November 15, 2006

Between The Covers

What irony that Monopoly, America's — and the world's — most popular, long-lived and, arguably, "most influential" board game — with over 250 million copies sold and an original Mr. Monopoly icon modeled on J.P. Morgan — was conceived and first promoted as an entertaining anti-trust "lesson" by progressives, socialists, Quakers and academic radicals, many Columbia University professors of economics and business, who wanted to educate young people about the inequities and dangers of unchecked big money.

Its turn-of-the-century progenitor was Elizabeth J. Magie Phillips, a mid-West bluestocking who was a firm believer in the economic principles of Henry (one-tax) George, and she owned the patent on what was then called The Landlord's Game. What added irony that sales of Monopoly took off during the Great Depression

Irony seems to inform the game's continuing developments. Donald Trump is reportedly in negotiations for a primetime Monopoly reality series, and in Hasbro's just released Here and Now edition, contemporary streets, monuments, tourist and sports sites from 22 American cities (including Las Vegas) have replaced many old Atlantic City standbys, including Boardwalk, while McMansions and airports have squeezed out Monopoly railroads.

But not to worry: despite spin-offs and changes, the old classic Monopoly board game is still around, in over 60 countries, even if in specialty and themed versions. Fans can also look forward to another Monopoly World Championship in 2008. These facts and more than you may ever have wanted to acquire (would you believe that "Marvin Gardens" is misspelled?) appear in Philip Orbanes' obsessive, worshipful and revealing recently published history, Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game and How It Got That Way.

Though at times overly detailed (especially in the sections on patents, trademarks and copyrights) and on occasion somewhat forced in its presentation of the various published versions of Monopoly as cultural indicators and signs of the economic times, Orbanes' narrative contains some startling particulars and commentary on why, even in this present era of instant-feedback video games, Monopoly continues to captivate all ages.

Orbanes, who has served as chief judge at international competitions, notes that players typically range from age 11 to 70. The game has also prompted eBay frenzy for Monopoly collectors, some of whom have remade their homes in order to accommodate memorabilia. There's even a Monopoly Room in the Forbes Gallery in the New York.

Orbanes, president of Winning Moves, a specialty games company, who has been an executive for over three decades with Monopoly, and who is also the author of The Game Makers and The Monopoly Companion, says that people play "for the vicarious thrill of getting rich, or going bust without pain." He also proffers a persuasive reason for the game's incredible success: it took over 30 years from Lizzie's day of handmade pieces and informal rules, a period of test and trial, to reach consensus on a standard commercial product.

"Seldom has any game enjoyed this much effort and intrigue 'growing up,'" he writes. Another fascinating bit of lore puts the game at the center of an elaborate color-coded escape plan that was used by GIs imprisoned in Nazi P.O.W. camps during WW II. "General George Patton even telegraphed George Parker to thank him for Monopoly's morale-building effect on his troops."

Monopoly has been in movies, in industry ads, in songs, and in the news (Eisenhower, "a consummate," player was photographed playing the game, and The Beatles "enjoyed it so much they gave Parker Brothers publicity shots of themselves playing it"). Less convincing but nonetheless thought provoking is Orbanes' claim that the game's special lure is social, that its success is owed to it being played in families and among friends and acquaintances. It teaches negotiation, he says, it's "visceral and allegorical."

And then – well, it's about Money, and how its extraordinary achievement "mirrors" the growth of capitalism. Lizzie, by the way, eventually sold her patent to Parker Brothers for $500 and then was erased for a while as inventor. Thanks to Orbanes, she's back where she belongs. And maybe this book has started something in excavating a trail down memory lane.

Word is, that some version of the automat may be back. As memory serves, it was the kind of place you could play a board game . . . forever.

Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game and How It Got That Way by Philip E. Orbanes, Da Capo Press, 288 pp., $27.50. Biblio, index, photos, appendices.

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