You can tell a lot about a family by its house Monopoly rules. The rules I grew up with, inherited from my father and his three boisterous, competitive brothers, were cutthroat. There was no namby-pamby $500 bill on Free Parking. It was completely permitted to let your game piece float a space or two ahead of where the dice dictated, so long as your opponents didn’t notice before next roll, putting everyone in a constant state of mutual suspicion that made deal-making very fraught. Games could last for days. Whenever I made a move directly against my father—buying up all his favorite orange properties, or lining an entire side of the board with hotels when he was about to pass through—he would murmur, approvingly, “You devil, you.”
Monopoly’s savagery can extend beyond the board. This past November, a New Hampshire woman was charged with domestic violence for slapping her boyfriend during a game. The British royal family, Prince Andrew said in 2008, isn’t permitted to play it at home because “it gets too vicious.” All of these people, and my own family, and anyone else who has threatened to eviscerate a loved one over their income-tax accounting, should be required to read Mary Pilon’s enthralling new history of the long, pitched battle over the origins of the game, The Monopolists. Starving out your enemy until he breaks may make for a fun family games night, but in real life, it’s significantly less enjoyable for everyone involved—the ostensible winners as well as the losers.
In 1935, Charles Darrow, a former salesman from Philadelphia who had just signed a contract with Parker Brothers to publish his game Monopoly, sent a letter to Parker Brothers president Robert B.M. Barton, explaining the game’s origins. “Being unemployed … and badly needing anything to occupy my time,” Darrow wrote, “I made by hand a very crude game for the sole purpose of amusing myself.” The Horatio Alger-ish legend of Monopoly’s Depression-era creation became part of the game’s mystique: a game focused on amassing wealth, designed by someone who had none—but who did, eventually, amass lots of wealth through it. Darrow, hailed as the “inventor” of Monopoly on game boards, television shows, and media interviews, became very rich. Some of his family members still collect Monopoly residuals.
The trouble is, Darrow didn’t actually invent Monopoly. He stole it. Pilon (who has been on the Monopoly beat now for some years, at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, where she covers sports) introduces us to a woman named Lizzie Magie, who, in 1904, was a stenographer living in Washington, D.C., and spending her free hours writing poetry and short stories, acting in local plays, and teaching classes on the theories of anti-monopoly tax reformer Henry George.* An independent, clever character, Magie saw that the newly popular technology of the board game could be an effective means for communicating political ideas, such as the dangers of untrammeled monopolistic capitalism. “Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system,” she wrote hopefully, “and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied.” She created and patented a game she called “The Landlord’s Game”: a square board, nine spaces on each side between the corners, a railroad in the center of each side, one corner that read “Go to Jail,” a jail where you had to stay until you served your time (i.e., rolled a double) or paid a fine, and a “Mother Earth” square, upon passing which each player received $100 in wages.
Magie composed two sets of rules, one the anti-monopolist, in which the accumulation of wealth was good for everyone, and one the monopolist, in which wealth only advantaged the person who won and squashed his opponents. After all, her purpose wasn’t entirely didactic, Pilon writes: “Lizzie understood that the game provided a context—it was just a game, after all—in which players could lash out at friends and family in a way that they probably couldn’t in daily life.” Over the next few decades, hand-drawn versions of her game, played using the monopolistic rules (which turned out to be far more amusing), circulated like samizdat through some surprising quarters. Versions were played in Upton Sinclair’s Delaware utopian community, the Village of Arden; by radical Scott Nearing, who was apparently among the first to start calling it “the monopoly game,” and his students at the Wharton School; and by members of Rep. Fiorello La Guardia’s staff.
In the 1920s, having accumulated even more familiar features—the Go space, Chance and Community Chest, utilities—the monopoly game reached a family of Quakers living in Atlantic City, who updated the street names on the hand-painted sheets of oilcloth they used to make their own private boards. (They concealed their riotous love for monopoly from stricter Quaker relatives, hiding the board from one and pretending to another that they’d been playing something else.) Through happenstance, Darrow encountered their version, saw a business opportunity, and began promoting it, first on his own and then to Parker Brothers. Once the company decided to publish Monopoly, Parker Brothers was more than happy to squash the pre-existing versions, going on a buying spree of old “monopoly” boards and giving Lizzie Magie $500, and no residuals, for rights to the Landlord’s Game. In a rhapsodic 1935 letter to Parker Brothers just after the deal was struck, Magie wrote, “Farewell, my beloved brain-child”; she thought they were going to publish her game, but instead they buried it.
The true story of “monopoly” might never have come out if not for the dogged efforts of Ralph Anspach, an economics professor at San Francisco State University and a latter-day Lizzie Magie. During the oil crisis of 1973, Anspach created a game meant to alert the country to the dangers of cartels and monopolies. He named it “Anti-Monopoly.” In the process of fighting what was soon a ginormous trademark lawsuit aimed at him from the corporate offices of General Mills, which by this point owned Parker Brothers, Anspach came across the original story of Monopoly—or, rather, “monopoly,” the game he argued had been generic and therefore untrademarkable, along the lines of checkers or chess, long before Darrow got to it.
Pilon is lucky in being able to draw on what was an arduous process of reportage: Anspach tracked down everyone connected to earlier versions of the game and dug into old court documents, of which there were many, as Parker Brothers had targeted a number of other would-be games, including Sexopoly, Space Monopoly, Black Monopoly, and Theopoly, “a game designed by priests.” He pursued his case for more than a decade, and it would be unfair to give away the outcome, except to say that Parker Brokers wreaked terrible harm on Anspach and his family in attempting to prevent him from going around Go.
But Pilon’s story, told in her newspaper-clear prose, isn’t just a cautionary tale about efforts to squash the true progenitor of an idea—it’s a fable about the collaborative nature of creativity. As she writes, “Everyone who has ever played Monopoly, even today, has added to its remarkable endurance and, on some level, made it their own.” This began with the early boards in oilcloth and canvas, painstakingly blocked out in paint and crayon, and endures today, with the proliferation of house rules. Last April, Hasbro, Parker Brothers’ new owners, made a stab at recognizing the importance of Monopoly house rules with a Facebook vote enshrining several common ones into the official rule book ($400 for landing on Go, taxes and fees accumulate in the center for a Free Parking pay-off, and so on). But this seems to be missing the point. Since its conception Monopoly has been, in Pilon’s telling, a game propelled by a vibrant internal creative force, of which its various “inventors” have been for the most part shepherds. Monopoly seems to fare best when official rule-makers stay out of the process. It’s a game for the tinkerers, the rule-benders—and the devils—in all of us.
Correction, Feb. 23, 2015: This review mistated that Mary Pilon covers sports for the New York Times. She left the Times in December. (Return.)
The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon. Bloomsbury USA.