Principles of Monopoly serve well in real life

Phil Trieb: If only our leaders in Washington would follow the rules of Monopoly.
Photo courtesy of Phil Trieb

By Phil Trieb

Phil Trieb is a carpenter and former newspaper editor living in Gary, S.D.

The buzz over changing a Monopoly play piece proves — notwithstanding the billions spent yearly on video games — that this iconic American game is still popular.

I never cared for the computer version. I won't be buying the one that uses debit cards instead of paper money, maybe for the same reason I prefer real books over e-books. To play on the original set is a tactile experience. And I like assessing my opponents' fiscal health by seeing the cash lined up on their sides of the board. Of course, some hide it, and in my old neighborhood, it was common to slide stacks of $500 bills under the board. Opponents, thinking one was poor, would get careless.

The most tactile Monopoly games I ever played were at the 2002 Minnesota State Fair, on a board bigger than my house, in which we were our own play pieces. I even beat a real banker! As overall winner, I got a couple of T-shirts, a deluxe Monopoly set and $250.

I won one of those matches by buying or bartering for all four railroads. It's not $2,000 rent like a hotel on Boardwalk, but at $200 a pop, the money adds up. Reading, Pennsylvania, B.&O. and Short Line have been good to me. So have Mediterranean and Baltic. I have won more games with those low-rent locations than with Boardwalk and Park Place. When I was young and foolish, I, like all my friends, wanted to own those posh properties. But they were costly to develop, and after spending $2,000 for hotels, the owner was often broke and vulnerable.

I do like that deluxe game I won at the fair, with its gold-colored play pieces and big shiny box, but it still has the same rules, same dollar amounts, same properties. I don't care for, and have never played, any of the hundreds of Monopoly spinoffs, faddish versions from "American Idol" to "X-Men." Some even have dollar amounts in the millions.

Of course, the prices in the original version are outdated: $50 for a broken leg; $100 for having twins; $150 for school tax; $2 for rent. (Oh, we could wish!) But it's a game; the money isn't real. Yet the principles are.

In cut-throat grade-school-era games that lasted for weeks, I learned to cooperate. I practiced math skills. I learned to negotiate, in acquiring properties from other players. I learned when to save and when to spend. If you're too frugal, and don't buy houses and hotels, you won't win while collecting base rents of $12 or $28 at a time. Spend too much, too fast, go bankrupt: You lose.

And maybe most importantly, I learned the limits of debt; that there's a cost to borrowing. Mortgage a property; can't pay back? Lose it. In the real world, my family's vehicles are all paid for, and our house is worth several times what we owe on it. We are way above water.

But our country is drowning in debt, both private and public. And many Washington politicians seem to think borrowing is limitless, without risk or cost. They treat the economy like a game, but not under the rules of Monopoly.

And until they start playing by the rules, I'm going to keep some cash hidden under the board.

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