Monopoly is a game of token gestures: You push your wheelbarrow to Marvin Gardens or clip-clop your top hat to Community Chest. There are tokens of conspicuous consumption (sports car) and inconspicuous consumption (thimble). But nothing is more inconspicuous than the iron. "It's the smallest piece on the board," says Roger Craig. Small enough to hide behind an opponent's hotel. "If the hotel owner gets too distracted making a trade," Craig says, "you can sometimes get by without having to pay rent."
Craig is the iron man of big league Monopoly. Hopscotching the cardboard streets of Atlantic City last October, the 35-year-old tire salesman deflated 42 realestate tycoons at the National Monopoly Game Championship, in New York City. And on Sept. 13 Craig's iron will press into action again in Monte Carlo, that tax haven for the rich and infamous, where Craig and 36 other national champs will vie for the world title. The winner's prize is $15,140—the amount of play money in a Monopoly set.
World-championship Monopoly is far more intense than its slumber-party cousin. "Where I come from," he says, "we play Monopoly as hard as anything you can imagine." Craig comes from Harrisburg, a depressed coal-mining town in southern Illinois. "If you made a Monopoly board of Harrisburg," he says, "you'd have to do it out of banks, auto-parts stores and fast-food outlets. Even the K Mart is closed."
Eleven years ago Harrisburg residents held a Monopoly tournament for charity. "All our leading citizens showed up in tuxedos and finery," recalls Craig. "It was the biggest deal in town." One of his buddies won that first extravaganza. Craig won in '87, and again in '95. That propelled him into the nationals, against 41 other state winners plus the previous national champion.
The two preliminary rounds of the nationals were played on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building. In Craig's opening game, which was limited to 90 minutes, one of his three opponents—a 14-year-old girl from Kansas—quickly picked up the board's priciest monopoly, Boardwalk and Park Place. While Craig milked his minor holdings, the girl erected houses, then hotels. Landing in her luxury development three straight times nearly dried up Craig's assets. When he drew a Chance card that read, "Advance token to Boardwalk," he went belly-up.
Craig went into Game 2 needing a huge victory to stay in contention. Only the top four money-earners would qualify for the final. "Everyone else seemed to want to bust their opponents early," Craig says. "My plan was to let opponents make their fortunes, then bust them late." He did that by gobbling up everything he could and mortgaging himself to the hilt. After acquiring the red monopoly (Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky avenues) and building aggressively there, Craig carried his foes for more than half an hour. With time running out, the foe from North Carolina grumbled to the one from Maryland, "Roger's the only one who can win this game."
"I've known that for 30 minutes," said the Marylander.
"He's just keeping you in to get to the final round," said the North Carolinian.
"I've known that for 45 minutes."
"Then why are you still in the game?"