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Men of Property

Why a hotel on Boardwalk beats a house on Marvin Gardens.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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The World's Most Famous Game--And How It Got That Way

by Philip E. Orbanes

Da Capo, 288 pp., $26

As you may remember from last Christmas season, die-hard "gamers" were lining up outside electronics stores for the coveted Sony Play Station 3, the very latest in video game technology. There were media images of (mostly disheveled) teenage boys sleeping in tents and grilling hot dogs for sustenance while waiting in line to fork over $600 for their very own console. Similar lines formed for the Nintendo Wii, a less expensive, though no less state-of-the-art, product.

Such images prompt this question: Whatever happened to the good old days of unpretentious and affordable board games, like Monopoly? Well, they are far from over, at least according to Philip Orbanes. This new account of the history of Monopoly brings hope to board-game aficionados, and edification to anyone interested in how the great game of real estate got its start.

Seventy-two years ago, Monopoly sparked a craze unrivaled by any other game in history. The image of Rich Uncle Pennybags, later known as Mr. Monopoly--the distinguished gentleman who dons a top hat, cane, and handlebar moustache, and was originally modeled after the real-life Mr. Monopoly, J. Pierpont Morgan--would become ubiquitous. The exciting stroll down the Atlantic City boardwalk, the agony of Going to Jail, and the thrill of getting rich produced Monopolyphiles who could give the younger generation of video gamers a run for their money.

There is, for instance, Marc Winters, a 49-year-old financial adviser from California who owns over 3,000 different worldwide editions of Monopoly. His collection is "probably the world's largest," writes Orbanes. Probably? Other stories of the staggering number of Americans who have devoted much of their lives to collecting Monopoly, and exploring the game's past, are mind-boggling.

Orbanes is one of them. A former senior vice president at Parker Brothers and a historical consultant for Hasbro Games--Hasbro owns Parker Brothers, Monopoly's parent company--Orbanes was once asked to "shape up" Monopoly's official rules and to serve as chief judge at the U.S. and World Monopoly Championships, a job he still holds. You don't succeed at these jobs without being fastidious, so it's no surprise that Orbanes fills his book with much historical detail (read: lots of names and dates).

When played by the rules, an average game of Monopoly takes 90 minutes--and it won't take any less time to wade through the explanations here of patent law, the numerous modifications made to Monopoly over the years, Monopoly knock-offs, legal disputes and bidding wars over ownership, and the backgrounds of the many individuals involved in the game's formation.

With each chapter, the elaborate timeline of Monopoly's evolution becomes a bit more disjointed. True Monopolyphiles and history buffs will appreciate the appendices, however. There, readers will find excerpts from original patents, the original game rules, as well as a complete list of all the affinity editions ever published
(I Love Lucy, The Simpsons, The Lord of the Rings, NFL Monopoly, etc.). Though the narrative here is often tiresome, it doesn't take away from Orbanes's ability to underscore just what has made the game so appealing to generations of players: "Monopoly can inspire hope in anyone who plays it. For many, Monopoly is the first economic teacher suggesting that a richer life is available if one is willing to reach for it."

He uses the term "first economic teacher" literally. Monopoly got its start in an economics classroom in the early 1900s when Scott Nearing, a young, leftist economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, brought a hand-made copy of something called the Landlord's Game into his classroom to teach the evils of rent gouging. Elizabeth Magie Phillips, an actress whose father had taught her the merits of Henry George's single tax, had invented and patented the Landlord's Game in 1903. It would become the forerunner to Monopoly, catching on quickly in economics classes around the country.

However, George Parker, founder of Parker Brothers, initially rejected the Landlord's Game because of its "complexity" and "instructive overtones." Orbanes points out that the learned professors and students "who kept the Landlord's Game alive did not bridge the gap between collegiate endeavor and nationwide fad." Instead, it took an unemployed radiator repairman named Charles Darrow to redesign it into the game Parker Brothers eventually published.