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'The Monopolists' tells the surprising story behind America's favorite board game

How a vessel for liberal ideas became a board game craze.

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Few books can be said to have a transformative effect on the way readers look at a particular subject. Those that do often concern big subjects – books like Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” or Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

While Mary Pilon’s The Monopolists does not deal with matters like evolution or the environment, it nonetheless fits the bill. After reading Pilon’s altogether irresistible new book, Monopoly board game devotees will see their favored activity in an entirely new light. Cynics may ask: What’s next – a treatise on Battleship? A critical study of Pictionary? Yet Pilon is persuasive in arguing that – given its history and remarkable, enduring popularity – Monopoly is a pastime of rare import.

As Pilon recounts, in 1935 – smack-dab during the Great DepressionParker Brothers began offering Monopoly for sale. This was perhaps an unlikely moment for a game focused on finance and real estate. Yet the first wave of players did not seem to mind. “In its first year at Parker Brothers, it sold 278,000 popular editions alone,” Pilon writes. The next year the number was 1,751,000.

Pilon puts forth various hypotheses as to why the game was such a hit, but sums up the most plausible in a rhetorical question: “Was it because players wanted to live vicariously and finger large sums of money – something that so few could do in the 1930s?”

Among board games in general, Pilon writes, sales ticked up during prosperous times, “but when the economy went south – the Great Depression then, the 1970s recession and the 2008 global financial crisis in more recent years – sales were also good.” As Edward Parker, a relative of the founder of Parker Brothers, recognized: “During the Depression, people did not have enough money to go out to the shows.... So they stayed home and played Monopoly.”

In addition to describing Monopoly’s impact, Pilon also peels away the layers of the game’s cluttered history: The game did not spring from inventor Charles Darrow’s head in an Athena-from-Zeus-like manner. Instead, credit must be paid to The Landlord’s Game, the handiwork of a spunky, industrious woman named Elizabeth Magie. She envisioned the game as a vessel for liberal ideas, specifically those of economist Henry George, an expositor of the “single tax.” “When players landed on an ‘absolute necessity’ space, such as bread, coal, or shelter, the player had to pay five dollars into the Public Treasury,” Pilon writes, going on to quote Magie: “This represents indirect taxation.”

The Landlord’s Game was published by the Economic Game Company, and Magie obtained a patent for it in 1904. Yet independently produced reproductions of the game proliferated. “Little did she know, variations of the Landlord’s Game were continuing to spread throughout the Northeast and had become popular at several universities,” Pilon writes.

Charles Darrow enters the story much later, in the 1930s, when friends invited him to play an unofficial version of Finance – a game also known as Monopoly – which took its inspiration from The Landlord’s Game. Finance had enthusiasts among Quaker families in Atlantic City (supplying the game many of its names for spaces).

A struggling salesman from Philadelphia, Darrow seized the moment. He requested the rules in writing from a friend, engaged  cartoonist F.O. Alexander to help “jazz up” the game’s visuals, and then presented the game to stores as if it were his creation.

Alas, in its sequence of knockoffs, Magie’s Landlord’s Game had been diluted: “Many of the symbols in Darrow’s version of the game – a man in jail, railroads, collecting money when passing Go – could easily be read as positive takes on capitalism rather than as the critiques that Lizzie Magie had intended thirty years earlier, a fantasy interpretation of a financial system that had drawn such cynicism.”

The department store Wanamaker’s was a buyer, and in time, so was Parker Brothers – which accepted Darrow’s stance that Monopoly was his “brain child.” It took just $500 (and an agreement to bring out The Landlord’s Game and a pair of other games she created) for Magie to allow her revised 1924 patent to be purchased, and it took a labyrinthine court case in the 1970s and ’80s (involving inventor Ralph Anspach’s Anti-Monopoly game) to figure out the convoluted back story.

In Pilon’s telling, though, the story is anything but convoluted. On the basis of this terrific book, Pilon (a former New York Times reporter) might just have a monopoly when it comes to writing on pop culture in a consistently enlightening, completely absorbing way.
Peter Tonguette reviews books for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and National Review.

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