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.
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 flew across the country more than a dozen times to research the game’s origins. His logic: If he could prove that Monopoly was widely played as a folk game decades before the Darrow patent, then he could argue that his game didn’t infringe on Parker Brothers’ trademark.
The real story, he says, began in 1904 with a patent from a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie. Her invention, “The Landlord’s Game,” spread as a folk game, designed to show the downsides of capitalism. The Atlantic City Quaker School simplified it, making it more accessible to children. Game historians widely believe that this simpler version was later shown to Mr. Darrow by a friend in the early 1930s.
In an email response, a Hasbro spokeswoman said that “any information about the origins of the Monopoly game comes from the memories of people other than Darrow recorded long after the event.” She noted that “Magie and her game are discussed in Phil Orbanes’ book, ‘The MONOPOLY Companion,’ which was licensed by Hasbro.”
Staid board games inspire high drama for a reason. Even in the worst economic times, titles such as Monopoly, Operation, Scrabble and others — most of them owned by Hasbro — tend to fare well. U.S. sales of board games rose 8% from August 2008 to August 2009, according to data from NPD Group, a market-research company. Hasbro, which doesn’t release sales for individual game titles, said earnings rose 8.8% in the third quarter from a year earlier.
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.
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.
Parker Brothers filed a complaint in the U.S. Northern District Court in California alleging that the professor had infringed its trademark. Legal bills soon prompted him to take on a second mortgage, then a third, he says. He racked up credit-card debt and took several semesters off to devote to the case.
As the legal tab mounted, Prof. Anspach sought new, more affordable, legal counsel. Several lawyers turned him away. Over a Chinese meal, Prof. Anspach persuaded Carl Person, a high-school dropout who eventually attended Harvard’s law school, to take the matter on.
In 1974, Prof. Anspach hatched a plan to disrupt Parker Brothers’ U.S. National Monopoly Championship, held in Atlantic City. He advertised a lecture with “the well-known expert on the history of Monopoly,” e.g. himself, at a Holiday Inn next door to where company executives were staying and hosting press events. When Parker Brothers representatives learned of Prof. Anspach’s plan to divert attention from their tournament, they changed the scheduled time to conflict with Prof. Anspach’s event, he says.
Undeterred, Prof. Anspach drove to Washington, D.C., where the larger Monopoly World Tournament was to take place the next day. He joined forces with a 20-something Monopoly player who had been kicked out of the tournament for trying to publish his own Monopoly book out of his dorm room. They set up an Anti-Monopoly table in the hotel lobby.
The co-conspirator was Jay Walker, now the billionaire founder of Priceline.com.
“We were fanatics,” says Mr. Walker, who confirms the professor’s account.
Meanwhile, Parker Brothers filed for, and won, a court order to “deliver up for destruction” 37,000 copies of the board game from Prof. Anspach’s warehouse. Parker Brothers, he says, buried the games near a rural Minnesota landfill. “It was depressing,” says Prof. Anspach.
The spokeswoman for Hasbro said that these events were many years ago, and that she can’t verify the games’ fate. “If Parker Brothers did indeed destroy the games, it was pursuant to the court’s explicit order,” she said in an email response.
In 1979, Prof. Anspach finally prevailed in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California, where the case was dismissed. The court determined that the trademark “Monopoly” was generic, and therefore unenforceable. Parker Brothers pushed the trademark case to the Supreme Court. It was denied, and an enthusiastic Mr. Person called Prof. Anspach in California with the news.
Months later, Congress passed a statute amending the Trademark Act to protect longstanding marks against ‘generic’ claims. Anti-Monopoly was exempted from the new rule, however. Years after losing thousands of games and the ability to sell his product, Prof. Anspach reached a settlement with Hasbro. Today, he markets Anti-Monopoly under a license from the company.
The deal made sure that he “kept the right to tell the truth about the origins of Monopoly, something I have always insisted upon,” says Prof. Anspach, who retired from teaching in 2004. “That is a principle which is not for sale for me.”
Mary Pilon, Wall Street Journal
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