Lucky Garvin: So Much More Than A Game

Lucky Garvin

Even in a time when electronic diversions hold dominion over so many of us, the board game ‘Monopoly’ may be remembered. Its beginnings stretch back to the early 1900’s, and thread their way to the present day. Monopoly’s history firms up about 1970 when its popularity had grown to the point there were actually international tournaments.

The game cost about two dollars in its early days. But, there’s a show-off in every crowd: In 1988, a jeweler put together a version of Monopoly featuring solid gold houses and hotels, and diamonds in the dice for pips. Add to that some garish trim of rubies and sapphires, and you have a way to pass a rainy afternoon. Two million bucks.

Beyond these scattered facts, the history of the game is sufficiently complicated as to fully justify ignoring it. Besides, that isn’t what I wanted to talk about anyway. The story I want to tell is when having the game of Monopoly in your possession might literally mean the difference between life and death.

As all wars do, World War II for England brought with it prisoners of war. For the allies, escaping these German and Italian internment camps was a hazardous, often ill-fated venture. To tip the odds somewhat in favor of the prisoner, the makers of Monopoly seized upon a plan.

Periodically, Allied POW camps would receive ‘care packages,’ the best known of which were those from the Red Cross. Others came from lesser-known organizations in England itself.

Parker Brothers was the American company which owned ‘Monopoly.’ They had a British subsidiary which teamed up with the British War Office to engineer this subtle operation. Interestingly, only allied airmen and front-line soldiers knew of this plan; generals were not informed in the interest of secrecy.

The BWO contracted with a firm named Waddington’s. Because of special skill-sets, a select group of Waddington employees working in seclusion and rigid secrecy received unfinished Monopoly boards. The workers would modify the game boards. Small depressions were created, and certain escape aids were hidden within before the final labelling was done. The ‘labelling’ was what we would see once the board was opened: street signs, Go To Jail, Pass ‘Go’, etc.

Hidden in these recesses were: small files and a flexible ‘gigly’ wire saw [both for cutting through metal], a tiny, low-profile compass, money [Italian or German] included in the stack of ‘Monopoly money’, and a map.

The maps were perhaps the most fascinating of the enclosures; they were made of silk! Silk doesn’t rustle when being handled, eliminating noise. The map was printed into the silk, thus it would not run if wet. Being silk, the maps were not only durable, they could be folded small enough to fit into a Monopoly game piece.

A general map of Germany, Austria or Italy was, of course, no help to the POW’s. The maps were regional, showing specific routes of escape from wherever the POW camp happened to be. This is how it worked:

The maps depicted escape routes from the prison camp where each game was sent. For example, any boards sent to, say, a prison camp in western Germany, contained maps which showed specific escape routes from that camp; and so on for all the other prisons.

Not all Monopoly boards carried this contraband; that would make discovery by the Germans too likely. The ‘rigged’ games where identified by a small red dot in the ‘Free Parking’ square which would clearly identify it to the watchful, but would be seen as a printer’s glitch by any other.

All Allied camps had structure according to rank; the highest-ranking officer assumed charge. Most camps also had a ‘safety committee’, a secretive sub-organization which engineered escape attempts. When ‘altered’ Monopoly games were received, they were taken to this committee, the tools removed, and the boards destroyed. It is, therefore, quite difficult to find one today.

It is estimated that 35,000 Allied prisoners escaped their captors in WW II; it is suggested that 1/3 of these were enabled by the Monopoly gambit. But, the Monopoly program wasn’t declassified until 2007, making any ‘estimate’ more reasonably classified as guess-work.

Who knew so much could be at stake in the role of a pair of dice.

Lucky Garvin