Monopoly: The World's Most Famous Game and How It Got That Way
Philip E. Orbanes
Da Capo Press / 262 pages / $26
It is hard to imagine anyone more qualified to write about Monopoly than the author of this book. A former senior executive at its manufacturer, Parker Bros., Philip E. Orbanes is also a historical consultant on board games to its corporate parent, Hasbro; in addition, he has judged the U.S. and world Monopoly championships.
He appears to know almost everything about the game, and he brings to this book a huge enthusiasm for Monopoly and seemingly everything connected with it: "Think about it: Monopoly provides a common bond with people in countries you have never visited, perhaps never will. If four strangers from any of 80 nations could be teleported into your living room, the sight of your Monopoly set would brighten their eyes. This they would recognize."
Those who are indeed fascinated by Monopoly will likely adore this book. Trivia buffs will find lots of material for future parlor games. Once something is an institution, it certainly is fair game for this kind of iconography.
"There is more to Monopoly than making, selling, or playing it," Orbanes writes. "Studying this activity also fascinates many. Growing numbers of Monopoly historians and collectors are found everywhere in the world and the Internet is their forum. Like any good pastime, this one does not require the investment of a lot of money or time. But like any passion, it is capable of monopolizing all your free time (and cash) in its pursuit."
But Orbanes goes a bit too far when he trots out such statements as: "In the 21st century, Monopoly will continue to inspire and influence millions as an ambassador of success endorsed by millions. Monopoly can inspire hope in anyone who plays it. For many, Monopoly is the first economic teacher suggesting that a richer life is available if one is willing to reach for it."
Giving the game its due is one thing, but this kind of boosterism grates a bit. There are many strong forces in our society that reinforce capitalism and enterprise; indeed the whole world is close to being all capitalist, all the time.
Can we really buy into the notion that the Monopoly board is the place where kids learn to play the game of life? Is this really how a Donald Trump gets started?
While Orbanes is not at his best when promoting the future of Monopoly, he can be fascinating when he delves into the game's past. He identifies an early 20th century pastime called the Landlord's Game as its progenitor and is adept at linking the evolution of the one game to the other with historical events.
Monopoly and the Great Depression are not things that most people would associate, but of course the game is yet another enduring institution that arose out of that national crisis, along with federal insurance for bank deposits and price supports for agricultural products.
It is interesting to learn that Rexford G. Tugwell, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Brain Trusters, had used that Landlord's Game in his economics classes at Columbia University to illustrate booms turning to busts. And you have to admire the scope of an author who not only relates the history of Monopoly to the largely forgotten radical tax reformer Henry George but then goes on to show that he and British Chancellor of the Exchequer (and later Prime Minister) David Lloyd George were linked by much more than their last names, in fact by a rather similar approach to taxing land.
He begins the book with an amusing glimpse of Atlantic City, itself made iconic by this game being set there, and continues to thread that metropolis through his narrative. We learn about the many foreign versions of the game, most set in their nations' capitals, except for the British dominions, which continue to use their empire's capital, London, instead of their own.
Perhaps the weakest sections are those describing in considerable detail the championship tournaments. Orbanes may find them of surpassing interest, but few readers will, I suspect, find this fascinating reading. Monopoly made its mark on the world, all right, and perhaps that needed to be illuminated. Whether it had to be explored in quite this much detail remains more doubtful.
Martin Rubin is a critic and the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life." He wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.