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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A new book takes readers inside Monopoly’s surprising history.

MonopolyMonopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game & How It Got That Way, by Philip E. Orbanes (DaCapo Press, November, 2006)

A book can be a passport to a subculture we wouldn’t otherwise visit. Philip E. Orbanes’ Monopoly plays that passport role earnestly—a former Parker Brothers executive, and long-time Monopoly judge (yes, there are Monopoly judges), Orbanes takes the reader deep inside the world of Monopoly fanatics with this ode to the world’s most famous board game. He probes the game’s history, traces its changes over the years, and profiles characters who spend countless hours bidding on Monopoly trinkets on eBay.

Orbanes is clearly in love with his muse. The upside is that Monopoly is packed full of fascinating details. There’s the trivia: over 250 million copies of the game have been sold. Each game contains $15,140 of paper money, and if you add up all those bills that have been printed since 1935, you’d wind up with a sum of well over $3 trillion. Mr. Monopoly used to be called Rich Uncle Pennybags. His wife’s name is Madge. Even more esoteric: his three nephews are Randy, Andy and Sandy.

Then there are the more telling historical details. Most people think Monopoly was an overnight success for Parker Brothers, which introduced it in 1935. But the game began 30 years earlier, when a woman named Elizabeth Magie Phillips designed a new way to teach economics. A proponent of a “single tax” on property (rather than on income and consumption), she designed what she called the “Landlord’s Game” to instruct people about the justice of her economic scheme. Fans of the game made copies by hand, improving the play as they went. By the time Charles Darrow, generally credited with “inventing” Monopoly, obtained a patent and sold it to Parker Brothers, the game had already been through three decades of beta-testing. Parker Brothers manufactured over 1.8 million Monopoly sets in 1936, and sold them all.

Monopoly Game (250)There are also Forrest Gump-like collisions with larger and more important history. British secret intelligence agents used Monopoly games—delivered by the Red Cross—to smuggle maps and tools to British POWs during World War II. Of the 35,000 Allied airmen who escaped from Nazi camps during that time, some proportion no doubt owed their freedom to the game. During the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, several copies of this very capitalist game were put on display for Soviet citizens. There wasn’t much else fun to do in Soviet Russia, and all the copies were stolen by the end of the fair.

The drawback of Orbanes’ passion is that he sees everything as Monopoly related. Discussions of inflation and post World War II recovery in Europe are all presented through the lens of Monopoly sales. His prose is often much too much. He rightly admires, but badly imitates, a 1972 John McPhee New Yorker story called “In Search of Marvin Gardens.” Monopoly, he says, is the story of capitalism, which is the story of America. It “provides a stage to play out our fantasies and dreams, and on this stage we are all gifted.” The game and even its tokens are metaphors for life; “Who among us does not identify (often passionately) with the race car, the Scotty, or the top hat – or even the humble thimble?”

Well, plenty of us. Immersed as he is in the Monopoly subculture, Orbanes forgets that many of those 250 million copies have been played once or twice, and then relegated to a shelf in the basement. But the details do keep the story engaging enough to be – like Monopoly itself – a good diversion on a rainy day.

Image credit: Photo by Flickr user R80o

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