Monopoly Monopolizes the World, From Baltic Ave. to Boardwalk

Parker Bros. Game Celebrates 70 Years of Unrestrained Capitalism


Jan. 11, 2005 — Before Donald Trump's whipped hairdo, before Bill Gates' geeky glasses — even before Howard Hughes' obsessive hand-scrubbing — the image of America's consummate capitalist belonged to Rich Uncle Pennybags, better known today as "Mr. Monopoly."

And now, it's time for the mustachioed mascot of money to don his famous tuxedo, take a ride on the Reading Railroad, advance to "Go" and collect immortality.

Monopoly has been keeping America board silly since the Great Depression, selling more than 200 million editions around the world, thanks in part to permutations such as Elvis-opoly, Simpsons-opoly, among other stylized versions of the game.

Parker Bros., now a part of Hasbro, rolls out its 70th Anniversary Edition next month at New York's Toy Fair, with an art deco design to celebrate its reign as America's No. 1 board game.

If you're looking for a good Trivial Pursuit question: What's the only non-patented board game since 1935 to outsell Monopoly in a given year? The answer, of course, is Trivial Pursuit, which sold an amazing 20 million copies in 1981.

Monopoly teaches important business lessons, such as this one: Money is something people fight over — and the more money, the uglier it gets. In this sense, the history of Monopoly may be more educational than the game itself.

In fact, some people believe Monopoly already celebrated its 100th birthday, and that Parker Bros. shouldn't have been granted a patent for the game back in 1935.

In fact, a forerunner of Monopoly was already widely popular on college campuses when Charles Darrow, an unemployed heating salesman, showed his version — which was nearly identical to similar games already out there — to Parker Bros.

"The Landlord's Game," for example, even bore the striking "Go to Jail" corner square that has menaced many Monopolites. But that game, patented by Lizzie Magie Phillips of Virginia in 1904, was hardly meant to teach kids the joys of driving their friends into bankruptcy and mortgaging them into oblivion.

Phillips' game was intended to illustrate the evils of capitalism. She even offered it to Parker Bros. in the early 1920s but the company declined. (Proof, perhaps, that capitalism is indeed evil.)

Darrow's version, which Parker Bros. licensed, bore a close resemblance to a version of "The Landlord's Game" that was played at a Quaker school in Atlantic City, N.J., which is where all the property on the game board gets its name. Both versions even contain the same misspelling — Marvin Gardens. As residents of the community will tell you, the real name is "Marven Gardens."

Parker Bros. eventually bought the rights to several similar games, effectively monopolizing Monopoly.

It's perhaps ironic that a game that embraced the often coldhearted realities of free-market economics became so popular at a time when a fifth of the country was unemployed. But board games were a cheap form of entertainment for families with little cash on hand.

It turned out to be a much-needed boon for Parker Bros.

"The company had been suffering. Sales were way down. Suddenly, they couldn't keep up with production," says Phil Orbanes, author of "Game Markers: The Story of Parker Brothers" (Harvard Business School Press).

"Monopoly literally saved Parker Bros. from Depression-era bankruptcy. It was instantly America's No. 1 game."

In real life, the Reading Railroad no longer exists, and real estate developers leveled St. Charles Place to make the Showboat Casino Hotel, but many locales from the game still exist. Residents of Mediterranean and Baltic avenues actually used their status as Monopoly namesakes to thwart an initiative to change their names.

Monopoly is indeed a national icon. Last year, players from 38 nations competed in a championship tournament in Tokyo. Antonio Zafra Fernandez, 36, of Spain, claimed the $15,140 first prize, which is exactly the same amount of Monopoly money that comes in each game set.

More importantly, Monopoly holds a special place in contemporary society. According to the Hasbro Web site, the longest game of Monopoly lasted 1,680 hours (over 70 days), another Monopoly game lasted 99 hours in a tub, and someone somewhere played the game upside down for 36 hours.

Unfortunately, "The Wolf Files" couldn't confirm any of these records. The folks at Hasbro, their public relations agency and a Monopoly historian couldn't confirm them. If anyone does have information on this, please let me know, and I'll pass it along.

Still, there have been many unforgettable Monopoly games — games that may have had an impact on modern history. Here are a few:

Great Train Robbery Monopoly
When a 15-member gang hauled off the equivalent of more than $5 million from a Glasgow-to-London postal train in 1963, the press quickly dubbed it Britain's Great Train Robbery. If not for a game of Monopoly at their hideout, the robbers might have gotten away.

Holed up at an Oxfordshire farmhouse, the gang passed the time playing Monopoly (with stolen money, by some accounts). When they heard the police were on their trail, they fled a little too quickly.

Police lifted fingerprints from the game board, which served as damning evidence in the courtroom. Not surprisingly, the judge failed to honor their "Get Out of Jail Free" cards.

Great Escape Monopoly
How about some real-life "Get Out of Nazi Prison Camp" cards? American fliers held at Stalag Luft III, made famous in the film "The Great Escape," received phony passports, railroad tickets and other materials that had been glued within Monopoly game boards.

"We did some elaborate things at the outset," former soldier Lloyd Shoemaker of Salem, Ore., told The Seattle Times in May 1987, describing how Monopoly boards had to be cut apart and then glued back together again to accommodate the smuggled items.

Real money for the escapees was slipped into packets of play money, and one can only assume that U.S. military intelligence had issued commands on secret codes printed on Community Chest cards.

Killer Monopoly
Monopoly has given rise to many a family fight. You never want to be that player who's accused of collecting more than $200 for passing Go.

But more than a spat broke out in February 1991, when 26-year-old Marc Cienkowski of Bensalem, Pa., shot his friend Michael Klucznik, 31, through the heart with a bow and arrow.

"Cienkowski wanted to be the car rather than the thimble or the hat," the district attorney told reporters. The defendant eventually pleaded guilty to criminal homicide.

Between Dogopoly and Elvis-opoly, it seems like anything can be Monopolized. Parker Bros., however, feels otherwise.

The company has kept lawyers working overtime to ban unauthorized games. Most recently, it has battled the maker of Ghettopoly, a twisted version of Monopoly where "playas" build crack houses on Cheap Trick Avenue rather than hotels on Park Place.

The case is scheduled to be heard in federal court later this year. Game maker David Change remains unrepentant, and promises other Monopoly takeoffs including "Redneckopoly."

Another anti-Monopoly game — this one is actually called "Anti-Monopoly" — is back in production. In 1973, now-retired San Francisco State University economics professor Ralph Anspach set out to beat Monopoly at its own game — and he nearly did.

Parker Bros., then owned by General Mills, sued for patent infringement, and the two parties spent the next 25 years in a legal battle that made its way all the way to the Supreme Court. An out-of-court settlement was reached, allowing Anspach to license the game.

After languishing for several years, Anti-Monopoly is being reintroduced by University Games next month at the same New York Toy Fair where Monopoly is celebrating its 70th anniversary. Any coincidence, I'm sure, is unintentional, although I'm sure Anspach delights in it.

Boardwalk by Any Other Name
Monopoly has so many authorized versions that the game serves as something of a cultural reference guide.

In the Elvis edition, Boardwalk is Graceland. Mediterranean Avenue, the worst property on the board, is the shotgun shack in Tupelo, Miss, where the King was born.

In "The Simpsons" edition, Boardwalk is "Burns Manor," the abode of Homer's boss. Obviously, Marge didn't design this board, because Moe's Tavern isn't Mediterranean, but it's very close (Virginia Avenue).

In Simpson-opolis, Mediterranean Avenue is the Springfield Junkyard, home of the never-ending tire fire. Care to build a hotel there?

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays.