The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game

by Mary Pilon

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608199631
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/17/2015
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 489,874
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Mary Pilon is an award-winning staff reporter at The New York Times where she currently covers sports. She previously worked at The Wall Street Journal, where she wrote about various aspects of economics and the financial crisis. She has worked at Gawker, USA Today, and New York Magazine and is an honors graduate of New York University. Her work has garnered awards from the Freedom Forum, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers and she was part of the Journal’s team that won Gerald Loeb and New York Press Club Awards in 2011 for covering the “Flash Crash” of 2010. She made the Forbes magazine's first-ever 30 Under 30 list for media. A native Oregonian, she currently lives in New York City. Visit her web site at marypilon.com and find her on Twitter @marypilon.

Read an Excerpt

The Monopolists


By Mary Pilon

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Copyright © 2015 Mary Pilon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60819-963-1


CHAPTER 1

THE PROFESSOR AND THE TRUST-BUSTING GAME

"The courtiers were shown the board, and after a day and a night in deep thought one of them, Buzurjmihr, solved the mystery and was richly rewarded by his delighted sovereign."

—Karnamak-I-Artakh Shatr-i-Papakan, about 600 A.D.


One day during the depths of the Great Depression, an unemployed salesman named Charles Darrow retreated to his basement. He had no money, no prospects, and a wife and children he was desperately trying to support.

Sitting in his dank basement, Darrow suddenly had an inspiration. Pulling out a piece of oilcloth, he began to draw a board game featuring Atlantic City streets and properties. If he couldn't support his family, he could at least entertain them, with a game that would bring back memories of the better days they'd spent vacationing together on the New Jersey shore.

Working quickly, Darrow finished his game and introduced it to his family. Immediately, they became addicted. They loved buying the pieces of the game board and miniature houses with the paper money he'd created and moving their tokens around the board to the sound of the roll of the dice.

Darrow decided to try to market his game. He sent his invention to game giants Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. Both turned it down. But Darrow persevered, and largely through word of mouth the game began to sell. Parker Brothers, now on the verge of economic collapse, reconsidered and bought Darrow's "monopoly game." It became a thunderous success and rescued both Parker Brothers and Darrow from destruction.

In the mid-1950s and for decades after, Parker Brothers tucked this compelling tale of the game's creation into every Monopoly box it sold.

There was only one problem: The story wasn't exactly true.


* * *

Ralph Anspach, professor of economics at San Francisco State University, slammed his car door shut. Finally he was home. It had been another excruciating commute from his classroom in San Francisco to where he lived with his family in Berkeley.

He stomped up the steps of his ramshackle yet oddly majestic Victorian house, mumbling under his breath. The rush hour traffic between San Francisco and Berkeley had always been bad, but now he and the other commuters had to contend with mile-long stretches of cars backed up at exits, in search of gas. It was 1973, and a national oil crisis had begun. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), led by its Arab members, had jacked up the prices of world oil, putting an end to decades of cheap energy. U.S. government price controls had gone into effect, along with rationing systems. On certain days, gas sales were limited to those with license plates ending in odd numbers; on other days, to those with plates ending in even numbers. Ralph kicked at the floorboard. This is what happens when a monopoly has control, he thought.

A disheveled-looking man in his mid-forties, Ralph had piercing blue eyes and stood about five feet nine inches tall. The son of a Jewish banker and a homemaker, he had been born in 1926 in the free German ministate of Danzig, under Polish administrative governance but also under the shadow of Adolf Hitler's rising Nazi state. Growing up, Ralph had become accustomed to anti-Semitic slogans, taunts from children, and dodging into alleyways to avoid potential conflict. Fortunately, though, he and his family had left Danzig in 1938 to settle in New York City, where Ralph attended school, worked odd jobs to help his family make ends meet, and became a U.S. citizen. After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Army and was stationed in the Philippines during World War II.

In 1948, Ralph took part in the Arab-Israeli War. He traveled to the region under the guise of doing farmwork, but in actuality took up arms for the Israelis—ignoring the fact that the United States, under a neut- rality act, had forbidden its citizens from participating. Ralph was not one to sit passively by while others acted.

Pulling open his front door, Ralph called out a hello to his wife, Ruth, and his two sons—Mark, age twelve, and William, age seven. He was looking forward to eating a simple dinner with his family and perhaps playing a board game with them afterward.

