Run Silent, Run Cheat: The Sneaky Hobby Games Navy Submariners Play
Deceptive games are downright customary on British and U.S. subs
This story originally appeared on Feb. 15, 2014.
Life is busy aboard a submarine. To wile away the hours not spent working or training, crews have developed a rich tradition of card and board games.
Some of these games are popular among civilians, others were picked up by sailors when based overseas. A few games are almost exclusive to the submarine world, reflecting the mentality of the crews.
“It is in the DNA of submarine officers to be competitive,” says Iain Ballantyne, a naval journalist and author of Hunter Killers, a book chronicling the history of four Royal Navy submarine captains during the Cold War.
“As people who are accustomed to living by their wits and taking calculated risks they will be drawn to games that involve a certain amount of bluff, mind games and even gambling—though never for money,” he adds.
This isn’t to say life aboard a submarine means lots of free time. Fast, small attack submarines operate on an hour-by-hour basis—sometimes to the minute. Big and slow ballistic missile submarines have missions planned out weeks and months in advance.
The pace is different, but much of a sailor’s time is spent doing their job, training—particularly for potential emergencies—and maintaining the safety of a pressurized tube designed to dive deep below the ocean’s surface.
But the crews are still cut off from the world and have—until recently—had few entertainment options when chilling out. Sailors today still spend their off-hours studying for degrees and reading books just as they did decades ago. The spread of laptops for movies and games (without an Internet connection) has also transformed naval leisure hours.
Still, the old gaming traditions are still there. The Royal Navy also happens to be one of the oldest and most traditional navies in the world, which means lots of games that have spread throughout the Commonwealth.
The U.S. Navy has its gaming traditions, too.
Australian sailors on HMAS Wollongong play Uckers. Royal Australian Navy photo
Of all the games played on Royal Navy submarines, the board game Uckers is the one that deserves the crown of the most authentic Royal Navy game of all.
It has such a long and niche history of play when underway—more than a century according to the Royal Naval Association—that it’s as thoroughly British (and naval) as NASCAR is American.
Uckers is also a game for cheats—or at least those who could get away with it. It shares this with the card game scats, which is also popular with sailors.
“Cheating—bluffing—in cards and Uckers was accepted as part of the game, relieved tension between people, with fines for being caught,” one retired Cold War submarine officer said.
The rules are fairly simple. Uckers is a race. Two, four or six players begin with four colored pieces contained inside a home base. During your turn, you throw two dice. Roll at least one six, and one of your pieces leaves its little base and starts snaking around the board. You are allowed to move a single piece per turn.
The goal is to move your pieces to color-coded squares that, in turn, lead to the center of the board. Once all of your pieces have reached the center, you win.
But there’s quite a bit of strategy involved. Players can “blob” pieces if two friendly pieces intersect on the same square. This blocks enemy pieces from passing unless they can position a piece behind the blob and roll a six.
No wonder submariners like it. The winner is the one who best controls maneuver, and the best way to control maneuver is by creating little blockades.
If you lose—and lose bad—by having none of your pieces reach the center, then you have to write your name written on the opposite side of the board with the day’s date.
If you grab the board and throw it on the floor—another naval tradition—the same rule applies.
Cribbage board. Andrew Malone/Flickr photo
More commonly played as a pub game, cribbage has been at sea since at least the 18th century.
Card players should be familiar with cribbage. The dealer hands out cards to the players, who then try to score points by discarding cards to a “crib” in several combinations.
The dealer sets aside one card that players can combine with their hand for more points—but the dealer’s card is kept secret until after the players make their moves.
It’s a risky game, but also long associated with gambling. During the Cold War, British crews aboard ballistic missile submarines would keep a running tally of wins and losses in a book to be evened out after a six-week patrol.
The most distinct feature is the wooden board with small holes and pegs used to keep score.
The game is so old, Vice Adm. Horatio Nelson, the commander of British forces at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, played on a cribbage board made out of bone. The board was auctioned in 2012 for £1,900, or about $3,180.
A cribbage board that belonged to Rear Adm. Richard O’Kane of the USS Tang—a famed World War II submarine—is also still kept aboard the Navy’s oldest operational submarine, the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Bremerton.
The board previously resided aboard the class’s namesake, USS Los Angeles, until the vessel left the service in 2010.
Believe it or not, the Navy even has a ceremony for handing over the cribbage board after decommissioning its oldest ship. It’s serious business.
Mahjong tiles. Rebecca Siegel/Flickr photo
A niche game in the West but popular in East Asia, mahjong was introduced to British submarine crews by proximity to the Empire.
After World War II, Britain began its long withdrawal from East Asia. After Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, a much reduced British naval presence in the Pacific became an inevitability. By 1971, the British withdrew from the strategic naval base at Singapore.
But in the meantime, the submarine crews based there—and operating in diesel-powered boats—picked up mahjong.
If you’ve never played mahjong, here’s how it works. Like many card games, the players (usually four) draw 13 tiles (instead of cards) with various numbers and Chinese characters. The players next take turns tossing individual tiles into the center, building complex sets of combinations that result in a winner.
But like other games popular on ships, mahjong requires a good deal of strategy and deception. Once a player deploys a tile, other players can choose to steal it.
This is a normal part of the game and it’s important for a winning strategy, but theft comes with certain risks. When stealing, you’re required to expose part of your hand.
Like a submarine revealing itself when it makes its move.
Bridge is less popular. Steven Depolo/Flickr photo
Bridge is one of the world’s most popular card games and dominates the geriatric set. It’s positively up there with bingo.
But bridge also found a home aboard Royal Navy submarines during the Cold War.
Though it was less popular than scat, cribbage, uckers and other games. The reason? Bridge was widely perceived as anti-social, according to Ballantyne.
“Bridge is essentially a social game, but unfortunately it attracts a substantial number of anti-social people,” The New York Times’ Alan Truscott once said.
Perhaps this is somewhat unfair. It’s a buddy game, with at least two teams of two players each. On the other hand, this could limit interaction seen in a rowdier, free-for-all game.
Bridge is also fairly transparent. Players make bids to boost the value of their cards, but the bids—and the reasons for your bids—can’t be kept secret. Bridge can be addicting and absorbing, perhaps a little too absorbing and to the detriment of morale.
Think about it. It’s easy to start brooding on a submarine, especially if you’re working in a small area away from where the action is. You especially don’t want to brood during your gaming time. The point of the games is not to brood.
“[Games] helps keep them mentally sharp during off-duty hours, plus of course provides some entertainment and bonding with their shipmates,” Ballantyne says.
There’s also a pattern here. Another game that never proved particularly popular aboard subs? Chess.