A godly game, which rewardeth forbearence and punisheth greed
This weekend on the second hour of To The Best of Our Knowledge, they aired an hour-long commemoration of DFW. I’m not here to talk about that though. The first hour of the show was about “tricksters,” and I immediately thought about my grandfather. It’s probably no surprise that I’m talking about the same grandfather who after his triumphant success at building a bookcase—his very first project ever—decided that he was ready to build a house. I’m going to let you in on a family secret now, although we didn’t know it was a secret until recently.
In the early 70s, in the comfort of his aforementioned house, my grandfather decided for some reason to invent a board game. It never sold very well, and we ended up with stacks of small wooden boards, which were put to various uses throughout my childhood. My father made numberless clocks out of them; my mother used them for hotplates. The rest of the pieces (fake coins in sacks) and instructions were probably thrown away, although my father remembers burying some of the sacks of coins in their backyard as a teenager. We only have one complete set left.
Not content to invent a game, he created a false history for the game, suggesting that, although “the origins of the game are obscure,” it “may well have been invented” by Spanish monks in the 15th century. He laments that “the brief and curious history of the medieval dice game from its first appearance in the Andalusian monasteries early in the 15th century to its suppression by Pope Sylvester V in 1458, has not received the attention it deserves.”
He never attached his name, but published the game and the history under the pseudonym, I.Y. Erzbergen-St. Susse, Ph.D., Queenswood Professor of Medieval Studies at Brunswick University. Neither the university nor the chair actually exist, and the name really shouldn’t either (my grandmother can’t remember what “I.Y.” stands for, or if she ever knew). Although the history sounds reasonable at first, it has a number of red flags, including dry comic hints like this:
In view of the Church’s strict injunction against dice and gambling, it may surprise many to learn that [it] could have flourished openly during this period—and among the religious at that. It should be kept in mind, of course, that the monastic orders had entered a period of moral decay by the end of the 14th century.
But even if such touches didn’t raise suspicion, there were a number of other hints. For instance, it was supposedly “known to have been played by the Cistercian monks in the Abbey of Los Santos de Campo in Granada as early as 1404,” which is unlikely since I don’t think that Abbey existed, and anyway it was an Islamic city until the end of the century. The dead giveaway, however, is Pope Sylvester V, who never existed, but is said to have banned the game, with this explanation, which is my very favorite sentence of the history:
The cardinal’s implication that His Holiness had so little aptitude for the game that even when leaning heavily on the papal prerogative he was rarely a winner, has led to the conjecture that injured pride may have turned him against it, but we had best take this theory with a grain of salt.
Although it never sold well, at some point it was introduced to the historical gaming community at a convention, and was played as a period piece for a number of years before raising suspicion. It can be easily improvised without any of the original pieces or the board, as you might imagine for a medieval dice game. It seems to have been popular, and a version was even created as a drinking game.
We had no idea about this until a few years ago when a family friend wrote to my grandmother after coming across an article saying that “there seems to be no mention of the game prior to 1971,” and suggesting the possibility that it was a hoax perpetrated by Erzbergen-St. Susse, who “forged his credentials.” We decided as a family that he would be enormously pleased with all of this, even though he certainly never intended it, and so I’m trusting you all to keep your mouths shut. I’ll deny everything. And if they ever invent a way to search the internet, I’m taking this down immediately.