Ralph had met Ruth, the daughter of famed economist Leo Rogin, when they were both students at Berkeley. She had been studying for her undergraduate degree, and he had been a Ph.D. hopeful. Ruth was petite, smart, and as interested in social and political causes as he was. Together, the two had marched against the Vietnam War and with Women for Peace. Ruth was one of the founders of the organization's Berkeley chapter and had overseen countless meetings and phone trees. Years later, in 1988, Ralph would learn that he was among those whose political involvement at that time had come to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which had begun examining, among other things, his "loyalty" and monitoring his whereabouts.

That evening after dinner, Ralph's sons suggested playing Monopoly and eagerly pulled the familiar long white box out of the closet. As smart and feisty as their parents, the boys were more politically aware than most children their age and were precocious Monopoly players. They loved everything about the game—its iconic Atlantic City properties, its tiny homes, its play money, its idiosyncratic tokens. The object of the game was to bankrupt all opponents and be the last person standing by acquiring real estate and charging rent. As players made their way around the board, they acquired or negotiated trades for properties. Then, they tried to get all of a like color grouping and build houses and hotels on their monopolies to jack up the rent, thus clearing out the coffers of their rivals. As the boys set up the board and counted out the money, Ralph recalled playing his first game of Monopoly in Czechoslovakia in 1937. His big brother Gerry had summoned him to the game, which at that time he had understood to have only been around for a few years.

Monopoly had given Ralph one of his first glimpses of America—then still a far-off land that lived only in atlases and on globes, light-years removed from grim Europe.

An evening filled with much laughter, shouting, and cutthroat deal-making ensued. Happily, Ralph, Ruth, Mark, and William maneuvered their metal trinkets around the board, past run-down Baltic Avenue, busy St. Charles Place, and elite Boardwalk. They passed Go, they collected two hundred dollars, they went straight to Jail, they drew Chance and Community Chest cards. William, the younger of the two Anspach boys, won the game.

Little did Ralph know that this particular evening, as ordinary as it was, was about to change his life.


* * *

The next morning, as Ruth prepared breakfast, Ralph grumbled over the headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle—more bad news about the oil crisis. With his boys beside him, absorbing his every word, he began a diatribe against the OPEC oil cartel and the evils of monopolies. Price wars were good, he ranted, because they brought down prices, but when one company or organization gained a monopoly over a product, consumers suffered.

Getting warmed up, Ralph then railed against the economic culture that had fostered the current oil crisis—it was a far cry from the anti-monopoly climate that had existed in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, he said. Back then, "trust-busting," or the breaking up of large monopolies and trusts, had been part of the national political discourse, and strong anti-monopoly laws had been put into effect. The laws had come in the wake of John D. Rockefeller's and Andrew Carnegie's strongholds on the oil and steel industries, respectively, which had raised prices sky-high and, critics said, destroyed many small businessmen and seriously undermined America's standard of living.

Suddenly, William interrupted his father. He had just won a game of Monopoly the night before, he reminded him. It had been a lot of fun. So how could monopolies be so bad? Had he done something wrong by winning the game?

Ralph pondered his son's query. Impressed, he admitted that he had a good point. The board game rewarded something in play that hurt people in reality. Making money wasn't a crime, but he felt that monopolizing a product or industry and crushing one's opponents was. Ralph continued to think about what his son had said during his long morning commute to San Francisco.


* * *

At San Francisco State, Ralph was well-known among the students for his wrinkled corduroy jackets with leather patches at their elbows, his hair that looked "as if it was combed with a fork," his regular presence at political protests, and his large Economics 101 lecture classes. His office was an ocean of papers, his handwriting a cryptic scrawl.

The seventies were in full throttle: Drugs were flowing, free love was abounding, and tensions were running high between the more radical students at the university and the starchier members of the school's administration. In one recent incident, a graduate student had ditched his customary suit and tie and come to class in all-out drag—fishnets, a wide-brimmed hat, a shoulder-exposing dress, and a fur coat—to get people to reevaluate their ways of thinking, he said.

It was into this kaleidoscope that Ralph was trying to inject his views on Adam Smith, the man widely recognized as the George Washington of economics. In a graduate seminar, Ralph taught Smith's 1759 work The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which Smith argues that people are motivated by self-interest, but also like to do well by others if the circumstances are right. One example that Ralph offered: In a family or other small group, altruism prevails, but the farther away a person gets from an individual, the less altruistic he or she behaves toward them. It was in Moral Sentiments that Smith introduced his famous "invisible hand" metaphor to describe self-regulating behavior. Ralph's students also learned about how self-interested companies like to squash their competition by fixing prices to gain control of an industry in order to increase profits. Ralph's punch line: Competitive capitalism is the best economic system in the world, but it is constantly being undermined by greedy monopolists. Since Adam Smith had also argued against monopolists, his theories couldn't have been more relevant to what was happening in the 1970s, at least as far as Ralph was concerned.

