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TANGENT A capitalist idea: Monopoly still thrives after 70 years

By Jeff Gammage

Knight Ridder Newspapers

The longest Monopoly game ever played went on for 70 straight days -- far longer than the longest game played in a bathtub, which lasted a pruny four days, or the longest game played upside down, which hung on for a dizzying day and a half.

Monopoly has been played on a fire truck, a train and a nuclear submarine, in a cave, a treehouse, and a moving elevator.

It's probably been played in your house too.

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The game turns 70 this year -- it's older than commercial television. By all rights, this Depression-era amusement should have vanished from the marketplace long ago, done in by the ravenous capitalist economy it celebrates and the restless American desire for what's next.

Instead it continues to sell millions of copies each year.

Moreover, in an age when computer games grant the power to create entire virtual worlds -- and, equally entertaining, to destroy them at a keystroke -- kids and grown-ups say there's still something enticing about Monopoly. Still something engaging about the game's play-money rewards and go-to-jail risks.

Intense

In Monopoly, you don't get to pretend you're a secret agent or an Army commando. You can be a thimble, Scottie dog, or maybe a top hat. There are no flashy graphics or sound effects. You don't get to shoot anybody. Nothing explodes. There's not even a finish line.

The game can go on for hours. Heck, it can take an hour before it gets interesting. The rules are simple in general but in certain circumstances can turn maddeningly complex.

"The only way to win is to grind people into dust, and sometimes that's a painful thing," gripes Dallas computer programmer Derk Solko, who runs BoardGameGeek.com.

To which Debby Krim might reply:

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Lighten up.

Krim, a founder of the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors, an international group of players and researchers, says the fun of Monopoly lies in its small dramas: the thrill of buying Boardwalk, the boredom of Baltic Avenue, the prayer-to-heaven hope that someone will land on Ventnor Avenue after you've spent your last dollar to build a hotel there.

Monopoly is familiar -- the big brother of in-every-closet games such as Scrabble, Clue and Life. The game involves enough strategy to reward good players, enough luck to even the playing field, and enough emotion -- ambition, dread, longing -- to make it relevant to children raised on reality TV.

"Why don't millions of people play Acquire, but millions of people play Monopoly?" Krim asks. "Part of the reason is it got carried on from generation to generation: Our grandparents taught our parents, our parents taught us, we taught our children."

Trump wannabes

Wherever and whenever it's played, the aim is the same: Build an empire, amass a fortune, vanquish your competitors -- the American dream, writ in rainbow-colored dollars and two-inch cardboard deeds.

Toy analyst Chris Byrne, widely known for his TV appearances as "The Toy Guy," says the idea of building a business conglomerate -- even one composed of plastic hotels -- is ingrained in the American psyche. "The whole concept of becoming rich and putting people out of business is very Donald Trump," Byrne says. "I don't think Monopoly is going to go anywhere anytime soon."

Today, Monopoly has sold about 250 million copies worldwide, and according to Hasbro, which now owns Parker Bros., it's been played by about 750 million people. That's roughly one out of every eight people on Earth.

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The game has been spun off into scores of specialty versions, featuring personalities from Elvis to Garfield the cat and institutions from Star Trek to the National Park system.

This year, Parker Bros. is bringing out a 70th anniversary luxury set, celebrating the art deco elegance of the 1930s.

Once printed only in English and sold in the United States, Monopoly is now produced in 26 different languages, including Arabic. You can even play it on the Internet.

"Maybe," says Krim, the game-association founder, "at the end of the day, what it says is, 'Capitalism rules.'"

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