A winning strategy

The main man: Stratego world champion Richard Ratcliffe of Upperthorpe.  PICTURE: stuart hastings
The main man: Stratego world champion Richard Ratcliffe of Upperthorpe. PICTURE: stuart hastings
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IT is a board game which you may not have heard of but which is played by some 40 million people across the world.

Stratego – a French military pastime devised in 1909 – is a cross between chess, poker and Risk; a mind sport which tests statistical analysis, risk assessment and information extraction under extreme time restrictions.

And this is the current four-time world champion: Richard Ratcliffe, an Upperthorpe bus driver.

He is the Pele of this parlour game. The Ali of the amusement. A superstar within Stratego circles. And he is the only man to ever hold all four different world titles – classic, barrage, duel and ultimate lightning – at the same time.

“Actually, I’m not really like Pele or Ali,” he considers. “I’m quite a defensive player, see?”

Ah.

All the same, he’s a bit special.

He won that quartet of titles at the World Championships in Newcastle in 2011. And if he can retain just the classic title at this summer’s tournament in the Netherlands he will be officially recognised as the world’s greatest-ever player.

Not bad for a chap who spends his days driving Stagecoach’s 265 and who only gets to practice a couple of hours a week.

“My dad brought a set home from a car boot sale when I was a kid,” says the 39-year-old father of four, who has previously played in Germany, Ukraine and Belgium. “And I’ve loved it since. I always use to beat him and he’d get annoyed, so we’d have to play Monopoly.”

So good was he, he stopped playing – “it got boring winning” – but then in 2004 he rediscovered an online version of the game and took it up again.

He entered an open in Manchester, finished seventh and has been improving ever since. He became British champion in 2006 and then again in 2007, 2009, 20010 and 2011.

What happened in 2008? “I came second,” he notes. “Disappointing year.”

His secret, he reckons, is a good memory and ability to bluff – and it might also run in the genes. Brother, Matthew, of Tinsley, is ranked sixth in Britain while 15-year-old daughter Ashleigh was the junior barrage world champion in 2008.

“I love its unpredictably,” says Richard, of Sherde Road. “And I love the camaraderie at tournaments. All the top players are rivals but we’re friends and we’ll go for a meal in the evening. It’s a bit like a lads weekend. There aren’t many girls.”

It doesn’t come cheap.

Prize money is negligible, while travelling the world is a costly business and Richard – the British representative to the International Stratego Federation – keeps buying sets. He has 40 versions.

But he insists it’s worth it.

“Sometimes my partner Sam will call it a board game,” he laughs. “And I’ll say, ‘Hey hey, that’s not a board game, that’s Stratego’.

Strate-what?

STRATEGO may be relatively unknown in the UK – but it’s huge across much of the rest of the world.

Invented in France , it is particularly big in Germany, the Netherlands and the US, where it is thought 70 per cent of families own a set. International players also come from South East Asia.

The game is played by two opponents on a square board.

Each player controls 40 pieces representing soldiers in an army. The object is to capture the opponent’s flag.

World championships have been held since 1997. The Dutch are the international masters.