The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle

Author: Ralph Anspach   Publisher: American Printing   Pages: 224   Price: $17   ISBN: 0966649702

Monopoly has long been a favorite board game of Americans, and it's not difficult to see why. Although chided by many as a subpar game at best (to the point of being dubbed "Monotony" by some), Monopoly in many ways embodies the American Dream most of us aspire to, whether we admit it or not. You start with a nominal sum of money, you invest wisely, you use diplomacy and coercion and guile to hammer out shrewd bargains with your competitors, and eventually you wind up on the top of the heap: King of the Market and rolling in dough. Monopoly is viewed by many as being somewhat outdated, but these days - with the promise of dotcom richness luring more and more into the stock market - it's central theme is as attractive now as it has ever been.

But even more romantic than the "Rags to Riches" parable played out with each Monopoly game is the tale of its inventor, Charles B. Darrow. So inspiring was Darrow's tale that Parker Brothers used to include this Horatio Alger story in each copy of Monoply sold - which is remarkable when you consider that PB typically won't even tell you who invented most of their games. Darrow, who found himself unemployed in the midst of the Great Depression, had nothing to do one evening and amused himself by inventing a clever little game out of whole cloth. When he realized that this trivial diversion was actually quite good, he approached Parker Brothers and asked if they would be interested in publishing it. But the Powers That Be at Parker Brothers summarily rejected his brainchild - they even had the gall to tell him that it contain "57 design errors"! Undaunted, Darrow proceeded to market the game himself, and when it began selling like hotcakes a humbled PB came crawling back to license the game from him. And so began one of the most profitable relationships of all times, and the launch of the best selling board game in history.

One can only guess how many have been inspired by Monopoly, both by the play of the game and by the story of its creation. Ralph Anspach certainly was. After playing Monopoly with his children he endeavored to explain to them that, contrary to the premise of the game, the act of monopolization was actually a bad thing - even illegal. When asked why there wasn't a game that extolled the virtues of breaking monopolies instead of creating them, Anspach decided to make his own. The result of his effort was a game called "Bust The Trust", in which players vie for "Social points" by breaking up big businesses for the betterment of the consumer. When the game was ready for the market, Anspach formed a company to produce it and prepared to send it to the printers. But everyone in his fledgling organization (except for Anspach himself) agreed that the name "Bust the Trust" had to go: it sounded too violent, and since most consider "trust" to be a good thing the thought of "busting" it didn't go over too well. Anspach finally relented, and the name was changed to "Anti-Monopoly: The Bust the Trust Game". Little did they know that this simple change - designed to make the game more marketable - would bring them several lifetime's worth of heartache.

No sooner had the game hit the shelves when Parker Brothers unleashed a formidable trademark infringement lawsuit on Anti-Monopoly Inc. Anspach was understandably concerned, but largely ignored the attack: he was assured that Parker Brother's was without a case, because (a) "Monopoly" was a common word, exempt from trademark laws, and (b) "Anti-Monopoly" clearly indicated the opposite meaning of Monopoly, not the same. But having the law on your side is of little comfort when the lawyers all work for the opposition. Parker Brother stepped up their attacks until Anspach had no choice but to fight back. He began to research the history of the word "monopoly", hoping to find that Parker Brother could not plausibly claim the rights to it. What he discovered instead was that Parker Brother not only didn't own the word "Monopoly", they might not even own the game Monopoly.

And so begins the story of "The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle": part detective novel, part comedy of errors, and scarier than anything that Steven King has ever penned. And not least amongst the terrified was Parker Brothers itself. The more they leaned on Anspach, the more he dug in his heels and hit the books. His research soon indicated that Monopoly, in some form or another, had been in existence since as far back as 1902 - over thirty years before Mr. Darrow was purported to have "invented" it. Indeed a prototype of the modern Monopoly game was even found to have been patented in 1904 by one Elizabeth Magie Phillips. And another version was patented in 1924. And another the year before Darrow came out with his edition. By the time Anspach gets done digging, it appears that absolutely nothing about Monopoly was really the creation of Darrow or the intellectual property of the Brothers Parker. Darrow "invented" Monopoly in the same sense that Columbus "discovered" America.

Of course this is all old news, now. Even Parker Brothers concedes that Darrow only brought a folk game to the larger market. But at the time of his research none of this was well-known, and Parker Brothers did its best to prevent it from ever becoming so. The more Anspach uncovered, the tighter they turned the screws - which just seemed to make him more determined. In a way you almost have to feel sorry for Parker Brothers. Did they really think they could impress Anspach -- a man so strongly in favor to regulation that he invented a game devoted to breaking up monopolies - with a show of corporate might? It's almost as if Parker Brothers made an effort to find the worst person to take on in this David and Goliath battle: principled, resourceful and stubborn as hell. The lengths to which Anspach went to defend Anti-Monopoly went way, way beyond his desire to ensure that his games got a place on the shelf. Of all the tactical blunders Parker Brothers made, their biggest one was ticking Anspach off, and his crusade seems to be as much out of vengeance than righteousness.

Which isn't to say that the whole ordeal was any cakewalk for Anspach. Driven deeply into debt and losing several injunctions to a biased judge, the author had to endure the Monopoly lawsuit for nearly ten years straight. During that time he saw his games yanked off shelves by nervous store owners, and 40,000 copies of his invention buried in a garbage dump after he lost a battle in the larger war. By the end of the odyssey, the case against Anti-Monopoly Inc. wound up in the Supreme Court, and Parker Brothers even tried to bring Kenneth Starr in on the action.

"The Billion Dollar Monopoly Scandal" is fairly well written, although it won't be winning a Pulitzer anytime soon. A veteran of legal wars he may be, but as an author he's clearly an amateur. Fortunately, Anspach seems to recognize this, and makes no pretense to being anything more than he is: a beleaguered guy trying to get his story heard. Don't get me wrong: he certainly writes well, but he relies heavily on anecdotes and dialog to carry him through. He also makes use of a few literary devices, with varying degrees of success. In one chapter he recreates a conversation between Parker Brothers and Charles Darrow where they orchestrate their coverup. Anspach provides citations for the admittedly fictitious statements "uttered" by the participants in this meeting, but the whole things still struck me as a tabloid news show's "Dramatic Recreation" of a crime: too staged to be taken seriously. He succeeds best where he sticks to documented facts and statements, of which he has no shortage.

And Anspach is obviously not an impartial chronicler of these events. Still, I believe he does an admirable job of keeping things relatively fair (although without reading the "Parker Brother's side of the story" it's difficult to tell). He certainly doesn't paint himself as any legal mastermind, and often makes himself a butt of comic situations. (He realizes that his original name of "Bust the Trust" must go when he accidentally calls his own game "Trust the Bust" to the guffaws of his publicist.) And although Parker Brothers as a company is thoroughly vilified, he largely refrains from attacking individuals. He even concedes that some of the PB lawyers were likable guys, once he got to know them (and when they weren't trying to drive him into penury).

His portrayal of Darrow is a little erratic, though. Anspach makes a strong case that Darrow never crossed any legal lines while marketing his own game, insofar as he refrained from applying for patents because he knew that he couldn't claim "inventor" status. It was only after Parker Brother's got involved - and brought their legal team to bear on the situation - that Darrow started engaging in questionable activities such as applying for patents and publicly declaring himself to be the creator. It's unclear whether Anspach considers Darrow a crook or a patsy, but he oscillates between the two throughout the book. I suspect that he is trying his hardest not to be judgmental, but just can't resist sticking the word "thief" in there now and again.

In it's own way, Anspach's tale is just as inspirational as the myth he endeavors to explode. Here we have a novice game inventor who not only sold over a million copies of his games, but also beat the largest US game manufacturer at their own game (pardon the pun). Which isn't to say that aspiring game inventors are going to find this book heartening. On the contrary, "The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle" spells out all the hardship a prospective designer will have to overcome if he wishes to produce his own game, and shows in no uncertain terms how the market is dominated by a few large players. Indeed, the original story of Darrow-the-game-inventor is a lot more encouraging than the author's. But at least Anspach's has the virtue of being true.

Best of all, the story of Anti-Monopoly vs. Parker Brothers is a much more forceful illustration of the problems with monopolies than any board game ever could be. In his quest to bring his game onto shelves controlled by behemoths like Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, Anspach demonstrates why we should all be concerned when any company wields such power in one realm of commerce. This particular message is especially valuable these days, as companies continue to expand and merge, in the game industry and elsewhere. It's almost serves as one big example of anti-trust theory, which isn't surprising when you consider that Anspach is a professor of economics by trade. For members of my generation -- where the only real monopoly legislation we're familiar with is the current Microsoft lawsuit -- it sheds a lot of light on a murky issue.

I've read "The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle" twice now, and enjoyed it both times. You can read it as an economic primer, as legal potboiler, or as a conspiracy exposed. But it ultimately succeeds because it's just a damned fine yarn. No doubt there are other sides to the issue, but I encourage you to read it yourself and make your own decisions. I suspect that Anspach wouldn't want it any other way.