Of course you know what people think about conventional wisdom. They just can’t help but tweak it. As a result, there are literally thousands of published strategies for winning at Monopoly. Some of these are based on detailed statistical studies, others on years of experience in tournament play, and still others on murky Zen-type logic that defies close examination.
My own approach, perfected during countless rainy Saturday afternoons during my misspent youth, is the first round scramble…what I affectionately call the go-for-the-jugular opening. I scoop up whatever I can get of the colored tiles, but focus on the utilities and the railroads and the dark blue properties, where the threat of huge rents can shut the game down early. I won’t start auctioning properties to other players until we’ve been around the board at least three times. I find this works best with 2 or 3 players. More than that, and you’re better off with the Hornblower & Weeks opening and the Zuricher defense, as John McPhee recommends in his brilliant 1972 essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens.”
But Monopoly has a shady history that mirrors its cutthroat play strategy, and that most people have never heard. Even as the game teaches us to drive our friends and neighbors into the poor house, we fail to realize that we are ourselves participating in a real life swindle. You see, like all great inventions, Monopoly had an inventor. Depression era folklore tells us that inventor was an unemployed radiator repairman from Germantown, Pennsylvania named Charles Darrow. His original game board was painted onto an oil cloth and the houses and hotels were hand-carved from blocks of wood. In the darkest days of the Great Depression, Darrow built himself a pretend empire, and then made that empire real with the royalties from what is arguably the best selling (licensed) board game of all time.
But that is just folklore.
What seems to have gone unnoticed by all but a handful of legal scholars and pop historians is that Charles Darrow was the point man for an ongoing rip off. You see, he flat out stole the original idea of the game from a woman named Lizzie Magie, who in 1903 set out to give us a concrete lesson in Georgist economic theory.
The Official Version of the Tale
Just like Watergate, just like Chappaquiddick, there is an official version of the history of Monopoly.
And then there’s what actually happened.
You can find the official version, the corporate equivalent of “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” on Hasbro’s website. In Hasbro’s version, Darrow was simply struck by inspiration one day. With the help of his son and an artist friend he hand-painted the oil cloth game board and carved his little wooden houses and hotels and then sent the game to Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers turned him down, citing three major errors (folklore says Parker cited “52 design errors,” but that’s not true). Knocked back on his heels, but not dissuaded, Darrow struck out on his own. He made a bunch of hand-painted games and sold them through a Philadelphia department store.
The games flew off the shelves. Unable to keep up with the demand, he was understandably elated when Parker Brothers came to him begging for a chance to correct their earlier error in judgment. Parker Brothers bought the game and in its first year of production it became the best-selling game in America. According to Hasbro, they have sold nearly 200 million copies of the game worldwide.
Yet, something seems off with that version, doesn’t it? While it is certainly possible that an idea as complicated and as fully realized as Monopoly could pop into an out of work radiator repairman’s head fully formed, it is highly unlikely. Look at our age old classics, games like chess and checkers and backgammon that have been in the public domain for as long as we can remember. The conceptual elements of those games took generations of play to iron out. The same is true of our sports, like baseball and football (look how long it took them to invent the forward pass). So why should it be different with Monopoly, which is arguably far more complicated than all the games I just mentioned? Well, for that you need a little background information.
And that background starts with the search for a utopian way of life.
The Prophet and the Single Tax
Back when I was working my way through graduate school I rented an apartment on San Antonio’s northwest side. Nothing fancy. A one bedroom place with a kitchen and a full bath and a view that looked out over a garbage dumpster. This was back in the early 90s and I think I paid about $375 a month, with an option to renew my lease every six months.
Things went well for about a year and a half. The rent creeped up, but I didn’t notice. I was too busy reading and nurturing my righteous indignation at the injustices and corruption inherent in the “system.”
But then, after about two years or so, I stopped and looked around. I realized that the place was falling apart. The apartments across the street had a significant percentage of public housing, which is a great idea as long you don’t have to live next door. We had shootings and car burglaries and fights and loud parties and police foot chases going through the complex at all hours of the night.
It occurred to me that I was paying more and more and getting less and less. But I was stuck. I couldn’t afford my own home, and I felt like it was to my advantage to live close to the school. That meant apartment living. And that meant paying rent to a landlord.
