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January 13, 2015

From Landlords to Monopolists

Mary Pilon examines the strange and hidden origins of America's favorite game.

Elliot Magruder

William S. Burroughs once observed that "there may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games." Wars abound, on every continent and for every reason, but let's leave further discussion on that for those more well-versed in the subject. Games likewise have proliferated. They've not only made their way into innumerable living rooms, they've also taken up residence in our psyches, as they serve as safe battlefields to satiate our competitive desires and as a way to indulge our escapist inclinations. Who doesn't want to mobilize armies and take over the world and in doing so, manifest his superiority over some of his closest rivals in the world: family members. (For example, this writer remains ensnared in a bitter fraternal dispute over the ethics of a particular Scattergories approach.)

Mary Pilon
"The game was designed to teach one thing but has become an icon of the exact opposite."

Mary Pilon

Monopoly is actually a pretty good example of the conflation of war and games, but not for reasons immediately apparent. True, it's easy to imagine how a game centered on monopolistic accumulations of property and concomitant hoarding of wealth conjures up visions of internecine battle. However, as chronicled exhaustively in Mary Pilon's The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game, the true battle is over the origin of the game itself.

The struggle is epitomized by decades-long clash between the creator of the "Anti-Monopoly" game, a liberal economist professor named Ralph Anspach, and Parker Brothers, the often-litigious stewards of Monopoly. The history of the game is a clash over the ideals that illuminate its structure and ostensible purpose, as well as the identity of its true creators. Can a game designed to crown one winner at the expense of the rest in fact be the product of the ingenuity of multiple people working in collaboration?

Monopoly is in some ways defined by its "official" creation story, which explains that the game is largely the product of a stroke of genius suddenly materializing in the brain of an unemployed man named Charles Darrow as he sat alone in his basement. After all, in a game in which any player can began with nothing before amassing a fortune in property and cash, Darrow's story dovetails perfectly with such an ethos. Alas, such harmony is but a fiction, no matter how hard Parker Brothers uses its considerable might to convince the public otherwise. Pilon's book is devoted to exposing that fiction, and it succeeds.

In the following interview, lightly edited for clarity and length, Pilon tells Gelf about the impetus for her book, why Monopoly remains popular more than a century after it was initially conceived, and about the endearing appeal of the almost certainly apocryphal notion.

Gelf Magazine: What inspired you to write the Monopolists?

Mary Pilon: The Monopolists came about totally by accident. I've long loved games, history and became more interested in economic history while on staff at The Wall Street Journal during the financial crisis. While working on a story there in 2009, I was trying to mention Monopoly's supposed Great Depression era origins as a passing reference in an unrelated article. I began researching the origin story, but it wasn't adding up. I was incredibly frustrated, then came across Ralph Anspach and his Anti-Monopoly game. On a whim, I reached out to him knowing he had been involved in a lawsuit surrounding his own game, but had no clue whether he would respond or not. He did, and he had a lot to say. I wrote the story about his lawsuit for the Journal's front page, and then began developing the book from there.

Gelf Magazine: Your book notes that Monopoly exploded in popularity in the 1930s. What do you think explains both its huge marketshare in the 1930s and its enduring popularity in the 21st century?

Mary Pilon: Because of the evidence in the Anspach lawsuit, we know that the game was more popular as a folk game from the turn of the century to the 1930s than previously thought, so it didn't exactly come out of nowhere once Parker Brothers started manufacturing it. Part of the reason that the Parker Brothers version of the game is so good is that it was effectively product tested for 30 or more years, with people modifying the game to make it better. But I do think psychologically, there's a funny thing with board games during downturns. They give us a context to do what we often can't in real life. Given the economic dread of the 1930s, it shouldn't surprise any of us that Monopoly, with its mini property moguls and reams of multicolored cash, was embraced then. As for why it's endured, I think most of us still don't live as millionaires, so it's still fun to pretend. And that element of play extends far beyond Monopoly.

Gelf Magazine: In the context of the enduring, but almost entirely untrue legend that Charles Darrow created Monopoly, you observed "Commonly held beliefs don't always stand up to scrutiny, but perhaps the real question is why we cling to them in the first place." What's the answer to that question?

Mary Pilon: I think the Darrow story stuck because it was a really charming one. We love Cinderella stories and continue to tell them because they're heartwarming, irresistible and inspirational. Who doesn't want to believe that any one of us can, like magic, create something that changes our own fortunes and brings joy to millions? But the truth about innovation, at least if we look at Monopoly, is that it can often be a messy, collaborative affair. Even if that's the truth, sometimes it's just not as sexy of a story.

Gelf Magazine: Have you ever played Ralph Anspach's Anti-Monopoly?

Mary Pilon: I have played it. Over the years, Ralph has introduced several versions of Anti-Monopoly, so when I say that I've played it, I'm referring to the most current version that is published by University Games. I'm an economics geek and having studied his story and the story of the game found it to be fun. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before someone finds a way to create a hybrid with Settlers of Catan or Cards Against Humanity that can weave in ore or profanity.

Gelf Magazine: Lizzie Magie's "The Landlord's Game," arguably the progenitor for the Monopoly that we all know and love, was designed to advocate on behalf of Georgist political theory, and more specifically, to illustrate to its players to "learn that the quickest way to accumulate wealth and gain power is to get all the land they can in the best localities and hold on to it. Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system." Despite this goal, Monopoly seems to embody laissez faire capitalism in its present form. How did the original economic lesson disappear over time?

Mary Pilon: That's one of the great ironies of the game. It was designed to teach one thing (anti-monopolism) but has become an icon of the exact opposite. I remember walking around Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and seeing Monopoly iconography on signage and thinking how funny it was, where we were a century later, the game's message coming full circle. From a technical standpoint, I think the monopolist rules were easier to play and as the game drifted away from its Georgist originators, some of the messaging and desire to use it purely as a teaching tool probably faded away, as well.

Gelf Magazine: Of all the myriad individuals profiled in your book, which one contributed most to Monopoly as a game itself, and not necessarily it's enduring popularity?

Mary Pilon: That's a difficult question to answer, mostly because I became totally fascinated by all of the people who chipped away at the game over the years. Ralph's Anti-Monopoly lawsuit, and his will to fight it to the bitter end, was critical in unlocking the origin story. But I don't think anyone disputes that without Lizzie Magie, there would be no Monopoly. To me, she was the lifeblood of the game itself and its story, then and now.

Gelf Magazine: Did researching and writing the book make you like Monopoly less, more, or it had no effect at all?

Mary Pilon: No effect, but I think it's just more annoying for my friends and family to play with me!

Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.







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Comments

- Books
- posted on Jan 14, 15
J. B. Valley

Interesting, enlightening take on the game we all play.
Kudos to the subject and the author.

- Books
- posted on Feb 15, 15
Wyn Achenbaum

Missing from this article is any reference to the author and speaker whose ideas Lizzie Magie was seeking to demonstrate when she designed The Landlord's Game. He was Henry George, and his first book "Progress and Poverty" sold an amazing 2 million books -- in the 1880s and 1890s when that was a *huge* readership. Everyone knew his ideas, and they were widely discussed and embraced.

Read P&P, or a companion book of essays entitled "Social Problems" -- both online.

Still important and relevant, particularly as the question of how and why wealth flows to the 1% seems not to be asked much, despite all the bemoaning of the results.

George's analysis, and most particularly his remedy, would put us on the road to solving a number of problems many people despair of ever seeing solved. Check them out!


Article by Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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