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Monopoly Game Marks 71st Anniversary - 2004-03-13

Computer games are hot right now, but millions of families and friends the world over still find time to sit around a table and play an old-fashioned cardboard game that's published in 26 languages. Monopoly marked an anniversary in early March.

Seventy-one years ago, at the height of America's economic depression, Charles Darrow, an unemployed Philadelphia ne'er-do-well with time on his hands, dreamed up the ultimate capitalist game and sketched it on an oilcloth. He called it Monopoly. Some say he stole the idea from an earlier game about buying, selling, and renting property and just changed some of the place names to locations in the popular seaside resort of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Whatever he did worked. Charles Darrow died a millionaire. To date, more than 200 million Monopoly sets have been sold worldwide.

And they're not just cardboard and plastic. One Christmas, the Nieman Marcus department store offered a chocolate version for eight-hundred dollars. Somewhere there's a set designed by Alfred Dunhill that includes gold and silver houses and hotels. It sold for $25,000. There are Star Wars Monopoly games, a version using names like the Yellow Brick Road from the Wizard of Oz movie, one featuring the Batman and Robin comic action heroes, a Monopoly game just for bass fishermen, and variations that depict U.S. national parks and the streets of cities around the world. One controversial Monopoly knock-off called Ghetto-opoly, featured slum addresses and drug houses. Widely condemned, it was withdrawn from the market.

Monopoly's legions of fans are nimble with Monopoly lore, like the total amount of play money in a set - which is $15,140. Or the name of the mustachioed tycoon who's the symbol of the Monopoly game? It is 'Rich Uncle Pennybags' - although the name was changed to 'Mr. Monopoly' in 1990.

The longest game played in a bathtub? Answer: Forty-five days.

The largest game board ever built? Answer: An outdoor set, 233 meters long by 286 meters wide.

The game's original maker, Parker Brothers, once sent an armored car with one million dollars in Monopoly money to a marathon game being played in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after the game bank ran out of funds.

The longest game on record lasted 1,680 hours. That's seventy straight days. Even a regular game can last hours, which is the one thing some people, like Kandace Stewart, don't like about Monopoly.

"It is too long. I kind of get brain-tired, I guess, maybe," she said. "I like a fast game of dice or a good, fast game of cards instead."

But millions of other people - like college student Seton Vander Woude - delight in every capitalistic move.

"It's the greatest thing to be able to assert power over somebody else," he said. "Somebody lands on your space, and you're like, pay up! It's the greatest thing in the world. I love that. It reflects the business world really well, I think."

But, it's not just properties. What's the jail all about?

"It's representative of, like, corruption, 'cause you can buy your way out - just like what half of these Enron executives do," Seton Vander Woude replies.

He is referring to Enron, the Houston, Texas, energy company that collapsed amid corporate financing scandals.

David Christopher, 35, owns one of the world's largest Monopoly collections: more than 1,500 games and collectibles like Monopoly beer mugs, posters, area rugs, plates, and clocks.

"It's a master bedroom-sized room just full," he said. "I have my receipts on everything I've bought, and I've actually sat down from time to time and calculated that up. It's just a huge number - somewhere in the range of 20-some thousand [dollars]. I've always had a fascination with real estate, so it's just something I do. I don't really know why."

Mr. Christopher is in the right business to appreciate this ultimate property game. He sells real estate in the Northwest state of Oregon.

Monopoly was originally played with buttons that customers dug out of their own sewing drawers. But soon unique, pewter game pieces were developed and sold with the board. They include a top hat, a 1930s open roadster car, a flat iron, a thimble, a battleship, a cannon, and Rich Uncle Pennybags' Scottie dog.

There are computer editions now, but the people we talked with said it's not the same. You can't roll the dice, touch your plastic houses and motels, or get the same satisfaction as you do when your opponent advances his little metal game piece, lands on Boardwalk - Monopoly's most expensive property- which you happen to own, for which you can charge exorbitant rent!

In short, one word may explain Monopoly's lasting appeal: greed.