Lizzie Magie Ralph Anspach and The Monopolists

Monopoly, the world’s most famous board game, was invented by Charles Darrow, an out of work salesman during the Great Depression. He sold it to Parker Brothers and both Parker Brothers and Darrow lived happily ever after.

That’s the Monopoly creation story put forth by the game’s owner — Parker Brothers.


Now comes Mary Pilon with another version.

Pilon is the author of The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Pilon says a nearly identical game — Landlord’s Game — was invented at the turn of the century by an anti-monopolist — Elizabeth Magie.

Magie’s game — underpinned by morals that were the exact opposite of what Monopoly represents today — was embraced by a constellation of left-wingers, college students, and Quakers from the Progressive Era through the Great Depression– including members of Franklin Roosevelt’s Brain Trust.

Magie is the heroine of Pilon’s story.

And Ralph Anspach, a left leaning economics professor in Berkeley, California, is the hero.

In the 1970s, Anspach created and began marketing a game called Anti-Monopoly unearthed the true story of Monopoly and Lizzie Magie.

“Anspach creates a game called Anti-Monopoly,” Pilon told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “And he goes to Portland to drum up support for Anti-Monopoly. And he’s on the radio. And a caller calls in. Up until that point, Ralph thought that Monopoly had started with the Darrow story. And a caller calls in and says — we don’t understand why Parker Brothers is giving you such a hard time. We played it before they had it.”

“That was the first moment that he realizes that the game had a place before Parker Brothers and Darrow. He starts to track down original players of the game. There is also a moment when his son reads about Lizzie Magie in a book called — A Toy is Born. And he runs into his father’s study with it.”

“Ralph starts to track down the Quakers in Atlantic City who played it in the the 1930s. And they didn’t know about Lizzie Magie either. Ralph has to wind the clock back to piece together the thread that led from Lizzie Magie to the Quakers to Parker Brothers.”

Just after he begins marketing Anti-Monopoly in the 1970s, Anspach gets a letter in the mail from Parker Brothers asking him to stop producing the game. Parker Brothers claimed the game violated it’s Monopoly patent.

That kicked off a ten year legal battle. During trial, Parker Brothers offers Anspach $500,000 to settle the case. His lawyers, running up a huge bill, urged him to take it. Anspach refused, in part because he would have been prohibited from talking about the case.

He goes to trial and loses. And before the appeal can be heard, Parker Brothers takes control of 40,000 copies of Anti-Monopoly and buries them in a landfill.

“There were about 40,000 games and parts to make more,” Pilon says. “Typically, when there is an injunction after a case, you would take the inventory and throw it in a warehouse until things are sorted out. But in this case, something different happened. Parker Brothers staged a burial of the games and it was covered by journalists at the time. There are accounts of this in newspaper. Parker Brothers buried the games in the ground. Ralph felt defeated. He felt the courts weren’t going with him. And now his games were buried. They buried them in a landfill.”

Was that lawful?

“I’m not a lawyer,” Pilon says. “But I read it as a show of strength by Parker Brothers. They were so confident in victory that nobody would ever get those games back. It ended up that Ralph won the case and they had to pay Ralph damages for the buried games. But it was a symbolic gesture thinking they were going to win.”

“Anspach appeals the case and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rules against Parker Brothers. The Supreme Court declines to hear the case — and Parker Brothers is forced to settle with Anspach – a seven figure settlement that includes damages for burying his 40,000 Anti-Monopoly games. And he wins the right to continue to market Anti-Monopoly.”

People who play Monopoly are consumed by this urge to want to control everything. But its origins were from the anti-monopolists, the trustbusters. Lizzie Magie unleashed the human urge to dominate, but that wasn’t her intention.

“There is irony throughout the book,” Pilon says. “But the creator of the game was an anti-monopolist and she created the game as an anti-monopoly teaching tool. When I started researching the book, I was writing about Occupy Wall Street, which was a huge story at the time. When I went down to the Park to cover the protesters, you would see Mr. Monopoly and iconography from the game on people’s protest signs. Here we are a century later and it was getting back to its edgier political roots.”

“People ask me whether Lizzie Magie had a happy ending. And I don’t know how to answer that. Lots of people play her game. Monopoly has become the one of the most popular games in the world. But if her mission was to have the game associated with a criticism of capitalism, some of that may have been lost in translation.”

[For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with Mary Pilon, see page 29 Corporate Crime Reporter 9(12), March 2, 2015, print edition only.]

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