Monday, January 21, 2013

Monopoly Money and the Gold Standard

Not long after our family’s working vacation in The Big Apple, I bumped into Ian in the supermarket. “I’m just back from Singapore on business”, he said, “and I saw Ross on one of the cable-TV channels there, in my hotel room one night!” Our son had grown up with Ian’s son, and I was glad somebody had caught Ross’s fleeting moment of glory.

Linda and I were there on the spot, but we didn’t see any of the TV coverage. The opening day of the tournament coincided with an earthquake in Mexico that was later estimated to have killed at least ten thousand people. Every TV station in New York City turned its entire transmission time over to reports from Mexico. The 1985 World Monopoly Championship in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria was ignored utterly.

Ross had lain fifth at the end of the first day, in a field of twenty, and was on track to make the cut for the final table. Aged barely ten, he was what a French magazine called “le benjamin” – the youngest competitor. The US champion – Jim Forbes, a CPA from Florida – explained to the prospective US audience that the mental pressure would prove too much for a child, and he was right. Ross blew out to tenth during the next day’s play. Although – who knows? – maybe it wasn’t the pressure at all; maybe his luck just ran out. Jim also missed the cut, and he was the oldest competitor, in his late 30s.

It was a nine-day wonder here at home, when a (then) nine-year-old beat out several local bankers, lawyers and accountants to win our Islands’ first formal Monopoly Tournament one Saturday morning. I had dropped him off and gone shopping, so as not to cramp his style, and it was all over by the time I got back to give some post-game comfort to a gallant loser. The adults were standing around looking sheepish, and the boy was being told where and when he could collect his prizes – airline tickets to New York and accommodation at the Waldorf Astoria.

Winning at Monopoly is 90% luck and 10% skill & awareness. Landing on Mayfair and Park Lane (Boardwalk and Park Place in the US version) requires pure luck; bankrupting everybody else inside twenty minutes requires quick wits and some gambling skill. Think of poker, but with less money and less time. (The 1983 World Champion came second in 1985, by using his experience to maximise his luck.)

It wasn’t so easy in New York. No casual Saturday morning in shorts and flip-flops, but hot lights and hubbub in the ballroom of the Waldorf. Spectators wandered around the tables speaking in tongues while watching the champions from twenty nations do their thing. It was fast-paced stuff. The bankers enforced the tournament rules strictly. Minimal stoppages were allowed for the consummation of property deals, but all negotiations had to be conducted on the run while keeping an eye on the continuous movements of dice and tokens – all within a ninety-minute limit.

There was real money at stake: US$15,140 to the Champion, winner take all. $15,140 was the total of the Monopoly Money sold with each game. Most games in existence still have that amount, and its purchasing power is unchanged - in the game. However, the purchasing power of the US$15,140 prize money has greatly depreciated since 1985. Take a moment to think why that is.

The game’s bankers use “hard money”. What a contrast to the real-life Central Bankers who have screwed up their nations’ real-life economies by financing asset bubbles with money created out of thin air. Monopoly Money’s value is maintained by not allowing any inflation of the money-supply. Monopoly Money is disciplined in a way that actual currencies aren’t. In effect, it adheres to a gold standard. It’s a good thing Monopoly games don’t involve Central Bankers. I mean, imagine the chaos.