Monopoly

Monopoly

When the rain came I decided to show them how to play Monopoly. They were so young, so inexperienced. I almost felt sorry for them. Can you imagine?  Timmy (12) and Josh (10) and Delia (8) and Marvin (11) sitting at the same table as me?

I played the strategy of the day; all leverage.  I mortgaged every property as soon as I bought it and used the money to buy more.  I built early and extravagantly, banking on mental projections that had a player landing on Connecticut Avenue every fourth roll.  I traded rent for expensive real estate over on the Gold Coast: Park Place, the Boardwalk, blue chip properties. They didn’t cash flow well because I had to mortgage them to come up with the purchase price but my development strategy was sound, particularly since I owned the Lower Avenues – Connecticut, Vermont and Oriental – each with a resplendent red hotel.

Moving fearlessly I bid at auction to acquire the Water Works and then in a lightning swift shuffle I traded for the Electric Company. An article describing me as the “Wunderkind of Atlantic City” appeared in the business section of the Times. I had to beat off all the offers I received from wealthy investors who wanted to be Players (that’s what we called ourselves, “Players”). Soon all the railroads were under my control as were the Yellow properties and the Green to boot. I had the local real estate scene covered from Atlantic Avenue through the Boardwalk. And if it was mortgaged, I didn’t care cause all I had to do was lie back and collect the rent that would come from my undisputed fee ownership of the Lower Avenues. My strategy was so effortless, so elegant. I’d just take that money and plough it into redeeming the mortgages and financing the construction of the blue chip properties.

My symbol was the Thimble. Perhaps nothing else so clearly projected the style that I had brought to this parlor game. I funded social programs. I made charitable grants to struggling young developers. When Timmy was down and out, I could have taken his piddling holdings and recorded deficiency judgments against him. But that was not how the Thimble liked to do things. I proposed a merciful workout; I let him trade a bologna and cheese sandwich for a general release.

The first hint of trouble came from Little Josh. A conservative player by nature, he eschewed development and acquisition expense, hoarding his dollars against an assemblage of seedy properties in the quaint area of Baltic Avenue, where rents were cheap but so was the cost of construction. Soon my Connecticut Avenue cash cow had competition and I found that funds had to be reserved in greater than projected amounts against the eventuality of landing on Little Josh’s slummy property. I began to consider some of the proposals I had received from wealthy investors.  While far from necessary for one of my vast resources, I began to see some benefit in fat and passive capital at my beck and call.

Another problem was Marvin. Brash, competitive, he was the kind of guy that bid auction prices up to intolerable levels only to drop out at last bid. I figured that he was responsible for adding an extra 20% to the cost of land assemblage in the Game (that’s what we always called it, the “Game”).  I tended to dismiss him at first, for while he was in the bidding he was never a buyer. After a while I came to realize that it was all a cunning strategy.  He urged the other Players on to more and more ambitious development, while he conserved his cash and made ready to fish the bottom. When the bust came, it was Marvin who was in the market and his ability to negotiate into distress was legendary. No matter how far-flung my holdings – the House of Duret, I liked to call it – grew, I always worried about Marvin out there, watching my expansion with beady and hooded eyes, ready to grab whatever wasn’t nailed down.

But bigger troubles soon surfaced. My projections were overly optimistic. A real estate recession had thrown its foggy paws over the entire stretch around Connecticut Avenue. Tourism was off, vacancy rates hit an all time high. I tried everything, I fired the innkeepers, I plowed major dollars into advertising; things were so bad that I tried to timeshare the properties. I found a quirk in the legislation that I hadn’t fully appreciated which certain smartass lawyers hired by Timmy contended meant that the owner of a mortgaged property could not collect rent when a tourist stopped to visit there. I argued that the lawyers were wrong and commenced lengthy and expensive litigation, but I lost in every court. I soon found that I had squatters on all my hard-won and heavily mortgaged real estate, but no visitors at all to the hotels on the Lower Avenues.

I began to drink heavily. I was land rich and cash poor. My hands began to shake imperceptibly when I raised the dice.  Other Players had now consolidated their holdings and I could see that my lead in acquisition and assemblage were eroding rapidly, victims of a new breed of developer. There was Delia with a small time residential development up near the intersection of Illinois and Indiana. The Journal laughed when she got into those properties one house at a time. But now she was laughing at the pundits and waving her fat bankroll of cash, as those little unambitious green tract houses and town homes rose in unending clusters over the prairie.

