The Last Player in The Game Wins


So!! Once upon a time there was a very determined man and there were a lot of odds against him, but he just couldn’t be held back by “The Man,” and he pulled himself up by those bootstraps we’re always hearing so much about, and he figured out a totally honest and admirable way to make himself rich and provide a service that people really, truly wanted, and everything was great and cool forever and ever. That is the story of a book I would never want to read. But, I mean, nobody really needs to write that kind of book anymore; we all know that story like the back of our capitalist hands.

In 2009, Mary Pilon was writing for The Wall Street Journal and wanted to include a line about how we all know the story of Monopoly — the classic origin tale of Charles Darrow, an unemployed and broke man who sold his board game to Parker Brothers during the Great Depression, just the kind of uplifting rags-to-riches story people love to hear. Like so many other stories that fit into archetypal narratives, it was total bullshit.

Charles Darrow was, perhaps, the last person to create the game Monopoly as we know it, but the game had been invented by a woman named Lizzie Magie in the early 1900s. Magie was a writer, an inventor, and an outspoken feminist, and she invented something she called “The Landlord’s Game” and patented it in 1904. Her version included both a “monopolist” set of rules and an “anti-monopolist” set of rules, and it became kind of fashionable with certain prominent public figures like Upton Sinclair.

People made their own boards with their own set of rules and started casually referring to the game as “the monopoly game,” like the Quaker community of Atlantic City, who created a board to reflect their neighborhoods. One such Quaker invited Charles Darrow and his wife over to play their board, and, I mean, I’m sure you can see where this is going: Darrow copied their board, sent it to Parker Brothers, complete with a perfectly packaged revisionist mythology that just so happened to suit the values, aspirations, and beliefs of American society at that time.

Magie’s story might have been lost if it hadn’t been for Ralph Anspach, an economics professor who tried to make his own version of the game called “Anti-Monopoly.” His goal was to have a “better” capitalist board game, one that encouraged players to produce better goods as governments destroyed existing monopolies. Parker Brothers sued for an unauthorized use of the brand name that they owned, but as Anspach and his lawyer quickly found out, it wasn’t even their brand name to begin with. What happened after that? You’ll just have to read The Monopolists, in stores today, to find out!!!

Mary and I spoke about the five years she spent writing this book, the importance of telling Lizze Magie’s story, and — whoops — how much I hate Monopoly.

I hate Monopoly. I hate the game. I remember as a child thinking it was so boring. It seems like a game that provokes very strong feelings; you either love it or hate it. Did you have any strong feelings about it before you started the project?

I loved Monopoly. I loved games and puzzles. My family always played. I loved video games, board games, I’ve been a huge geek for them. And I love Monopoly because I have, like a lot of people, all these fond associations of playing it with my family. But I think from a technical perspective, people criticize it and that’s fair, but the thing is that the game is really old. To criticize Monopoly for not being technically a good game is like criticizing a Model-T for not being a very good car. Like, it served its purpose! It’s a historical thing and I think a lot of games that came after Monopoly owe Monopoly that. When you teach people games it’s often useful to say, oh, it’s just like Monopoly. Or it’s not like Monopoly. I defend it in terms of the history, what it’s meant and how iconic it is and how beloved it is, but I also think I’m a realist about it. I’m not obsessed with it. I don’t think it’s the greatest game of all time.

I was trying to figure out as I was reading the book what keeps us so interested in Monopoly, even as just a concept, more so than playing it, maybe…it’s something about the stakes, I think? It feels like you’re playing at something that really matters.

I think that is part of it, yeah. One of the things I talk about in the book a little bit is this idea of why we play games at all. Any games. Including Monopoly. And it’s the role-playing, the context. For example, I was the youngest in my family, and this was an arena in which I could maybe compete with my older brothers and my parents. With Monopoly…what’s more fun than playing with money? Or real estate? Or doing things that so many people don’t do in real life? It is kind of the fantasy aspect. It’s powerful for people and they’re often not very conscious of that.

There’s a quotation from Calvin Trillin’s story about Monopoly in The New Yorker, about how we love the Monopoly origin story because it is a “nice, clean, well-structured example of the Eureka School of American industrial legend.” That reminded me of when you first told me how you discovered this story, how you had your own “Eureka!” moment.

Right. This all came about when I was on staff at The Wall Street Journal, I started there in 2008. In 2009 I was reporting a lot on the economy, and I was trying to report a totally different story, and I thought I would have a throwaway line about, “Well, everyone knows Monopoly was invented during the Great Depression.” Because that was the story I, like everyone else, had heard. I was looking around and I was so frustrated because when I looked for [the story] it wasn’t adding up. I heard about Ralph’s lawsuit for Anti-Monopoly and he had beeen engaged in this huge legal battle with Parker Brothers and I thought it was so strange.

I contacted him, kind of on a whim, not knowing if he was going to respond, not knowing if he was even going to know anything or remember anything, and he wrote back to me and he said, “Oh yes! I know all about the history of Monopoly!” And we just started talking and talking and I just thought, this is insane. Not only was his lawsuit crazy, and the ins and outs of that which are now the book, but also the idea that this game had a whole other life for thirty years, way before Parker Brothers, and included a woman who I knew nothing about but wanted to know more about. So there were all these threads that even after closing my original story I was just very curious about. Not just as someone who loves games but as a journalist, as a reporter, as someone who loves history. There are lot of things like Monopoly that are just…out in the world. And you don’t really think about where they come from or their origin story. I certainly had never thought about the Monopoly story and I never thought about questioning it. You kind of get in these rabbit holes as a journalist where you keep digging and digging, and soon it became clear to me that this was a story that needed to be told. There have been pieces about it, like Ralph’s trial unlocked all these critical documents, and he participated in an ungodly number of interviews, and I asked him constantly about his archives and kind of reported him out, but it needed somebody to stitch it all together. Like it was a quilt and there were pieces everywhere. So that was really rewarding, to be able to piece it together, not just what the true story actually was, but how it came to be. As a journalist you often are the one doing the discovery, but in this case there was Ralph, who was on this crusade. And figuring out what drove him, what it took for him to unearth this story, also became a huge part of the story. When I went into it I didn’t know what I was going to come out with, but I’m pleased with that part of it. It is a David versus Goliath story.

I really liked in the acknowledgements, actually, your paragraph about everything you went through while you were writing this. Because it took five years! You talk about, you know, five apartments, four laptops, two jobs…you were woken up by law enforcement…

Oh yeah, I used to fall asleep in the New York Public Library all the time. That’s what that’s a reference to. And libraries, if you do historical research…this work was very different than the work I did as a journalist, because as a journalist, if you get stuck on a story you call more sources and it’s happening in real time, more or less. The timeline is so much shorter. This project…most of the people were dead. You’re searching in the stacks. It’s a lot more solitary than going to talk to people or going to an event. I happen to love libraries, but you spend a lot of time there, and coffee only gets you so far. They’re very quiet and very relaxing…I fell asleep there. Not voluntarily. That was a common pattern, unfortunately.

I was curious about what kept you going throughout this project, because you’re right, coffee only gets you so far. It has to be because you are so committed to the story. What was it that got to you so early on and made you commit to seeing this through to the end?

I think there’s a few things. One, you start poking around somewhere and you think, why hasn’t anybody done this? And then you think, oh, I’m the person who should be doing this. This story and I have crossed paths for a reason. I’m the person who is interested in business and history, I can travel and get the documents, I’m supposed to be doing this. And then once that sets in, I thought oh, this is Lizzie’s story, and I felt like nobody else was going to tell this woman’s story anytime soon. This has been sitting around for a really long time and it’s a story that really deserves to be told. This is a woman whose story has been lost. And Ralph’s story, too, was something that I didn’t think people were familiar with. To me, this story was about people. It was about people who lived a real thing and I felt very connected to that. Once you understand what your purpose is and what their story says about the legal system and capitalism and innovation and how that works, then it becomes a little more encouraging.

I heard a writer on NPR say, and I’m paraphrasing, that you won’t see her doing a Stalin or Hitler book because you need to wake up with it everyday. And she woke up with the Roosevelts every day. She woke up with Lincoln every day. And when I heard her say that I was like, oh my gosh, I’ve been waking up with Monopoly every day. I’ve been waking up with Lizzie and Ralph and the Parkers starting their firm. You have to be a little obsessed but also a little happy to see these people. I mean, Ralph is a real person who I dealt with quite a bit, but I never met Lizzie Magie. She died long before I was born. But she was a person who took breaths on this planet. And you don’t want to dehumanize it too much.

The other thing — when I was writing this book I was doing a lot of marathons…everyone has their different tactic, but mine is that I can’t think about running 26.2 miles. I can’t wrap my head around it. But I can think about mile one to two. And mile two to three. And mile three to four. And I think the book process I had to break down like that too. I couldn’t think about writing a book. You feel like it’s never going to end. But I could think about getting through these depositions this weekend. Or I could think about fact-checking these three pages. Or making these three phone calls. Breaking things down like that really helped me psychologically.

I don’t think people realize just how difficult books are. That sounds like a dumb thing. But the thing is that everyone asks you about it, nonstop, for five years. And sometimes if you’re feeling really great, you’re like oh, it’s going so well, and then some days you’re like oh, this just doesn’t work, it’s terrible, it’s never going to end, I can’t figure out how these pieces fit together, and you still have to be stoic even when you have all these rampant creative insecurities that plague most writers. The psychology of it…I just really had to focus on getting it done and keeping my nose down to the laptop. It is almost surreal that it’s happening now. I feel like it was an icon on my desktop that I stared at for so long. And now it’s like oh, people are buying it! They’re going to have it on their shelves! It’s going to be in a bookstore!

Right. That’s like the quotation you have at the very beginning of the book, from the rules of Monopoly: “The last player left in the game wins.” What’s the significance of that quote to you? Is it that, like writing a book, it’s about who is in it for the long haul?

That was the working title of the book for a long time. And it came from the game rules. From the very beginning I thought this story had a lot of levels to it. There’s the level of the game, the level of irony involved, right, that it started as a teaching tool and ended up as something else. I purposely put that up front to make it a little ambiguous. I wanted readers to think about it. I really mean that! I really wanted people to think about what is the moral of the game. Monopoly, today, teaches you some things that aren’t necessarily good. Right? It’s not how things in real life work. But Lizzie’s original game, what she was trying to say, was something very different.

What I hope people take away from this is that people made the game their own. And a lot of games are what we project on to them. So, for me, Monopoly means one thing because I played it with my family. And for some people it means something different because they played with their friends in college. There’s the Darrow thread, the one about how the decisions we make influence other people, but there’s also the question of how things evolve and where they come from. If people finish the book and start questioning all these other things, if it inspires any kind of curiosity, whether it’s about something as silly as a board game or something more profound, that’s a good thing. I think I really want to inspire curiosity. I mean, this was something I totally didn’t think about. The end process of what I thought was going to be a quick easy story in 2009 is like a wildly different thing. I had no idea.

I was reading it I was thinking a lot about how the people in the book are such
characters. Like, of course they’re real people, but it really does read almost like a film. Especially these very distinct parallels between Lizzie and Ralph and Darrow. It seemed like so many people in the book came from poverty, and for some people that really strengthened their anti-capitalist views and for others it just enforced their pro-capitalist views. What do you think is the difference between those two personalities? What makes one person go one way with Monopoly and another go the opposite way?

I did study a lot of screenwriting books because I had never tackled anything this big. So figuring out the characters and how to write characters was something very new to me. And my first draft ended up changing quite a bit exactly where you’re talking about. I think when you’re writing a Parker Brothers character or a Lizzie or a Ralph, for me, on all sides of this, motive was really important. Knowing why people did the things we did. It’s a little more nuanced for anybody. When you’re writing anything, you want to know: why are people doing this? What do they want, and why do they want it? That was something that was really challenging for me when we were putting the story together. You have to make kind of educated guesses on it, and I tried to be really careful in the book about making it clear, like, “we don’t know this, but maybe, here’s the evidence, here’s the outcome.” People are funny, weird creatures. People are also products of their environments, their upbringings, their backgrounds. When I realized that George Parker and Lizzie Magie were just about the same age, that was a quick point for me, because I thought, ok, these are very different people, living at the same time but not in the same world. And when you talk about what makes the outcome different…I was really focusing on the context. What was it like being a man or a woman at the turn of the century? What was that world like? What was the difference between the Boston area and Washington, D.C.? What was the difference between Ralph in the 1970s and Lizzie at the turn of the century? As limited as I was with the texts I had, I really tried to zoom back and figure out what the culture was with some of these people. And that made a big difference with the Parker sequence. Understanding how exciting it was to be in the Boston area at that time and how shipping played a huge role and these businesses were booming and the Milton Bradley rivalry…that really helped me. He was fighting a different war than Lizzie Magie was. I found a lot of the answers from zooming out a little bit.

One thing I did keep returning to was this idea that people don’t care about first, they care about best. But with the Monopoly story that doesn’t seem true. Who was first is debatable, but there’s something about the origin story that really, really matters. Is that because Parker Brothers have made it such a part of their mythology, or is there something inherent to the story itself?

I think that if you look at the Charles Todd game — the one that was taught to Darrow — those games are virtually alike. When we talk about the evolution of the game, it wasn’t just Lizzie. It was that the game was effectively product tested for thirty years, which is why it was so good. It’s not that she was first. It’s that she made the game, and then a lot of people made it better. So the idea of what Parker Brothers added…was their version better than what’s out there? That’s debatable. I don’t know if their game is better! There are also other games I talk about in the book, Finance and Easy Money, that are essentially Monopoly. So was the Parker Brothers’ game better or were they just buying up the competition? I think a lot of people would quibble with that.

But I also think that why first matters here is because her story was so…ignored. Most people acknowledge that there were computers before Apple, but Apple made the best home PC for a while. But we all acknowledge that there were computers before Apple. So she was first, and I would argue that the game as modified by the Quakers was essentially better than what Parker Brothers put out.

I thought a lot about Lizzie after reading the book, particularly when you talked about how she really loved Mary MacLane. That got to me so much, thinking about her reading MacLane’s work right as I Await The Devil’s Coming was published.

I remember finding the quote from Lizzie that I ended up quoting in the book (“I am not good. I am not virtuous. I am not sympathetic. I am not generous. I am merely and above all a creature of intense passionate feeling. I feel — everything. It is my genius. It burns me like fire.”). I wasn’t familiar with Mary MacLane, to be honest. I read her book because I felt like I needed to understand who she was. And you read that stuff and…I know that today, there’s this whole genre of a woman in her twenties who blogs about their personal life, which is great if that’s your thing, but this whole confessional first-person memoir genre, what was so funny about reading MacLane is that it’s not just not new, it’s really, really old! And we look at what she was saying and what Lizzie Magie was doing at a totally different time when women couldn’t even vote. And I know that you and I and others talk about the gender gap, but to say some of the stuff that MacLane and Magie were saying a century ago…it blew my mind. It’s so much more gutsy to me, than today. Not that it’s so easy for women today, of course not, but I think that then, the more I studied how hard it was to be a woman and be taken seriously, the more I was blown away by how strong some of their opinions and statements were.

Right. Like of course there’s still so much farther to go, but it’s true, the genre isn’t new. What’s that Virginia Woolf quotation? “For most of history Anonymous was a woman” or something?

Right. Absolutely. I thought about that a lot in my research for this, whether it was the Lizzie era or the 1930s or whatever. We have a tendency to really romanticize the past, and I do this too. You see movies and you read books and you’re just like, “oh, it was so much simpler.” When I was researching this I was like, god, I’m so glad I live now. People just died in these horrible ways! Not that today things are perfect but just. I often thought, I’m so glad I live in 2015.

Last question, and you’re probably already so sick of this question, but: how do you feel about Monopoly now? WILL YOU EVER PLAY MONOPOLY AGAIN?

I totally will still play it! I’m probably a terrible person to play it with, because I know too much. I’m not sick of it at all. What was fun about the project was that it was so broad. It was so all over the place. You work on a project, and you throw it out into the world, and you just can’t predict the outcome of something. That’s been very fun so far. So, I’ll definitely still play it. But it’s by no means the only board game I’ll play.

This interview has been condensed and edited.