I believe I read this in the mid-to-late 1980s, quite possibly in Analog.

I don't recall the justification, but legal disputes (as between corporations or countries) are sometimes resolved in a form of virtual trial by combat, where 2 professional gamer-players operate either side of a historical conflict. The battles might be well-known ones, like Cannae, or lesser-known battles, and be from any era up 'til the Renaissance.

The protagonist is a gamer who has some kind of possibly-psychic, possibly-imagined link to a deceased friend of his who gives him background knowledge and advice. It's not clear that this gives him a real advantage over others, though; he does well but is not dominant. The friend might be named "Richard;" either that or in one of the battles he fights as King Richard.

I recall there being some games shown before the final one that forms the climax of the story. One of them might be Cannae, or Carrhae, or another one of the classic battles where cavalry was dominant; cavalry tactics may have been one of the weaknesses of the protagonist.

The climactic battle is a tough one; the protagonist is given the side that historically lost. I believe he still lost, but in a new and interesting way that suggested he could almost have won if he'd thought of whatever his tactic was a bit faster.

This is quite different from Interstellar culture resolves disputes with simulated duels; antagonist cheats using telepathy. The story takes place on a near-future Earth and there is no suggestion of cheating.

  • This isn't a match, but I was reminded of the "Joe Mauser" series by Mack Reynolds. In the opening story, "Mercenary" corporations hire mercenaries to fight battles with historic weapons (pre-1870 IIRC) to settle corporate disputes. These are actual battles, not computer simulations. Jul 2, 2022 at 0:11

2 Answers 2


"On the Shadow of a Phosphor Screen" by William F. Wu. I read it in the anthology Men of War, There Will Be War, Volume II though ISFDB reports it's been collected a few times.

The protagonist is Wendell Chong Wei and his invisible friend is indeed Richard. In the book Richard's speech is shown in italic to indicate Wendell is hearing it mentally.

Wendell does fight the battle of Cannae (using cavalry):

Wendell sat down and felt the keyboard. The seat, the board, and the screen were still the standardized equipment he was used to—an important detail. Crandall eased his bulk into the adjacent seat. He pushed a button and the screen said: “Cannae. 216 B.C. Roman Cavalry.” Officers’ names, Victory Conditions, and odds for the battle were given below. The adjacent screen would be saying, “Roman Infantry.” The opposing screens were the same, except “Carthaginian” in nationality. All four players laughed politely.

“I figured we’d start easy,” said Crandall, chuckling.

“Coward,” said Richard. “Sniveller.”

though the ultimate battle after which the story ends is described as:

Mount Badon. Ca. 490-503 A.D. Briton Dux Bellorum, Artorius.

  • This does indeed seem like a very good, but not perfect, match. It could be my recollection; let me dig up the story and take a read.
    – DavidW
    Jun 30, 2022 at 17:12
  • Unless the story was changed for anthologization, the original (in IASFM) talks about wins having legal consequences: "Power Technics won the right to a plant on the Big Muddy,” Wendell recalled. "Isn’t that what you won for them?”
    – DavidW
    Jul 1, 2022 at 1:33
  • And "I remember, right after that, you 'won’ that draw at Bosworth Field for the Italian Bottling Co-operative.”
    – DavidW
    Jul 1, 2022 at 1:34
  • Governments using the game for adjudication is just starting: Emerald frowned more deeply. "I must tell you that we’re on the threshold of something here. The. . . principals named on the contracts are actually representatives.” He paused for effect. "In reality, the principals are the governments of Portugal and Yugoslavia.”
    – DavidW
    Jul 1, 2022 at 1:39
  • 1
    @DavidW Yes, I have reread the story carefully and you're correct. I had forgotten that aspect of the story and missed it when skimming for quotes. Jul 1, 2022 at 5:33

John Rennie's answer is correct, but I want to post a secondary answer, since it's become clear to me that I'm conflating two stories.

The other story is "Masterplay" (1986) also by William F. Wu, published in Warrior (There Will Be War, Volume V).

The setting is very similar, to the point that the protagonist Ken Li's childhood friend is also Richard. Master Gamer Li has just won a 15-month-long tournament to promote a new Master to World Headquarters.

The story mostly follows his preparations for his first real game at this level, in which he must face Richard who he has never really beaten.

The battle I particularly recall is the one from this story:

Ken's keybard screen read, "Bosworth Field. 1485. Richard III."

He comes up with a new and interesting way to lose:

Suddenly Ken thought of an additional tactic. He directed one of his captains to withdraw another troop of knights from the struggling lines. The royal lines were about to break anyway, but Tudor's death would give them the victory if the gamble worked.

Ken ordered that the second block of one hundred charge behind the royal contingent at an interval, and farther out in a wing to the right under the very noses of the Stanley traitors. Both maneuvers were likely suicidal, but if they succeeded the battle was won.

And Richard (his opponent, not the king) suggests that his brainstorm may make a workable tactic that can be used to always win (a "masterplay" in story parlance):

"Thanks." Richard shook his hand briefly, chuckling with a sudden, embarrassed shake of his head. "You know, that final ploy of yours was incredibly ruthless—sending all those guys to certain death on that extra wing. Matter of fact, it was pretty sharp, too."

Ken shrugged. "Almost worked. Not quite, thought." He sighed.

"You may have a masterplay on your hands, there."

  • (I was bothered enough by the difference between the story that John found and what I was remembering that I went through Wu's ISFDb page looking at his other short stories. The "Masterplay" title jumped out at me.)
    – DavidW
    Jul 1, 2022 at 12:44

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