It was a Tuesday night during winter break and my kids were lying around the house complaining there was nothing to do. After one "I'm bored" too many, I marched over to the bookshelves -- sagging under the weight of stimulating toys and activities -- and pulled out that old standby "Monopoly," jammed in and forgotten between "Life" and "Stratego."
As the game started, I stationed a giant bowl of popcorn, three glasses and a bottle of sparkling apple cider on the coffee table to sustain us. The first hour of play was a frenzy of real estate acquisition, then it was bedtime. We left the game board sitting on the carpet in mid-play, to be continued the following the night.
The next day my son Jonas -- the kind of 13-year-old who reads atlases for fun, knows the New York City subway system by heart and has committed to memory the pass completion record of every quarterback in the NFL -- decided to research "Monopoly"-winning strategies. He figured a game that had been around for 75 years probably had entire websites devoted to playing it and he immersed himself in research the way a Ph.D. candidate writing a dissertation might: printing out pages of notes, underlining key points, even doing a risk/benefit analysis.
Wednesday night Jonas kept his notes close at hand. He rolled the dice. Double sixes. His tiny silver car parked itself on New York Avenue, which isn't cheap. "Well?" his 15-year-old sister Leah asked. She was also The Bank and, with credit being so tight, felt she had the right to pry into other players' financial deliberations. That, and she can be bossy. "I'm thinking..." Jonas said absently, thumbing through his notes. Leah looked at me and raised an eyebrow. "Okay," he said slowly, nodding at the pages as if they were whispering secrets. "Yes, I'll buy it."
Jonas' notes, which I peeked at when he went to bed, directed him to do things like buy orange properties and count the number of un-mortgaged properties owned by other players and divide by seven (the estimated number of times he would pay rent next time around the board).
Then something happened, something Jonas hadn't accounted for: Leah landed on Boardwalk. She already owned pricey Park Place, but without a monopoly couldn't put houses or hotels on it and make the rent astronomically high. Jonas, confused, looked through his heavily crinkled notes for guidance. Nothing in them addressed what to do when your sister gets Boardwalk and Park Place and refuses to trade or sell either of them. She purchased a garish, red plastic hotel for each, pumping up the rents to $2,000.
On Thursday night, things got ugly. A few turns in I threw the dice and sailed my boat right onto Boardwalk. "Oh great," said Jonas, disgusted. I had about $600 in cash and even if I mortgaged all my properties, I'd be far short of what was due. "You're out?" Jonas both asked and shouted. I nodded and sheepishly handed my cash to Leah, then slid my properties across the carpet to her. My son watched, jaw clenched, forehead creased. He had less than $1,000 in cash and a handful of properties with houses. It wasn't looking great. A few turns passed, then Jonas rolled. He jumped his tiny car from one square to the next. Boardwalk. He looked up at Leah, red faced, incredulous. "That's it," he said. "I'm out." He stood up and headed to the trash, thrusting his notes into it and storming off to his room. "Oh come on," Leah called after him. "It's just a game!"
That night as he got into bed, I lay down beside Jonas and reminded him it really was just a game. It didn't mean anything about his intelligence, his ability to be successful in the real estate market or anything else.
"But Leah didn't do any work," he said, furious. "I did all this research and I studied the different strategies. I spent all this time learning things I'll never need. It takes about five turns to go around the board. Seven is the number most commonly rolled. You roll a six or an eight 15 percent of the time, doubles 17 percent of the time," he rattled off, fighting back tears. "I followed all the rules and all the things they said to do. And Leah just rolled the dice, bought Boardwalk and won."
I looked at my son who finds comfort in numbers, who is always looking for a set of rules to follow in an uncertain world, one where too often dumb luck -- not hard work or integrity or intelligence -- makes someone a winner. "Yeah," I told him. "It's not fair, but that's how it goes sometimes."
He dried his eyes and lay down on his pillow. "Well next time I'm just rolling the dice," he said. "No notes."