‘Ruthless’ doc gives credit to Monopoly’s true inventors

Fascinating film on PBS shows the classic game’s so-called creator Charles Darrow borrowed ideas from several other makers.

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The origins of Monopoly are explored in an “American Experience” documentary on PBS.

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If you’ve ever played Monopoly — and who hasn’t? — you might recall reading the instruction booklet, which led off with: “In 1934, Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania, presented a game called MONOPOLY to the executives of Parker Brothers. Mr. Darrow, like many other Americans, was unemployed at the time. …

“Since 1935, when Parker Brothers acquired the rights to the game, it has become the leading proprietary game not only in the United States but throughout the Western World …”

This was followed by that long list of instructions that none of us ever read all the way through.

Still, many a Monopoly fan knows the story of Charles Darrow and the inception of Monopoly. But, as writer Mary Pilon says in “Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History,” a fascinating “American Experience” documentary premiering Monday on PBS, “There’s just one problem with that story. It’s not true.”

After an opening montage of home-movie footage of folks playing Monopoly, including Muhammad Ali with his kids and Hugh Hefner not with his kids, “Ruthless” takes a trip to the 1970s, when Ralph Anspach, an economics professor at San Francisco State University, invented Anti-Monopoly, a countercultural game designed to “make it clear that the monopolists are the bad guys,” as Anspach explained in a 2005 interview.

‘Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History’

‘Ruthless’

A documentary airing at 9 p.m. Monday on WTTW-Channel 11 (with a repeat at 2 a.m. Wednesday) and streaming starting Monday at pbs.org.

When Parker Brothers sent Anspach a cease-and-desist letter, he responded with a lawsuit and started digging into the Parker Brothers’ 1935 trademark on Monopoly — and that’s when he learned about one Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie, who was born in Macomb, the western Illinois town, in 1866 and became a prominent feminist, economic activist, performance artist, writer and designer.

Magie was living in Chicago in 1906 when she began selling her self-published “The Landlord’s Game,” with a square board containing landing spots such as railroads, trolleys, “Fifth Avenue,” “Madison Square,” “Boomtown,” “Rubeville” and “Lord Blueblood’s Estate, No Trespassing, GO TO JAIL.”

Hmmmm.

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In a 1976 photo, Ralph Anspach displays his game Anti-Monopoly along with homemade, Monopoly-like game boards that predated Parker Brothers’ patent of the game in 1935.

AP

“Ruthless” has a bit of a meandering style — at one point, we get a history of board games, complete with old-timey drawings and photographs — and sometimes risks losing its audience.

But the central story of Monopoly’s murky origins remains intriguing. We learn there were a number of other board games sprouting in the early 20th century, including one played by Quakers who were living in Atlantic City in the 1920s and put local properties such as Baltic, Marvin Gardens and Boardwalk onto the game board.

We also learn that Charles Darrow played a version of The Landlord’s Game at a neighbor’s house in the early 1930s, asked the neighbor to write down the rules for the game — and essentially hijacked the entire concept and took it to Parker Brothers, which bought the copyright from Darrow in 1935.

An iconic American game was born and was credited with saving Parker Brothers from possible bankruptcy, and, for decades, Charles Darrow was hailed as the sole inventor of Monopoly.

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Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie created The Landlord’s Game, which was played and then essentially hijacked by Monopoly’s credited creator.

Public domain

“Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History” is a reminder that Darrow was simply the man who refined an idea and sold it and perpetuated the myth he had come up with it out of thin air.

Parker Brothers had paid Magie a total of $500 — no royalties — for the patents to The Landlord’s Game and two other game ideas, none of which took off.

Monopoly had a monopoly on Monopoly — until Ralph Anspach’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Anspach. He received a sizable settlement and was allowed to continue to speak freely about the true origins of the game.

One is left with the distinct feeling Lizzie Magie would have loved this victory for the little guy.

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