Intense? That's How They Roll
For Monopoly's Top Players, U.S. Title Yields Real Pressure -- and Payday

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009

Just in time for Tax Day, a mortgage meltdown parable for our times. It's got drama, it's got desperation, it's got soaring triumphs and splendiferous crashes. It's got a race car and a thimble and a little Scottie, and an iron no one ever seems to choose. It's the 2009 Monopoly U.S. National Championship, held in Union Station yesterday afternoon and sometimes hitting very close to home.

"If you don't work with me," calls out one exasperated player above the din of the preliminary rounds, "then those two are gonna make a deal here soon and sew everything up!"

Capitalism and veiled threats dominate conversations all throughout the four-person tables in the main hall, as competitors race to achieve the game's goal: Accumulate faux streets with faux money, build plastic houses and bankrupt all other players by charging them rent when they land on your properties.

"How far are we? Are we in the ballpark? . . . What? Do you think I'm made of gold over here?" Defending national champ Matt McNally tries to orchestrate a property trade.

"Take your time. Take your time." Tim Vandenberg soothes the rattled guy sitting across from him. "But are you interested in [the orange-colored properties]? Because right now it's not looking real good for you."

Nails are bitten. Fists are pounded. Vandenberg's dad, Tom, slides over periodically to refill his son's water glass. Hydrate, Tim, hydrate! Hovering outside the velvet-roped partition, a group of fans wears shirts emblazoned with a player's face. "Adam Menendez is our Monopoly Man!" they say.

Extreme? Ya think? But, like the Olympics, the Monopoly championship normally occurs just once every four years. And $20,580 in grand-prize money -- the total funds in a standard Monopoly game -- is nothing to scoff at.

The road here has not been easy for these 28 finalists. They all passed a test on Monopoly trivia, followed by an essay exam on Monopoly theory and finally a qualifying round of Internet play. On the way, the mighty fell. Lee Bayrd, a former world champion, barely missed the cut. He's here anyway, to play an exhibition match and to coach another player, but he still says some of the essay questions were ludicrous. "The questions they ask can't be answered," Bayrd says. "Would I rather have all the reds or all the yellows? The real answer is, well, how much time is left? How much money does my opponent have? Where is their current position on the board?"

And what about luck?

Luck isn't mentioned here. At this advanced level, with the addition of a game-complicating "speed die," Monopoly becomes less luck, more strategy and personal manipulation, cajoling other players to buy, build, swap. It's the economy as Kabuki theater -- entire housing tragedies condensed into 90-minute exercises, with exaggerated facial expressions and orange funny money. It's surprisingly affecting.

By the championship round, the original 28 finalists have been culled to college student Brandon Baker, nonprofit worker Dale Crabtree, lawyer Richard Marinaccio and Vandenberg, a sixth-grade teacher. McNally never came out of his earlier slump, and these four finalists are all Monopoly nobodies. They take their places around a platform in the middle of the main hall, surrounded by felled players and television cameras.

Marinaccio rolls first, hits a three, snaps up Baltic Avenue. "Good call, good call," the audience says.

Yes, good call, Home Buyer. Snap up those properties. You can afford it! You've been pre-approved!

"It was $220, I flipped it for $250." Vandenberg shares his investment strategy.

Flipping! A sure-fire way to make a quick buck.

Baker engages in a questionable property trade. The surrounding crowd gasps.

Shortly afterward, Baker goes bankrupt.

The mood at the championship table begins to get a little frantic.

"You wouldn't be interested in Park Place, would you?" Crabtree says to Marinaccio and Vandenberg.

Oh, now you want to offload your mistake?

Vandenberg tries to keep Crabtree in the game with an elaborate, mutually beneficial scheme. "You'd now have the cash to build. You could get back in this real quick."

Take the bailout, Dale! Take the bailout!

But he doesn't. He goes bankrupt.

And after a few minutes, Vandenberg's out, too, after depleting his cash stash and mortgaging his properties.

Marinaccio emerges the winner, grinning and posing for pictures, saying that he'll use the money to pay off student loans.

No, Richard! Can't you see this is the time to buy a house? It's sure to appreciate soon!

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