In short, I had no practical way to escape the cycle of escalating rents and diminishing lifestyle.
Of course, I wasn’t the first person to experience this. Back in the 1860s, as the Industrial Revolution was gearing up, a Philadelphia man named Henry George noticed it too. Born in 1839, George traveled widely, making his way to Australia and even to Calcutta, where he saw the degradation of slum life in its rawest form. With his sensitivities to poverty awakened, he returned to America and worked for a time in California as a journalist, where he wrote powerful pieces on the deplorable treatment of Chinese immigrants and the unethical scams used by the railroad monopolies to seize land for their expansion. It shocked him that the industrial might of the young nation could also generate such miserable poverty and corruption.
He eventually honed his experiences into a cohesive economic theory, which he laid out in his 1879 bestseller, PROGRESS AND POVERTY. Henry George posited that monopolists were to blame for the world’s economic woes. They controlled the scale of production and the nation’s real estate, and therefore set the rules for everybody else. They gave us, the working poor, a sharp stick in the eye and we had no choice but to take it because there was no other game in town. Land ownership was the key. Once they owned the land, they entered into a cycle of generating wealth that excluded everybody who did not own land. A responsible government, one that had ALL its citizens’ best interests at heart, had only one real weapon against this cycle: taxation. And if the government collected that tax from the right place, and spent it in the right places, it could ensure its own economic health. This was a good thing, George said, for everybody.
His answer was simple. Tax the landowners. In fact, taxing the landowners was really the only tax you needed for a healthy economy. From this conclusion, he developed his theory of a single tax. The idea was to tax landowners, spent the revenue wisely, and then redistribute whatever was left over back into the community.
Remember, at the time, very few people owned property. Certainly the percentage was nowhere near what it is today. For that reason, the idea proved to be a popular one, and it took hold in two important directions. The first was of course in the economic philosophy of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, known for its commitment to busting up monopolies, such as those controlled by Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan.
But Henry George’s single tax answer also excited artists and academics, and in 1900 a sculptor named Frank Stephens and an architect named Will Price bought a large Pennsylvania farm and built the town of Arden. The town’s economic model was that of George’s single tax theory, and it proved successful. Soon a wide variety of socialists and bohemians and Georgists joined the town. And the most important member of the town, at least from the standpoint of this story, was Elizabeth J. Magie.
Lizzie, as she liked to be called, had a creative knack for dreaming up games. Her father was an adherent of George’s single tax theory, and he passed this interest on to Lizzie, who, in 1903, shortly before taking up part time residence in Arden, thought it might be fun to create a board game illustrating how the single tax theory works. The old teach ‘em through the backdoor approach to getting your point across is nothing new. The Bible is full of parables used to deliver a metaphorical message. Geoffrey Chaucer used the sugar coated pill in his Canterbury Tales, giving us stories of much sentence and solas. English Literature, in fact, is lousy with the concept. So Lizzie Magie (who in 1910 married Albert Phillips and became Elizabeth Phillips) was participating in a longstanding tradition of playful teaching when she created The Landlord’s Game, and it met with much enthusiasm in Arden’s intellectually-minded populace. (In fact, the original copy of The Landlord’s Game, given to the town by Elizabeth Magie Phillips herself, still exists.)
Based as it was on economic theory, it wasn’t long before the academics living at Arden started using the game in their graduate school courses. The first of Lizzie’s friends to do this was a young professor named Scott Nearing. Nearing appreciated the proto-socialist message in The Landlord’s Game and took it back to the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and introduced it to his students as a way of demonstrating the evils of rent gouging. In so doing he started two trends that would become significant later on in the Monopoly story: making his own game board and spreading the concept around by word of mouth.
He couldn’t buy the game down at his local Walgreens. He had to make his own board. This he did. And so did his students, who took the game with them as they branched off on their own careers in America’s colleges. It wasn’t long before Nearing’s students became teachers in their own right. They introduced the game to their students and their friends, and soon copies of the game were popping up in cities all over the East Coast and the Midwest. It was only natural that these spin offs would incorporate the names of geographic locales familiar to their designers. After all, everyone had to make their own board, so why not personalize it. It became a cottage industry of sorts.
