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.

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.

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