A Conversation With Mary Pilon,  Author of ‘The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, And The Scandal Behind The World’s Favorite Board Game’

By Steven Brodsky

Mary Pilon is an award-winning journalist and the author of the New York Times bestseller The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, And The  Scandal Behind The World’s Favorite Board Game.

What prompted you to write The Monopolists

The whole thing came about by accident. I’ve always loved games and puzzles and in 2009, while on staff at The Wall Street Journal, I was going to mention in passing that the board game Monopoly was invented by a man during the Great Depression because that was the story that had been tucked in my family’s game box, like millions of others. I started to look into it and soon found that it was far more complicated than I had thought. That led to the original article I did for the Journal, which then led to the book proposal. I felt as though the more I learned about the story, the more I was left with questions, hence the need for a book-length treatment.

What personal efforts went into researching the story and getting the book written? 

All told, it took about five years from when I started reporting to when the book came out. The reporting was intense, but the entire time I was also working full time as a staff reporter, so it was a labor of love on nights and weekends. That time frame also included a beat switch (from business to sports), changing jobs, moving apartments several times, then the usual life stuff – weddings, funerals, crises, good moments, bad, all that’s in-between. I traveled to several different states for interviews, libraries, game archives, often not knowing if it would lead to anything and struggled to pull materials from a variety of sources into one single timeline of what the game’s history was and who the main characters were in its evolution. I crashed on many couches along the way, too. (Thanks to those who loaned theirs!)

Did you ever consider giving up on the book?

No. As I sunk deeper and deeper into the research, it became clear to me that if I didn’t tell this story, specifically Lizzie Magie’s tale, no one else was going to. I think journalism, in general, has for better or for worse given me the curse of being bitten by a good story. Once it’s in you, can’t let it go. It becomes, well, a bit obsessive. I’m not saying it makes sense, but you do reach a point of no return, where you’re going to hand in the manuscript, even if you’re bandaged, bruised, and exhausted as you click send to your editor. Bloomsbury was very patient with me.

What kept you going?

Coffee. Lots. Of. Coffee. I also have amazing friends, family members, and mentors who were great sounding boards and cheerleaders along the way, which I know sounds a bit trite, but the importance of that can’t be overstated. For me, knowing other people were holding me accountable mattered immensely. Even if they didn’t entirely understand why I was still going with it, they respected that it was important to me. The whole story is something of an underdog tale, so I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments when I connected with that.

This project also differed from my regular newspaper and magazine work in that many of the key people in it were long dead. The deeper I got into research, and I know this sounds crazy, the more alive to me they became. I knew I had to do right by them. That’s motivating in a library rat kind of way.

I also seriously raised my game in distance running and completed my first marathon while writing this. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I needed the time to think about the story as I was running and marathoning taught me a new mentality when it came to taking big things and breaking them into smaller, more manageable pieces. I couldn’t think about running 26.2 miles, but I could think about running five miles each morning, then ramping up or down, one mile at a time. I found book writing to be the same. I still can’t think about writing hundreds of pages, but I could handle 1,000 words a day or so. I credit the athletes I write about with (perhaps unintentionally) teaching me a lot about motivation and goals.

Ralph Anspach, one of the central characters in The Monopolists, had tremendous determination to bring to bring to light the history of the development of the game of Monopoly.  Tell us a little bit about Professor Anspach, his Anti-Monopoly Game, and what his defense against a trademark lawsuit revealed. 

Ralph is a fascinating man. He was born in Danzig and fled to the U.S. with his family as a child, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s persecution. He went on to study economics and created his Anti-Monopoly game in the early 1970s as a more philosophically pleasing alternative to Monopoly, and as a teaching tool to use with his students in the Bay Area and his two sons. He had no idea at the time that his creating Anti-Monopoly was, in a way, bringing the game back to its counterculture origins. It wasn’t long before he heard from lawyers for Parker Brothers who said they thought he was stepping on their trademark toes. That kicked off a decade-long legal battle in which Anspach unraveled the game’s early folk history – Lizzie Magie, the Quakers who played the game, what actually happened with Charles Darrow selling the game to Parker Brothers. It went to the steps of the Supreme Court and played a huge role in Anspach’s life.

The Monopolists informs readers about Lizzie Magie and her Landlord’s Game.  Lizzie Magie’s board game was first patented in 1904.  Lizzie Magie was remarkable and ahead of her time.  Speak to this.

Lizzie Magie was a woman far ahead of her time. She was designing games before women even had the right to vote. Her father, James Magie, was an influential newspaper owner and voice in the Republican Party and had even traveled with Abe Lincoln during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lizzie Magie also wrote poetry, short stories, performed in the theater, and was an impassioned follower of Henry George, a popular political economist of her day, and created her Landlord’s Game as a way to try to teach people about how George’s single tax philosophy worked. Like many Georgists, she was also an impassioned women’s rights advocate.

She intended her game to promote the “single tax” concept that  had been advocated by Henry George.  Why was her game popular in Arden, Delaware?

Arden was a haven for single taxers. Some lived there just for a season, others year-round. By all accounts, it was a great place to be, kind of had a hippie vibe to it. I went there for research and had a lovely time. There’s a great museum there, the Arden Craft Museum, that gives a great overview of the town’s quirky history and much of the original architecture from the early monopoly game days has survived. Arden was one of a handful of single tax communities that was backed by wealthy Georgists with the stated mission of trying to live out what George’s single tax ideas were all about. In Arden, you can still see that there’s an emphasis on shared space, as there’s a lovely green that’s shared among community members and a theater. Her Landlord’s Game also brought questions about community land and taxation to the forefront.

How did the Quaker community of Atlantic City modify Lizzie Magie’s board game?

Many of the Quakers in Atlantic City were teachers, so they did some things to make the game more accessible for children. They localized the board, which was common then, to have Atlantic City properties. Because silence is key to the Quaker faith, they downplayed the cacophonous auction elements of the game and put a greater emphasis on having fixed prices on the board. Funny enough, they kept the dice in the game, even though that was taboo in some Quaker circles, as dice were associated with gambling and games of chance.

When did people first refer to a board game as “monopoly”?

It’s hard to nail down, but there are indications that it wasn’t long after Lizzie Magie’s first Landlord’s Game was patented in 1904. She was very interested in monopolies as a concept and that was key to the language around her game. There are indications that folk players called it “the monopoly game” as a sort of shorthand.

Are you a Monopoly player?

I am! Among many other games.

Please share some of your game-related memories with us.

My family always played Monopoly on Christmas Eve, often with clam chowder or soup, too. Today, we still play board games during the holidays a lot, including Monopoly, but also Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Risk, Set, Exploding Kittens, among others. What I loved about games then, and now, is it reveals a completely different side of people you think you know. Playing Monopoly as a child was my first window into learning that my sweet grandmother had a completely fierce competitive streak. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch my cash and property stash super closely whenever we played. As far as Monopoly is concerned, in our family, at least, the idea of trust gets turned upside down.

Posted in Books, Uncategorized.