Tag Archives: Espionage

A Soviet-era storytelling game trains you to bluff, lie and sometimes tell the truth

A tense moment during a game of "Mafia" in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of the English Mafia Club of Kiev)

A tense moment during a game of “Mafia” in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of the English Mafia Club of Kiev)

Read this post from Alina Simone. Or listen to the podcast above.

The storytelling parlor game “Mafia” crosses borders, transcends culture and bridges the language divide in ways you’d never expect.

There are no game boards or joysticks involved in Mafia — just words — and a setup that’s probably as old as human settlement: An uninformed majority of civilians against an informed minority, the Mafia. One side has power in numbers, the other has the power of knowledge.

Since 1987, Mafia has become a television series in Latvia, a World Championship event in Las Vegas and a training tool for the Russian security services. But I was still surprised to learn that Mafia was actually invented in the Soviet Union by Dimitry Davidoff, then a psychology graduate student at Moscow State University.

Dimitry Davidoff in the 1980s (Courtesy of Dimitry Davidoff)

Dimitry Davidoff in the 1980s (Courtesy of Dimitry Davidoff)

Davidoff tells me that even behind the Iron Curtain, he never doubted Mafia would become a global hit. In his day, games that were popular in the Soviet Union were all based on the idea of “us” vs. “them.” But in Mafia, as in real life, we ordinary civilians have no idea who the real enemies are — or whether the enemy is an enemy at all.

It turns out he struck a universal nerve. And once you get the hang of the rules, it’s also wicked fun.

But for today’s global entrepreneurs, Mafia has become much more than a game. “I think I use it all the time in real life,” says Sam Lundin, who founded a website named Vimbly that helps New Yorkers find cool and adventuresome activities. He even hosts as monthly Mafia meetup.

Lundin says he’s drawing on his Mafia skills “anytime there’s any kind of negotiation or problem-solving scenario going on, or someone is either bluffing or not bluffing in a business environment. Are they really telling the full story? Are they not?”

A Mafia meetup in New York (Photo: Alina Simone)

A Mafia meetup in New York (Photo: Alina Simone)

It also helps him expand his bag of tricks: “You might think of a new trick that would work really well to root out who the mafia is, but then everyone sees that you use that trick and you have to figure something new out genuinely,” he says. “I think the entrepreneurial world is like that in that it’s not structured. You constantly are figuring out new tricks.”

Sam was born in America, but he’s in the minority at a recent meetup. Most of the players are from China, Russia, South America or one of the many other places where Mafia is being put to strategic use. That includes Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.

“I believe in Kiev we have maybe 30 or 50 clubs. Maybe even more,” says Eugene Bazhenov. He started an English-language Mafia club back in 2010, and it immediately caught on with Ukrainians.

“The initial motivation is, of course, to improve English. But then they get addicted to the game because it’s really fun to play,” Bazhenov says. People have even found dates — and spouses — through the club. “It’s a really good place to meet people, whatever your purpose is.”

A Mafia game in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of the English Mafia Club of Kiev)

A Mafia game in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of the English Mafia Club of Kiev)

As for Eugene’s purpose? “At that time I was working for a company and I wanted to have my own business, but I didn’t have network, I didn’t have money to start the business. So it was totally nothing,” he says.

Nothing, that is, but a bunch of people crazy about Mafia, which is actually how Eugene achieved his goal. He ended up creating two companies with the help of expat Mafia players, one from Denmark, the other from Australia. Today, most of his closest friends, he tells me, are foreigners he met through the club.

It turns out, pretending to kill one another can really bring people together.

Meanwhile, back at Lundin’s Mafia meetup, a Chinese woman named Joy is killing it — pun totally intended — for the civilians, picking off Mafia one by one.

She keeps insisting her English isn’t very good, but she’s had a lot of practice at the game. About six years ago, Mafia — or the “Killer Game,” as it’s known there — became huge in China. Dozens of brick-and-mortar clubs sprang up across the country, complete with high-tech screens and audio systems blasting sound effects — all of which are completely unnecessary, given this is purely a storytelling game.

A Mafia game in China (Photo courtesy of Silvia Lindtner)

A Mafia game in China (Photo courtesy of Silvia Lindtner)

The game is known in China as "The Killer Game."Silvia Lindtner, who teaches at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, spent two years in China researching the Killer Game phenomenon. As she discovered, the Killer Game boom had everything to do with the booming Chinese economy:

“They were like, ‘We have to deal with people we are not at all familiar with. We sometimes have to convey a particular message to our customers, or to our clients, and you sort of have to sometimes pretend to be someone else in these settings.’” Lindtner says.

Playing Mafia wasn’t just a way to hone those skills: It was a great way to establish a competitive advantage. “These were skills they believed were utterly necessary in Chinese society, in international business relationships, and they were also saying that these were skills that would distinguish them from other people in China,” Lindtner explains.

These kinds of concerns weren’t on Dimitry Davidoff’s radar when he created Mafia. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, the thought of a business application for the game never crossed his mind.

He actually designed Mafia in part as a means of understanding the bloody history of the Communist regime: Change the word Mafia to KGB, and the game becomes a metaphor for the Stalin era, where anyone could be an informant and a lot of innocent civilians get killed.

But 25 years later, Davidoff is now living in the United States and he’s made a business out of Mafia. He licenses it for various uses, and even served as a consultant for a Mafia movie that will be released next year in Russia.

The youthful version of himself that invented the game back in the Soviet era might even point at the Dmitry Davidoff of today and call him “Mafia.”


