Even before Ronald Leach first rolled the dice on the Monopoly board, he had resolved to be the owner of Boardwalk, at any cost.
As the most expensive property in the century-old game of entrepreneurship, it was an excellent investment, the 14-year-old believed. Around him were about a dozen other players, divided into three games at the Spaulding Branch Library in District Heights. Winning would mean free cupcakes and bragging rights.
As Prince George’s County continues to reel from being one of the hardest-hit areas in the Washington region during the financial crisis and from the slayings of six students in six months, a form of counterprogramming is happening inside a windowless room at the back of the library: tables of teenagers playing Monopoly, with the bonus of good food.
“I’ve played at home when I was a kid, but this is the Super Bowl of Monopoly,” Ronald, an eighth-grader at Drew-Freeman Middle School, said one recent evening. “I’ve never played like this before. It’s really serious.”
The library has long been popular among a group of local teenagers, librarian Victoria Johnson said. Many stay to play on the computer or hang out with friends.
The Monopoly program offers something different. The players, ages 11 to 26, may come to get away from the stresses of life. But the founder of the group hoped they would see parallels between Monopoly and the prospects of their success: Both are games of choice and chance.
“We’re trying to teach them financial literacy, but we don’t tell them that,” said Kim Carrington, the Prince George’s substitute teacher and parent activist who started the program. “We tell them what a great game it is.”
Carrington remembered the raucous games she and her husband played with their six kids, now 19 to 26. They grew up to be property owners and founders of start-ups. She attributes it to nights of debates over building houses and hotels on Boardwalk.
About a year ago, she began thinking about incorporating the board game into the lifeblood of Prince George’s, the way cutthroat chess games are played in parks and libraries in some big cities. Eventually, Carrington wants to host a countywide Monopoly competition in which the winner would receive actual money.
But first, the youths needed to learn how to play competitively, one library at a time. So Carrington worked with Spaulding to host games every few Mondays. She got her sister to cater them. By February, a small trend was born. The cost of the venture: $95.
For County Council member Mel Franklin (D-District 9), Carrington’s work represents a type of entrepreneurship of its own: a no-frills program that could make a difference in times of tight budgets and growing concern about youths in Prince George’s.
“The big concern we’re really looking at is we’re losing far too many of our youth down the wrong path,” Franklin said.
“This kind of program gives them a fun thing to do that’s positive.”
Positive, but also aggressive. Far from Ronald’s table, Carrington’s son Brian, 19, helped coach players on the finer points of the game. Before Brian started playing, the teens would just circle their pieces — the shoe, the dog and the iron among them — around the board, collecting fake money for each round and riffling it through their fingers.
“Started from the bottom, now we’re here,” one rapped, invoking a popular song by Drake, while counting her faux hundreds.
Brian Carrington encouraged them to start buying properties in the same color group: orange for a trio of mid-level properties, green for spiffier real estate, all modeled on places in the Atlantic City area. And then build houses on those properties and collect rent. Start small, try to get bigger. He asked the players to make deals with one another.
All of a sudden at one table, an 11-year-old boy who owned a pricey green property transformed into a wheeler-dealer, trying to persuade an 18-year-old girl from Forestville High School to sell the other two properties in the set at fire-sale prices. In exchange, she wouldn’t have to pay rent every time she landed on one of his properties.
“What do you say?” the boy asked, looking innocent.
“Don’t do it! You’re going to lose money!” the girl’s friend advised. “You have more of the property; you should be negotiating with him!”
She turned down the deal.
Meanwhile, at Ronald’s table, another player decided to build houses on North Carolina Avenue, in the green group.
“You can’t buy property there!” said Latrisha Avery, 17. “Because I got the other property right next to it, and you need all of them to build houses. So you aren’t building nothing until you pay me.”
“Calm down, Trish,” Ronald said.
Latrisha knew what she wanted: Boardwalk. The big kahuna. With each roll of the dice, she said a prayer to land on the elusive property, which cost $400 in play money.
“I will pay someone $1,000 for Boardwalk!”
“$1,500!” Ronald then counter-offered.
No deal. And then someone landed on Boardwalk and bought it. Ronald and Latrisha lost out.
Ronald jumped out of his chair and buried his face in his hands. “It’s not fair.”
And then he started negotiating. $400? $600?
“Fine,” he eventually agreed. “$1,000.”
He began dancing around the library, singing, “I’ve got Boardwalk!” And then time was up.
As the players counted the worth of their properties, Kim Carrington and her sister served them pasta salad. Trish ended up with the largest stash of play cash.
“What was that excitement all about?” Carrington asked Ronald.
“Well, I paid all this money for Boardwalk,” he said. “But, on second thought, maybe I shouldn’t have bought it. If I didn’t, I would have won. I didn’t ever make back the money.”
Carrington smiled. They were learning the lessons.
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