The Magazine

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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Having lost his job at a steam boiler company after the 1929 Crash, Darrow spent his time playing and making improvements to his beloved Monopoly. He purchased dice and play money at a dime store, typed and painted title deed cards on laundry cardboard, sliced wood moldings to make houses and hotels, and added graphic icons to the spaces on the board. He began to sell the game to Philadelphia department stores, with considerable success. And it was Darrow's 11-year-old niece who gave him the idea for using metal tokens as playing pieces. She and her friends liked to use the charms from charm bracelets.

Robert Barton, president of Parker Brothers, was also charmed by the new and improved game: In early 1935 he invited Darrow to the Parker showroom in New York and made him an offer. Parker Brothers officially published the game later that year.

Monopoly is the bestselling commercial board game in the world, with more than 250 million copies sold worldwide since 1935. The stats are impressive, but even more impressive are the anecdotes collected here of people who owe their very freedom to the game. By far the most powerful is the chapter on the game's influence during World War II, when Red Cross workers delivered Monopoly boxes to Allied airmen imprisoned in German POW camps. Inside the boxes were "low-profile escape tools, maps, and compasses hidden inside their game boards, and real currency tucked under the game's colorful bills." The games got past camp inspectors because they were considered "pacifiers" that kept prisoners occupied with something other than escape schemes.

Still, the game faced opposition in Italy and Germany. Mussolini did not want capitalistic products sold to his people, but the Italian company that produced the game was able to appease Il Duce by changing the spelling of Monopoly to Monopoli, and including fictitious fascist street names on the game board. Monopoly was always kept in stock during World War II, though shortages of certain materials would force Parker Brothers to replace metal tokens with wooden pawns. These downgrades didn't affect the game's popularity: General Patton once telegraphed George Parker to thank him for Monopoly, which had raised the spirits of his troops.

Monopoly also served as a symbol of capitalism in the struggle against communism, especially in the late 1950s. It was played underground in Eastern Europe, "[ruffling] the feathers of many Soviet officials who considered it an insidious tool of capitalism."

Readers will find a glossy photo gallery featuring the different versions of Monopoly and related games, from the Landlord's Game (1906) to the Monopoly Mega Edition (2006). Orbanes also intersperses pages of text with delightful photographs: There's one of George Harrison playing Monopoly during the Beatles' 1964 American tour, and another of the players at the first organized World Monopoly Championship in 1973. Orbanes closes with nail-biting, play-by-play accounts of the U.S. and World Monopoly Championships he's judged over the years.

Even those who prefer video games to Monopoly will have to concede that Orbanes knows his stuff, and tells the story with enthusiasm. A good attention span may be required to plow through some of the historical details, but it's worth the effort--just to get a taste of Orbanes's passion for the game: "Monopoly is both visceral and allegorical. It has flair; it speaks without uttering a sound. If the dice don't roll our way, Monopoly appears as an unreliable friend. But when they do, Monopoly is our buddy, our trusted pal."

Erin Montgomery is a writer in Washington, D.C.