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The scandalous history of Monopoly

The board game "Monopoly" has a remarkable history that reaches back to the early 20th century
The surprising history behind the board game "Monopoly" 06:22

The board game Monopoly has been around for a long time. American families still love playing it, even if some feel it can drag on too long, earning it the nickname "Monotony."

The game has a remarkable history that reaches back to the early 20th century, CBS News' David Begnaud reports.

The history is legendary. The Beatles played Monopoly in their hotel room on their first U.S. tour. The game was even used to smuggle maps and money to POWs in World War II. And it turns out the game's history is scandalous and today's version is nothing like it was supposed to be.

Timothy Vandenberg is the 2nd-ranked competitive Monopoly player in the country. He uses the game to teach math to his 6th-grade class. But his tips are tools that every Monopoly player should know.

"Number one, the oranges are king, but anything could win except for the browns," Vandenberg said. "Number two, build to the three-house level. That's when you get your best return on investment. And number three, think ahead. Now that's a major life skill we want our children - and adults these days - plan ahead."

It's ironic that Vandenberg uses the board game to educate because that is exactly what it was created for before it became an American icon.

If Monopoly had a detective token, it would go to Mary Pilon. Part journalist, part sleuth, Pilon exhausted five years researching the game's origin.

"I set out to the find out the truth about Monopoly, and I didn't know where that was going to take me," Pilon said.

The findings are revealed in her book "The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game."

"I, like most people, thought that Monopoly was invented during the Great Depression," Pilon said. "I, like a lot of people, had heard this story that a man invented it, his name was Charles Darrow, sells it to Parker Brothers, rags to riches, Cinderella story, all is great. The problem is that's not exactly true."

The truth Pilon discovered is that a woman, Elizabeth Magie, invented the game in 1903 as a protest against big money of the Gilded Age.

"The Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans of the world, there's an amount of wealth being created in this country, it was concentrated among a few people that we had never really seen before," Pilon said. "So she makes a board game as a teaching tool to try and teach about the evils of monopoly."

She called her square board, complete with a "Go to Jail" space, The Landlord's Game. So how did the game get away from her? According to Pilon, that's where it gets complicated.

"She patents her game in 1904, and it spreads as a folk game." Pilon said. "It goes viral, like, turn-of-the-century style, and it's played in Boston, in New York, in Philly, and as people are playing it they're making the board their own."

By the early 1930s, the Quakers of Atlantic City renamed spaces on the board with iconic properties like Boardwalk and Park Place. By then, the entire game had changed.

"When Lizzie Magie creates The Landlord's Game, she talks in the rules extensively about monopolies and anti-monopolies," Pilon said. "So it's not long, almost immediately after, people start calling it The Monopoly Game."

It was the height of the Great Depression when an unemployed Philadelphia man named Charles Darrow discovered the already popular game through a friend of his. He made his own version, and on March 19, 1935, he sold the rights to a gamemaker.

Hasbro's vice president of gaming marketing, Jonathan Berkowitz, said the original game Darrow gave to Parker Brothers was printed on the back of a tablecloth. It's displayed at Hasbro's headquarters in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Parker Brothers was acquired by Hasbro in 1991.

Company executives alongside Mr. Monopoly celebrated the 80th anniversary of Darrow's game this week by ringing the closing bell at Nasdaq.

"Over a billion people have played Monopoly around the world," Berkowitz said. "It's in 114 countries and 47 different languages, so it's a very, very global game."

Hasbro acknowledges Monopoly was inspired by Magie, but since her death, her story has largely been lost to history. Darrow is the one who rolled the dice and got all the credit.

This story begs the question, did anyone speak out when he became the millionaire?

"Lizzie Magie actually herself speaks out," Pilon said. "And she does these two interviews, one with The Washington Post and one with the Washington Evening Star. She holds up her boards, her early games, and the Monopoly board and says, 'Hey, I was around a long time before.' By then, the Darrow Cinderella story was so wrapped up in the craze and the game. It was so much part of the enchantment of the marketing of Monopoly. It doesn't seem to really go anywhere."

Monopoly historian and former Parker Brothers executive Phil Orbanes said the company paid Magie $500 for the rights to The Landlord's Game, and they even put her face on the cover.

"Game inventors just didn't get that in 1935; she died in 1948, and up and through during her entire lifetime she and Darrow were given joint credit for the idea behind Monopoly," Orbanes said. "After she passed away, then, yes, she was forgotten."

Today, Monopoly is a real sport. The Emmy-award-winning documentary "Under the Boardwalk" profiles players in the highly competitive U.S. Monopoly championship, players like Vandenberg, who's using the game as Magie would have wanted, as a tool to teach, minus the monopoly.

In the 1970s, a San Francisco State professor named Ralph Anspach sued Parker Brothers for the right to make his game Anti-Monopoly. He won, and over the 10 years the court battle went on, Magie's story was finally told, on the record.

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