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Words written in secret: a history of invisible ink

Norwegian-born Nazi spy Nickolay Hansen who had invisible ink secreted in his tooth (Courtesy Kristie Macrakis)

Norwegian-born Nazi spy Nickolay Hansen who had invisible ink secreted in his tooth (Courtesy Kristie Macrakis)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Clark Boyd.

I have been finding little scrappy bits of seemingly blank paper all over the house lately.

I say “seemingly” because my daughter recently got a “top secret sleuthing kit” for her 8th birthday.

The kit contains two pens. One pen has “invisible ink,” which you use to craft your super-secret messages.

You use the other pen to rub over the note, revealing those messages.

My daughter’s notes usually say something like: “Can I have a cookie?”

I tend to write back: “Eat your vegetables.”

Okay, not exactly Spy vs. Spy, but it did pique my interest.

And then, I received a review copy of a new book called Prisoners, Lovers and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to Al-Qaeda.

“People are always surprised, because they think this is kid’s stuff. It is serious business,” says the book’s author Kristie Macrakis.

Her research focuses on the historical intersections between science and espionage.

On a trip to Berlin a few years ago, she was working on a book about the East German secret police, the Stasi.

She’d gotten hints that the Stasi liked to use invisible ink, but she’d never seen an actual method or formula detailed.

Then the archivist handed her a very thin file, tucked in among a bunch of others.

“I opened it up, and my mouth fell open, and I thought, ‘Wow, finally,” Macrakis says. It contained invisible ink formulas from the Cold War in the 1970s.

Macrakis hand-copied the whole file, convinced there was no way the archivists would make a photocopy for her.

But she asked anyway, and to her surprise, they did.

A few minutes later, she was making a quick getaway.

“I stuffed the copy of the file in my knapsack and started waltzing down the steps in my sandals. I felt like I was in a Hitchcock movie, you know. I fled down the steps and looked behind me, and they weren’t asking for my files back, and I walked outside, thinking I was home free.”

Macrakis brought the Stasi secret ink formula back to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where she teaches. She found a chemist friend, and together with some students, they recreated the formula through trial and error.

Macrakis was having so much fun with the topic that she decided to write a book about the history of invisible ink and “secret writing:” steganography, to use the proper name.

To be clear, this isn’t cryptography. We’re not talking codes and ciphers.

We’re talking about the Roman poet Ovid giving Dear Abby-style advice about the kind of plant juice that lovers could use to write secret messages.

We’re talking about prisoners who have used oatmeal and milk, urine and even semen to write notes.

We’re talking about al-Qaeda hiding correspondence in the pixels of a porn film.

You name it, says Macrakis, and it’s been tried.

“Just use your imagination. Throughout history, you find the most fascinating ways of concealing secret messages, whether it’s in jewelry, or even writing on bodies, or even in a tooth. There are lots of ways of concealing and they’re all just fascinating.”

By now, you’re probably thinking back to those days as a kid when you tried this with lemon juice. You take the juice, dip a toothpick or other sharp object in it, and then write on a piece of paper.

Then you hold the paper over a flame and the message appears. Primitive, but it works.

In fact, in writing the book, Macrakis uncovered the story of the “Lemon Juice Spies” — a group of Germans in Britain who were caught using lemon juice to try to send secret messages during World War I. She even found one of the actual lemons used as evidence against them in a box.

“I mean, I looked at it, and I thought, ‘Wow, a 100-year-old lemon.’ And this innocuous lemon meant that about a dozen German spies were shot one by one in the Tower of London.”

Of course, the invisible ink cat-and-mouse game between the Germans and the Brits continued into WWII as well.

During that war, the Brits caught a Norwegian named Nickolay Hansen.

“At first, he told a bunch of lies, and they asked him about secret writing, and he said he didn’t use any,” Macrakis relates. “And finally, it came out that he hid a little baggie with invisible ink in his molar. Hopefully, he already had a hole in his tooth. Hopefully, they didn’t drill a new hole in his tooth to hide the secret ink in it.”

Macrakis also writes about Britain’s mass intercept of war-time mail.

Teams of women in Bermuda would sift through letters heading from the US to Britain, searching for secret messages.

Draw a pretty straight line, she says, to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA.

“After WWI, for example, the British claimed they had a grip on the world’s correspondence,” Macrakis says. “Similarly, that’s what the NSA wants to do with blanket electronic surveillance. It’s really the same story of secret writing 100 years before with mail interception, just with digital methods.”

Everything old is new again, as the saying goes.

There’s one mystery, though, that Macrakis hasn’t been able to figure out.

Sixteenth-century Italian scholar and polymath Giambattista della Porta suggested using a mix of alum and vinegar to write secret messages on an egg.

Macrakis says she’s tried and tried, but can’t get it to work.

She’s says she’ll soon launch a contest offering 200 bucks to anyone who can do it.

Get cracking.


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podcast #2: putinology and don’t exaggerate on your resume

In this week’s podcast, the focus is on the Russian language.  There are those names of leaders: Putin, Stalin, Medvedev. They all mean – or at least connote – concrete things to Russians. (A lot of non-Russians, btw, have great trouble pronouncing Medvedev. ) Then we enter the linguistic world of outgoing president Vladimir Putin. The man likes to juice up his rhetoric with a mix of 19th century Russian poetry and hardcore street talk.  We end with the confessions of a hopelessly unqualified Israeli government speechwriter whose exaggerated claim of fluency in French is tested at the highest diplomatic levels.  Listen to the cast in iTunes or  here.

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