The original game espoused the opposite political views to the now world-famous version. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Do not pass go: the tangled roots of Monopoly

The classic Great Depression rags-to-riches story of how the enduringly popular board game came to be invented isn’t quite as simple as it seems.

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favourite Board Game
Mary Pilon
Bloomsbury USA, 313pp, $27/£20

My dad was born in 1924, five years before the great crash of 1929. One of the founding stories of my childhood was about his childhood: how, as a poor kid in New Haven, Connecticut, he really wanted a Monopoly set but couldn’t dream of affording one – and so he made his own. The board, the counters, the money, the whole nine yards. He was about ten or 11 at the time, at least that’s what I recall. But it was only after reading The Monopolists, Mary Pilon’s entertaining and revelatory account of the game’s origins, that I realised there’s one question I never asked him: which Monopoly set did he make?

Up until now I’d always bought the story that Parker Brothers (now part of Hasbro Inc) sold me: one day in 1934, Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman from Germantown, Pennsylvania, came up with the idea for the game pretty much out of the blue, made the first sets by hand, and then made his fortune when Parker Brothers bought his invention the following year. It’s a classic Great Depression rags-to-riches story. The official version passed its 80th anniversary this March; over the years, more than 275 million copies of the game have been sold, in 47 languages. Hasbro prints $30bn of Monopoly money every year – $3trn since 1935.

Except, it turns out, the story of Monopoly isn’t that simple. How could my father have made a set when he was ten, a good year before Parker Brothers’ and Darrow’s game was released on the market? Easily: because Monopoly was a game that long pre-existed the version that now has, shall we say, a monopoly on our idea of what the game should be. Its first inventor wasn’t Darrow, but a remarkable, politically active woman called Lizzie Magie, and its political aims the very opposite of those the now-famous version espouses. Magie’s game – patented in 1904, 30 years before the Parker Brothers version appeared – was called The Landlord’s Game, and it was designed as a teaching tool to promote the economic theories of Henry George, whose progressive ideas on both taxation and women’s rights remained Magie’s lifelong passion. She called the game she’d created her “brain-child” and believed – when Parker Brothers bought the rights to it for $500 outright – that it would find a wide audience. But of course, it didn’t. Monopoly did.

The Monopolists is Pilon’s first book; she is an award-winning sports reporter for the New York Times, and her tale is a work of energetic, in-depth reportage. While Magie is a central, striking figure in this story, it is peopled with all sorts of colourful characters who keep it galloping along. For Lizzie Magie wasn’t the only inventor of Mono­poly; a version of it was played in Quaker circles. The Quaker community, perhaps surprisingly, had a big hand in building up the resort of Atlantic City, New ­Jersey and it is the streets and avenues of this city that provide the archetypal locales of the original game (I still find it strange whenever I see “Park Lane” instead of “Park Place”, or “Bond Street” instead of “Pennsylvania Avenue”.)

Pilon shows that even though Monopoly was not quite the generic game that poker or chess is, one legacy of the Gilded Age – in which families such as the Carnegies and the Rockefellers could almost wholly control the markets in which they operated, and when they amassed fortunes that are a source of wonder even by today’s oligarchical standards – was many versions of the game, which coexisted for quite a while. It wasn’t just my father making his own set: that was pretty standard practice, I learned. But Parker Brothers determined to eliminate the competition, and the twists and turns of this book catalogue some valiant ­attempts to fight back, not least by one Ralph Anspach, who created a game called Anti-Monopoly in the 1970s and incurred the wrath of Parker Brothers as a result.

Occasionally Pilon’s new-journalism style can be grating (“Ralph Anspach, professor of economics at San Francisco State University, slammed his car door shut. Finally he was home . . .”), but for the most part her intriguing discoveries carry the reader happily along.

Pilon takes the epigraph for one of her chapters from Voltaire: “All the ancient histories, as one of our wits says, are just fables that have been agreed upon.” Yet what she shows is that the fable of Monopoly’s creation was more than just a good story: it was an attempt to echo what the Parker Brothers game encourages its players to do: “The last player left in the game wins.”

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood