Interview: Phil Orbanes, Monopoly Expert (Part One)
Phil Orbanes is former VP of Parker Brothers, Chief Judge for the US and World Monopoly Championships, and author of The Monopoly Companion.
When did you first play Monopoly?
I was eight. I was born and raised in Cape May County, NJ. My aunts and uncles invited me to play for the first time, and I recognized the names of the street on the game board. It just seemed very natural to me, because Atlantic City was really the only major city that I knew as a kid growing up. Playing it for the first time was also eye-opening because I was able to hold my own against my favorite aunts and uncles, who were, you know, 10, 15 years older than me.
Did that experience get you hooked on board games?
Probably because of Monopoly, I started inventing my own games as a kid and eventually started my own little game company in college. I sold it to a New York-based firm before I graduated.
One of the high points of my career was being sort of the resident expert and Monopoly historian during the 12 years that I was at Parker Brothers, from 1979 to 1990. It was during that era that I became the chief judge at US and World Championships—and I still serve to this day.
Is winning more a matter of chance, risk assessment, damage control—
—or more skill? Well, I think the classic answer was given by my friend Chris Campbell, who also worked with me at Parker Brothers, and Chris’s answer is Monopoly is 75% skill and 75% luck. What he means is that in any given case, either luck or skill can predominate. Now, if luck predominates, great skill at times can overcome it. If skill predominates, then the player who really understands the math of the game in particular and who’s the better negotiator, well, he’s the person with the better skill level and he’s bound to win. Monopoly’s very much like real life: there’s a component of risk and uncertainty in it, and you need to do the best you can with what luck gives you.
It sounds like negotiation is a fairly important skill to winning a game of Monopoly.
I like to think that the essence of winning Monopoly boils down to the two N’s—Negotiation and Numbers. Negotiation is the skill to get what you need from your opponents without alienating them in the process. I like to think of a good negotiator in Monopoly as a player that the opponents wouldn’t mind losing to. The other N, Numbers, means that you know inside-out all the rates of return on investments for one, two, three, four houses or a hotel on every property, you know the odds of rolling each number of the dice and where you’re likely to land, you know the distribution of gains and losses in the two card decks, you really know the mathematical heartbeat of the game without guessing at it.
What are some of your strategies?
One of the great strategies of the game is to acquire the red or the orange group of properties above any others. They are the best in terms of landing percentages because they lie the ideal distance in front of Jail.
The second strategy, which again goes back to really understanding the numbers, is to develop your group as quickly as possible to the three-house level. If you look at any property deed, you’ll notice a terrific jump in rent between two houses on the property and three. So two houses usually gets you a nice rent but three can be a killer rent. The goal for most players is to get one of the better groups, meaning a group that is reasonably priced to develop, and then immediately develop it up to three houses.
I guess that would be more advantageous than a hotel, because buying a hotel would then release those houses back onto the market?
Well, that’s another strategy—the housing shortage. That’s based on controlling as many houses as possible and not going on to hotels, the reason being there’s a fixed number of houses and hotels in the game: 32 houses and 12 hotels. If you have a group and you have 12 houses on it, you’re already controlling nearly 40% of the housing supply. Another basic strategy is early in the game buy everything you land on. You’ll need trading material to get a group, more often than not.
Let’s talk about aberrations. Have you ever seen extremely unlikely outcomes?
A classic example is back in 1980, at the US Championship in New York City. The crowd favorite was a ten-year-old boy named Angelo Repole from Staten Island, who was the Eastern Regional champion. He was up against the reigning US champion, Dana Terman from Washington, DC. Late in the game, it looked like the ten-year-old was going to win hands-down because he was in Jail—perfect place to be late in the game—he couldn’t get caught on Dana’s Boardwalk-Park Place. Angelo had hotels on the purples, and Dana was coming around to them, and Dana had no cash. So if Dana landed on any one of those hotels, he would have been forced to tear down his houses on Boardwalk and Park Place, and that would have secured the victory for Angelo. And we at Parker Brothers were pretty excited about that possibility, because it meant we’d have the youngest player ever going to the World Championship.
But here’s where fate intervened. On his first roll in Jail, Angelo threw double-six. Well, double-six is the only double throw from Jail that will take you to Chance. And even before he landed on Chance, 12 spaces away, he knew he had lost the game. Because, like any good player, he had counted—and realized that 15 out of the 16 Chance cards had already been played, and that the only card in the deck of 16 that had not come up was the “Advance to Boardwalk.”
Are you serious?
The odds of this happening are 1 in 36, multiplied by 1 in 16, making it 1 in 576 or something like that. That’s what cost him the victory.
[Checking on cell phone calculator] That’s…you’re exactly right, 1 in 576.
So you can see it’s just a little bit less than 2/10ths of a percent chance that that would happen, and yet that’s what happened.
What have you done since leaving Parker Brothers?
For the last 15 years, I have run a company named Winning Moves Games—we’re a specialty game-maker in Danvers, MA—and we have an affiliation with Hasbro. We do special versions of Monopoly and Scrabble and Risk and whatnot. So I still have a sense of identity with my days at Parker Brothers, where these games were the top brands.
Have you developed any new games that you are particularly excited about?
We have a new strategy game called Cirkis. It’s a piece-placement game where players take turns placing colorful, geometric pieces on the board in an attempt to complete circles and stars. The way the grid is laid out, there are several circular shapes and star shapes on the board. Completing them earns you points, and you use the scoring tag to advance and show your progress. The player who scores 40 points first is the winner. It’s a very intense, very easy-to-learn but very engaging strategy game for two to four players. You can be practically any age and play it.
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Click here for Part Two of the interview.