Eventually a man named Charles Todd got hold of the game. In Todd’s version of the game, the names of the properties had been changed by a group of Quakers to the now familiar Atlantic City street names. This version, suggested by a real estate salesman named Jesse Raiford, included the now famous bastardization of Marven Gardens, which was spelled “Marvin Gardens” on Todd’s board (more on that later). One night, Todd and his wife Olive entertained another couple named Charles and Esther Darrow. Charles Darrow fell in love with the game, and the rest is history, as Hasbro says on their official website.
But hand in hand with the game’s word of mouth popularity was the fine tuning of its rules. Remember: not only did you have to draw your own board, come up with your own play money and tokens, but you had to write up your own rules as well. This allowed for the game to grow organically. Rules that made the game smoother, and hence more fun to play, entered into the mix.
In Lizzie Magie’s original version, you had to become the best landlord at the table. You won by rent gouging, which was, ironically, one of the evils the game set out to topple. That did not sit well in an America where the vast majority of the people felt like their landlords were vile, greedy bastards who lived to take food out of their kids’ mouths. As a result, the game’s early aficionados decided it would be more fun to play by forcing all other opponents into bankruptcy. The Quakers who introduced the Atlantic City property names would also do a little tweaking of the rules, and it wasn’t long before the game was ready to enter in Charles Darrow’s life.
The Landlord’s Game
Go get your copy of Monopoly from the closet.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Okay, got it?
Look at the board. See how it’s designed for continuous play? You go around and around the board as many times as it takes to bankrupt your opponents. We’re all used to seeing this now, but in 1903, when Lizzie created The Landlord’s Game, this was unique. Prior to this, most board games utilized a playing field with a defined beginning point and ending point, like you find on Candyland, for example.
Now look at the four corners. In Monopoly, they read “Go,” “In Jail/Just Visiting,” “Free Parking,” and “Go to Jail,” respectively. In The Landlord’s Game, they read “Mother Earth” in place of “Go,” “Absolute Necessity/Jail” in place of “In Jail/Just Visiting,” “Public Park” in place of “Free Parking,” and “No Trespassing/Go to Jail” in place of “Go to Jail.” According to Elizabeth Magie, “Each time a player goes around the board he is supposed to have performed so much labor upon Mother Earth, for which after passing the beginning-point he receives his wages, one hundred dollars, and is checked upon the tally-sheet as having been around once.” Sounds an awful lot like “Pass Go – Collect $200,” doesn’t it?
Wait, there’s more.
The Landlord’s Game also included individual properties, utilities, and railroads. Accessories included property titles (which were distinguishable by denomination, type, and color), play money, dice, tally sheets, mortgages, a bank, and instead of Monopoly’s Chance and Community Chest cards, Luxury and Legacy cards.
The game ended after five circuits of the board. Whoever had the most assets won and, if Lizzie’s friends were anything like mine when I was growing up, was declared Master of the Universe.
I could go on indefinitely, but I think you get the idea. The Landlord’s Game and Monopoly…extremely similar. Almost identical, in fact. Though very few people today have ever played The Landlord’s Game, you could jump right into it. All you’d need is a passing familiarity with Monopoly.
Someone out there is yelling, “But hold on a minute. From what you’ve said here, Charles Darrow never met Lizzie Phillips. How could he have known he was stealing from her?”
Good point. You might also wonder why, if Lizzie was so smart, she didn’t get a patent on her board game. Surely that would have sealed the deal here, right?
Unfortunately for Lizzie, no.
You see, she did get a patent on The Landlord’s Game. Trained as a stenographer and no slouch in the brains department, Lizzie designed – and patented – a mechanism to auto-return the carriage on a typewriter. She understood the process. It was old hat for her. As a result, in 1903, she applied for, and received, a patent for The Landlord’s Game. Aware of the game’s word of mouth success, and also of many of the modified rules to her original game, Elizabeth Magie Phillips reapplied for – and was granted – a patent in 1924.
During the intervening years, she twice contacted Charles Parker of Parker Brothers and offered her game for publication. Parker was put off by the games complexity and its obvious political connotations (Georgist theories had fallen out of favor by then), and politely told her thanks, but no thanks.
