Monopoly is a game of token gestures: You push your wheelbarrow
to Marvin Gardens or clip-clop your top hat to Community Chest.
There are tokens of conspicuous consumption (sports car) and
inconspicuous consumption (thimble). But nothing is more
inconspicuous than the iron. "It's the smallest piece on the
board," says Roger Craig. Small enough to hide behind an
opponent's hotel. "If the hotel owner gets too distracted making
a trade," Craig says, "you can sometimes get by without having
to pay rent."
Craig is the iron man of big league Monopoly. Hopscotching the
cardboard streets of Atlantic City last October, the 35-year-old
tire salesman deflated 42 real-estate tycoons at the National
Monopoly Game Championship, in New York City. And on Sept. 13
Craig's iron will press into action again in Monte Carlo, that
tax haven for the rich and infamous, where Craig and 36 other
national champs will vie for the world title. The winner's prize
is $15,140--the amount of play money in a Monopoly set.
World-championship Monopoly is far more intense than its
slumber-party cousin. "Where I come from," he says, "we play
Monopoly as hard as anything you can imagine." Craig comes from
Harrisburg, a depressed coal-mining town in southern Illinois.
"If you made a Monopoly board of Harrisburg," he says, "you'd
have to do it out of banks, auto-parts stores and fast-food
outlets. Even the K Mart is closed."
Eleven years ago Harrisburg residents held a Monopoly tournament
for charity. "All our leading citizens showed up in tuxedos and
finery," recalls Craig. "It was the biggest deal in town." One
of his buddies won that first extravaganza. Craig won in '87,
and again in '95. That propelled him into the nationals, against
41 other state winners plus the previous national champion.
The two preliminary rounds of the nationals were played on the
80th floor of the Empire State Building. In Craig's opening
game, which was limited to 90 minutes, one of his three
opponents--a 14-year-old girl from Kansas--quickly picked up the
board's priciest monopoly, Boardwalk and Park Place. While Craig
milked his minor holdings, the girl erected houses, then hotels.
Landing in her luxury development three straight times nearly
dried up Craig's assets. When he drew a Chance card that read,
"Advance token to Boardwalk," he went belly-up.
Craig went into Game 2 needing a huge victory to stay in
contention. Only the top four money-earners would qualify for
the final. "Everyone else seemed to want to bust their opponents
early," Craig says. "My plan was to let opponents make their
fortunes, then bust them late." He did that by gobbling up
everything he could and mortgaging himself to the hilt. After
acquiring the red monopoly (Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky
avenues) and building aggressively there, Craig carried his foes
for more than half an hour. With time running out, the foe from
North Carolina grumbled to the one from Maryland, "Roger's the
only one who can win this game."
"I've known that for 30 minutes," said the Marylander.
"He's just keeping you in to get to the final round," said the
"I've known that for 45 minutes."
"Then why are you still in the game?"
"I'm learning something here. I've never seen anyone play like
this." The Marylander was not alone. Craig's take of $13,702 was
more than anyone else had amassed in both rounds combined.
The final game, which was played at the Manhattan toy store FAO
Schwarz, had no time limit. Craig rolled last, but when he
passed Go for the first time, there were four properties in his
portfolio. The only one he landed on and declined to buy was
Boardwalk. "I know that stunned some people," Craig says, "but
the fact is, Boardwalk and Park Place cost too much to buy and
to improve." Donald Trump, take note.
After 30 minutes Craig controlled the light-blue monopoly and
had blocked the formation of nearly all others. An hour later he
had busted the Monopolists from Texas and West Virginia and
assembled a red arc of hotels that stretched from Oriental to
New York avenues. When Craig wiped out the girl from Kansas in
the 100th minute, there was no need to tally his bankroll. "I
had everything," he says. "All the property and all the cash."
Which confirmed his Monopolistic ethic: "Basically, you've got
to be as nice to everyone as possible, then take their money."