Embarrassing things happened to me with increasing frequency. I got caught short when an unanticipated tax bill arrived. I had to liquidate a utility (albeit heavily mortgaged) to pay the levy. Another property had to be transferred in lieu of foreclosure to pay Timmy a pitifully puny rent bill that in my flusher days I’d have paid with an extra ten spot so there would be no doubt about the dominating solvency of the House of Duret.

Little things, sure. The core of my Empire was still there, still positioned for a take off in values.  But I hadn’t realized that the little liquidations that had absorbed my non-strategic properties had begun a new and fatal trend.  Almost overnight it seemed that the other Players had changed the rules on appraisals. Properties that once sold in the open market at multiples of 3 and 4 and even as much as 6 were being appraised at liquidation values.

My search for a cash rich partner intensified. But no matter how persuasive the explanation of my acquisition and assemblage philosophy, the investors always asked for appraisals and when the grim numbers arrived, I could not prove up the values I had recited.  I argued that the appraisers were wrong, thick-headed, behind the market. I urged a concept of intrinsic worth and backed it up with economic theory and the testimony of certain expert witnesses who charged me hourly rates running into the hundreds of dollars. I met many interesting people who were willing to separate me from my property, but I couldn’t find a partner who would put real dollars behind me.

I began to drink even more heavily. My hands shook noticeably when I rolled. The other Players began to jape at me and offer me pricy options created by smooth and baby-faced investment bankers who weren’t even Players but hung around the Game and sometimes made more money in the middle than the Players themselves.  One of their new inventions was called “Immunity” and it allowed a Player to acquire rent protection on his next roll or rolls even further in the future.  When the economy went into a tailspin and the Bank (that’s what we always called it, the “Bank”) began to call in the easy money, the pressures on my cash flow became unmanageable and I was forced to succumb to humiliating Immunity purchases. Even more destructively, I began to sell Immunity as the flusher Players approached the Lower Avenues.

But once the death spiral begins, there is no redemption. When I bought Immunity I rolled digits of impeccable clarity that skillfully avoided the properties on which I had pre-purchased Immunity, landing inevitably on Chance or the Community Chest where each time some new and – I believed – unconstitutional tax was levied against me.  And when I sold Immunity I watched as Player after Player arrived unerringly at my flagship Connecticut Avenue property and sported around at my expense, living the high life of Cote d”Azur or Monte Carlo and sometimes tossing me charity in the form of a one buck bill, slightly but intentionally soiled.

I began a destructive strategy which depended on the various lawyers who I had placed on retainer in better days.  I sued constantly. I challenged the rules of the Game. I sought to rescind deals on grounds of mutual mistake or fraud or over-reaching. When the suits failed, I introduced legislation to give retroactive tax breaks to worthy developers in my position.  I went so far as to appeal to the greed of the other Players by proposing a one time grant of $1000 to every Player still in the Game, but I had to suffer the humiliation of hearing Delia, my once sweet 8-year-old daughter, shoot down that idea on grounds that it wasn’t “in the rules”.

What did she know?  What did any of them know? I looked around at them, sitting in a circle, wads of cash stuffed into their hats, hooting as each new tumble of the dice brought me fresh disaster. They had no style, no panache. I looked at their miserable, jerry-built hotels. I watched as they landed on Free Parking and raked in the pot, chortling about “chump change.” These were the people who had been entrusted the mission of building the City (that’s what we called it, the “City”)?

The end, when it came, was a relief. I filed a petition under Chapter 11 at 1:33 in the afternoon on August 11th, 2015, a casualty of the most sustained period of inequity in the management of our country’s real estate assets that has ever been seen.  I lingered under the protection of the Court for less than an hour before the inevitable conversion to liquidation under Chapter 7.  By then my houses and hotels had long been sold back to the only buyer – the  Bank – at 50 cents on the dollar.  My lands – the Empire – had all been mortgaged and at the distress prices that now dominated in the Game, there was no equity left.  The trustee called it a “no asset” case and terminated the proceedings when it became clear that there was no money to pay his commission. He abandoned the real estate to the secured creditors and finally auctioned off the Thimble, the once dominating symbol of the House of Duret. And now when you mention the House, the Players laugh and say “yeah, yeah, the shithouse.”

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Earlier versions of the story Monopoly appeared in the ABI Journal under the title Bankrupt in Nantucket and on the website Points in Case under the title Little League Monopoly.