So this is where the plot takes a sinister turn.
The year was 1934. Charles Darrow lifted his game right out of the hands of his friend Charles Todd, called it Monopoly, and tried to sell it to Charles Parker. (And yes, there are a lot of guys named Charles in this story.) Parker turned him down. Darrow decided to go for broke, had 500 copies of his plagiarized board game made up, and managed to get it into a major Philadelphia department store in time for the Christmas rush.
It was a hit. Charles Parker heard about it (again, Monopoly has word of mouth to thank for its success), and went to Philadelphia to make an offer and eat a big heaping helping of humble pie. The offer was made, Darrow accepted, and the rest, as Hasbro says, is history.
Well, not quite. You see, on February 1, 1937, Time Magazine ran an article crediting Charles Darrow as the single-handed genius behind Monopoly. Fans of The Landlord’s Game wrote in to dispute the article. And of course, a few of the homemade versions of the game went to market. One of these was a game called Finance, which was designed and sold by a man named Daniel Layman. Layman, a former frat boy from Indianapolis, had played the game back in college with his friends, and even considered marketing the game as Darrow had done. His choices for a name for the game included Finance, Business, or Monopoly. Finance won out. It was a thoroughly non-political version of The Landlord’s Game, complete with Community Chest cards.
When Parker Brothers got word of Finance, they approached Charles Darrow and said, “Hey, what the hell?”
Darrow sheepishly admitted that, well, maybe, you know, I didn’t actually totally all by myself invent Monopoly. I may have, uh, you know, gotten the idea from some other folks.
Can you say BUSTED?
Charles Parker – and his son-in-law, Robert Barton and the new president of Parker Brothers – was furious. And then he remembered Elizabeth Magie Phillips – who had not once, but twice, tried to sell him The Landlord’s Game – and he thought, Oh my good Lord, I’m in it deep now.
The honorable thing would have been to admit what happened and throw Charles Darrow under the bus of public opinion.
Well, Barton did go to Lizzie, but he negotiated a chicken feed deal with her and absorbed her product. He did the same to the other games, such as Finance, that had claims to Monopoly’s throne. Before long, Monopoly’s less successful older brothers were swept under the rug.
Monopoly, as it were, had a monopoly on the game business.
Not So Peaceful Seas
By the 1950s Parker Brothers figured all its Monopoly woes were in the past – a thoroughly buried past. Monopoly games had been used by the US Military as a means to smuggle in maps and real money to POWs in German war camps, giving the game some incredibly good press with returning soldiers and their families. The game was as much a part of our culture as Mom and apple pie. Several generations of Americans had grown up on the game, and for them, it was never anything more than good clean fun. They weren’t bothered by any sort of political subtext, socialist or Georgist or whatever. It was just Monopoly. Everybody loves Monopoly, right?
But things have a way of coming full circle, and for Monopoly – and Parker Brothers – that meant trouble.
In the late 1960s, yet another economics professor – this time Ralph Anspach of the University of California – started feeling uncomfortable with the economic lessons Monopoly was teaching its players. His concerns, ironically enough, led him to many of the same conclusions Elizabeth Magie Phillips had reached many years before.
And just like Lizzie, he sought to teach his concerns with a game.
He called it Anti-Monopoly, and after dumping a bunch of his own money – and that of several private investors – into the project, he struck pay dirt. The game took off, and though he didn’t set the world on fire with his sales, he did okay.
Okay enough for the folks at General Mills (Parker Brothers’ parent company) to come knocking with a trademark infringement suit.
Anspach knew his back was against the wall. His choices were to fight the giant or lose everything, and so he went to court. Some good research turned up the well documented, albeit well-buried, history of Monopoly, and the things Anspach learned about the game’s history led him to the realization that his best chance for victory lay in challenging the Monopoly trademark.
When Anspach took his case to court, he put as many of the early figures in the game’s history as he could on the stand. The story came out…in all its shady undertones. Especially damning was Charles Todd’s testimony, as he had never fully recovered from the sting of being used so shamelessly by Charles Darrow.
The matter went up and down the appeals process twice before the parties finally settled out of court. Neither party could claim a complete and utter victory, but the full story did come out. To paraphrase Louis Brandeis, Monopoly’s shady past was dragged into the sunlight of courtroom examination, and its wounds were disinfected.