When his seminar met on the morning of his son's query regarding Monopoly, his mind kept drifting back to the game. Was there any way he could use it to illustrate his anti-monopoly argument, despite the game's emphasis on stomping out competition? Or, better yet, was there another, more philosophically pleasing version of the game that he could use? Over the next few days, he called a few toy stores to find out but came up empty-handed.

Shortly thereafter, while discussing Adam Smith in one of his classes, Ralph mentioned that much to his dismay, one of the world's most popular board games gave people a warm and fuzzy feeling toward the word "monopoly" because it reminded them of having played the game in their childhood. A better capitalist board game, Ralph said, would be one in which players competed against each other to produce better-quality, lower-priced goods while government regulated or abolished monopolies. In short, the game would teach the opposite of what the Parker Brothers game taught.

Then it hit him. He could create an anti-monopoly game of his own.


* * *

With the help of his sons, Ralph soon set about doing just that. Mark drew the cards, and Ralph created the play money by copying the Japanese occupation currency he had acquired in the 1940s. Around the perimeter of the game board he drew spaces that represented metal, steel, oil, tire, and railroad companies. The object of the game was to break the conglomerates apart, and each player was a "trust buster." Players earned points both by breaking up monopolies and by doing other good deeds. The winner was the one with the highest score.

When a player landed on a space on the Anti-Monopoly board, she or he could serve the monopoly with an indictment. The more indictments served, the more points earned. Players purchased indictment chips and brought cases against companies with spoofed corporate names: Egson Oil, Fort Auto, and Nazareth Steel. The game also featured mailbox cards, which were miniature letters sent from the anti-trust division of the Justice Department. Instead of having a banker, as in Monopoly, the game had a budget director.

Ever the professor, Ralph couldn't refrain from including some of his economic beliefs in the game's rule book: "Monopolism is good for the monopolies. It is bad for the great majority of businesses, and even worse for the economy as a whole" was but one example. His was probably also the only board game rule book to invoke the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 (a landmark act that outlawed certain anti-competition activities and allowed the government to investigate trusts), the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 (which established the Federal Trade Commission and allowed the government to issue "cease and desist" orders to halt monopolistic trade), and the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 (an expansion of the Sherman Act).

At first, Ralph called his creation Bust-the-Trust—the Anti-Monopoly Game. But friends and family who played the game found the name confusing. The term "trust-busting" had been popularized by Theodore Roosevelt in the 1890s, but by the 1970s, most people didn't know what it meant.

To find a name that would be more widely understood, Ralph decided to do some market research in one of his classes at San Francisco State.

"How many of you know what antitrust is?" he asked his class of thirty students, most of them juniors and seniors who were not majoring in economics.

Three students raised their hands.

"How many of you understand, or have some idea of, what 'anti-monopoly' would mean?" he asked.

Eighteen people raised their hands.

That settled it: Ralph would call his game Anti-Monopoly. But before publicly doing so, he checked in with two trademark lawyers. Both told him the same thing: According to previous ruling, a product name starting with the prefix "anti" was not easily confusable with something that was its opposite. This did not guarantee that Ralph would not be sued, but he reasoned that legal precedent was on his side.

Now Ralph needed to find a company to produce the game—not an easy task given how overtly political and academic it was. He didn't bother submitting it to Parker Brothers, as he thought they weren't likely to support Monopoly's antithesis. Instead, he fired off his pitch to a variety of small and midsize game companies.

Rejection after rejection arrived in the mail.

Ralph then turned to Simons Inventions, a company that paired game inventors with buyers. Ralph paid Simons a thousand dollars up front, only to have his game pitched to almost the exact same list of companies he had already tried. His one thousand dollars vanished into thin air.

With little hope of a major backer, Ralph felt that he had no choice. He decided to try to manufacture the game on his own.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1973, headlines about OPEC and the worsening oil crisis continued to be plastered across the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, and there was talk of further gas rationing, carpooling, and the dimming of Christmas lights. The speed limit in parts of California was reduced from 70 to 65 miles per hour, and then to 50 miles per hour. Airlines eliminated and consolidated flights and reduced cruising speeds. Consumers began to prefer small cars over gas-guzzlers, a sharp reversal from earlier patterns of behavior. The San Francisco Ferry Building went dark for the first time since World War II.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Monopolists by Mary Pilon. Copyright © 2015 Mary Pilon. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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