. Some months later, the Hereditary Sultan revealed that while the Other Powers had been able to solve the preliminary puzzle (I suspect merely by guesswork!), their reasoning had foundered in the greater depths of subtlety that had proved so translucent to the magnificently logical mind of my friend. The naval treaty was signed, Holmes's Diplomatic prowess was established, and we entered into a series of adventures, puzzles, and conundra related to and centering around the Great Game, and which I have now determined, not without some urging on the part of Diplomacy enthusiasts everywhere, to present, one by one, to the eagerly waiting Hobby.

-- Dr. John H. Watson

via John Woolley
Denver, Colorado
([email protected])

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