For me, the symmetry is perfect. Economics professors spread the original Landlord’s Game, making Monopoly possible. And then, seventy years later, an economics professor forced Monopoly to recognize its debt to The Landlord’s Game. You have to go to Hollywood – usually – to get that kind of story.
Marvin Gardens: An Afterward
Some towns begin as a matter of necessity. They grow from outposts on the frontier, or watering holes along the trail, or convenient stops along the rail line, into places where people get married and have babies and live out their lives.
But some towns get started as expressions of pure will, and Atlantic City was one of those places. It was born in the mind of a modern day Ulysses named Richard Osborne, who was already famous for putting Chicago on the map and peppering the Mississippi River with well-engineered towns. In the summer of 1852 Osborne approached a group of investors and revealed his plan to build a city on the sandy dunes of the Jersey shore. His partner, Jonathan Pitney, had already engineered the character of the town by naming its streets after the states in the Union and the oceans and seas of the world. Osborne’s investors bought into the idea, and the Atlantic seaboard’s favorite playground was borne.
Unfortunately, Atlantic City was tied in to a declining technology. You see, the big reason Osborne was successful with his pitch was because he had the knowledge and the connections to bring the railroads to Atlantic City. It worked with Chicago, and it worked here. But when air travel and the automobile came along, all that changed. The wealthy tourists of the east suddenly had the option to take their vacations in more distant, and exotic, locations.
And this they did.
Atlantic City fell on hard times, so that by 1972, when John McPhee wrote his article, “In Search of Marvin Gardens,” Atlantic City looked more like Jeremiah’s vision of the apocalypse than a glorious playground for the rich. The fortunes of Atlantic City, it seemed, had run a metaphorical parallel to those of Elizabeth Magie Phillips’ original Landlord’s Game.
In 1976, the citizens of New Jersey voted in legalized gambling, and when the hotels of Atlantic City’s past converted themselves to casinos, a new Atlantic City was born. These days, tourism has returned. Once again you can find opulent luxury and walk the Boardwalk of old. Unfortunately, the streets just outside the casinos still resemble something out of the apocalypse, underscoring the problem of disparate wealth and poverty that Elizabeth Magie Phillips set out to right with her Landlord’s Game. Lizzie, it seems, was the real prophet.
But once again I hear somebody in the back yelling, “What about Marvin Gardens? You promised us, remember?”
Yes, I remember.
Okay, go back to your Monopoly board. Look at the property names there. Every single one is matched by a real street, a real railroad, a real utility, on the Rand McNally map of Atlantic City.
All but Marvin Gardens.
It’s not there, and not just because of a typo that Charles Darrow made famous when he plagiarized his original board. You see, Marvin Gardens, or, more properly Marven Gardens, is actually a suburb of Atlantic City that derives its name from two neighboring towns, Margate and Ventnor.
While the rest of Atlantic City was collapsing into apocalyptic poverty, Marven Gardens did quite well. John McPhee describes it as something of a middle class paradise, “set on curvilinear private streets under yews and cedars, poplars and willows,” the houses themselves built of “stucco, brick, and wood, with slate roofs, tile roofs, multi-mullioned porches, Giraldic towers, and Spanish grilles.” It has traditionally maintained its own police force, its own streets, its own standards of the good life.
And therein is the rub. You see, the area is something of an abstraction from the rest of the city…just as Marvin Gardens is to the game board. It seems somehow fitting that it should remain the most visible, and yet the most intangible, proof of Charles Darrow’s theft.
Monopoly is a passion for a great many people, and so is its history. The story is hugely vast, comprising more than a century of history, legal wrangling, and biography. I have given only the most cursory account of it here. To do the full scope of the story justice would take a book length manuscript…and fortunately, more than a few people have done so.
I encourage you to look to these sources, and others, for more information.
Anspach, Ralph. Monopolygate, 2nd Ed. Xlibris Corporation. 2007.
McPhee, John. “The Search for Marvin Gardens.” First published in The New Yorker, 1972. Reprinted in Pieces of the Frame, 1975.
Orbanes, Philip E. Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game & How it Got that Way. De Capo Press. 2006.