Tuesday, October 20, 2009


This week, game players and enthusiasts from 40 countries will descend upon Las Vegas to compete in the Monopoly World Championship, held roughly every four years. The winner of the Hasbro Inc.-sponsored tournament will take home $20,580 -- the precise sum stashed in the title's make-believe bank.

But one man who is perhaps the game's most obsessive follower won't be attending.

Ralph Anspach, an 83-year-old economics professor, spent decades locked in a real-life battle with Monopoly and its corporate owners. The campaign dented his finances, sent him on a nationwide trek for intelligence and sparked a legal case that reached the steps of the Supreme Court.

Prof. Anspach's woes began with a real-life trademark fight for the right to sell his own game, called Anti-Monopoly. Along the way, he says he helped to publicize the little-known origins of the classic American game.

The official history of Monopoly, a version of which appears on Hasbro's Web site, describes how Charles B. Darrow developed Monopoly during the Great Depression. Parker Brothers, which was later acquired by Hasbro, bought the impoverished heater salesman's patent in 1935 and registered the Monopoly trademark. Since then, the company says, an estimated 750 million copies of Monopoly have been sold worldwide.

The Monopoly "legend," as Hasbro calls it, "is a corporate fairy tale," says Prof. Anspach, who argues that the company fails to acknowledge key players in the game's genesis.

Prof. Anspach played his first game of Monopoly as a child in the mid-1930s in Czechoslovakia. In 1938, his family fled Europe to America on the cusp of the Holocaust. Years later, he earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley and began teaching at San Francisco State University. One day in the 1970s, Prof. Anspach tried to explain oil cartels and the downside of monopolies to his 8-year-old son, William. The economist searched toy stores for a more philosophically pleasing alternative to Monopoly, but found nothing.

I remember playing it, as a kid, for such a long time that my knees were sore from squatting in front of the board.

He then set out to create a game that would be a sort of "Monopoly backwards," in which players compete to break up existing monopolies rather than create them. He called it "Anti-Monopoly." The game sold 200,000 copies the first year.

In February 1974, Prof. Anspach received a letter from an attorney for Parker Brothers requesting he immediately stop peddling Anti-Monopoly. The company objected to the use of its trademarked Monopoly name.


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