OFF THE COUCH National Parks up for monopolizing

This is a game more disconcerting to play than to lose.

I know because I did both. I was fool enough to ask my friend Sokhieng, who had soundly walloped me in Scrabble by getting all the Q, J and X letters early on. Still, obviously versed as she was in the classics, she was the natural choice for a game of Monopoly.

This, however, was not the customary stroll through Marvin Gardens and Boardwalk. Encinitas-based USAOPOLY, which stamps out versions like New York City, Star Trek and Harley-Davidson, has just published the National Parks Edition commemorating 28 out of the 376 sites.

Even as we sliced off the plastic wrapping, the gameplay experience was rife with paradox. Monopoly, after all, pounds out a pitiless, anti-competitive mettle from the most altruistic spirit. The constant shuffle of pastel lucre, the relentless advance of pewter cars or wheelbarrows, ignominious jail terms and high-powered, sweaty-palmed negotiations as urban blight crowds properties. Therein lies its addictive seduction: high finance and world domination spread out on a brown carpet.

With the National Parks rendition, America’s natural legacy could be ours for the taking. Sokhieng, with her luck of the die, quickly swooped up all the trails: Flattop, Chikoot, Limberlost and Window. Naturally, my covered wagon landed on this $200 money pit on successive turns, while she blithely overshot my lone tent set up on Yosemite (for which I mortgaged Petroglyph, Mesa Verde and Little Bighorn). Despite buying her way out of jail thrice, she ended up with about $3,400 in cash and $3,110 in property after an hour. I had $15, two mortgaged properties and $2,680 worth of title deeds.

The National Parks Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the National Park Service, receives 30 percent of the game’s purchase price of $35. The game is sold at national park stores, FAO Schwartz or through 888-876-7659. The enclosed rule book describes each destination and the 82-year-old Park Service, which oversees more than 83 million acres.

Incidentally, the booklet doesn’t include the usual story of the game’s inventor, Charles Darrow. Parker Brothers’ lore often tells of how the unemployed salesman got rich off royalties from his invention during the Great Depression. A deliciously lurid alternative history can be gleaned from Ralph Anspach, a San Francisco State University professor emeritus of economics, in his tell-all, “The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle: During a David and Goliath Battle, Anti-Monopoly Uncovers the Secret History of Monopoly.”

Anspach, who invented the Anti-Monopoly game in 1974 and tussled with then-owner General Mills and Parker Brothers in court for the next 10 years, says he discovered that a Quaker woman in 1904 patented The Landlord’s Game. This apparently spread as a common folk game, with its name evolving to Auction Monopoly, then Monopoly. In the 1930s, a Pennsylvania hotel manager became acquainted with the game, and he in turn introduced it to an occasional guests Charles and Esther Darrow. If you’re intrigued with the details, check the Web site at www.antimonopoly.com or order the book through 202 Encina Ave., Redwood City, CA 94601, 650-299-0534. You can also wait for the computer versions of both Anti-Monopoly and Authentic-Opoly (the Quaker version) coming this fall.

Meanwhile, the only way to resolve that unsettling alliance of capitalization and public wilderness is to play the game next time you go camping. Take over the world, then revel in the mercifully open outdoors.

Vera H-C Chan writes “Off the Couch” once a month. Send suggestions to her via e-mail, vchan@cctimes.com, or write to her c/o the Times, P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-8099, or call her at 925-977-8428.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times

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