Islamic banking | Sharianomics

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August 12, 2004 - Britain's first Islamic bank gets official approval

THE scriptural advice is clear: banking will not get you into the Almighty's good books. All three of the Abrahamic religions frown on usury. But while most Christians and Jews long ago found ways of squaring the needs of their businesses with the demands of their faith, many Muslims still believe that charging or paying interest is wrong.

Until recently this meant that the devout were excluded from British banks, which all pay interest on deposits and charge it on loans. Middle Eastern firms developed sharia-approved financial services in the 1970s, and the global market is now worth about $200 billion, according to Permal, a finance house involved in the sector. Islamic mortgages have been available in Britain (from the Ahli United Bank) since 1997, and HSBC launched a halal mortgage in 2003.

Last week regulators granted a licence to Britain's first sharia-compliant bank, the Islamic Bank of Britain. It plans to offer Islamic versions of traditional services—deposit accounts, personal loans and mortgages—in Muslim areas of Leicester, Birmingham and London, although the bank will be open to anyone. "We'll compete with all the major banks up and down the high street," says Michael Hanlon, the managing director.

So how will it work? On top of banning interest, the Koran prohibits "making money from money" and investment in sectors considered immoral. Deposit accounts will operate rather like unit trusts, with funds invested on the depositor's behalf and a share of the profits replacing interest payments. A sharia committee will make sure that no money goes to questionable outfits involved in, for example, pornography or alcohol—or usurious, non-Islamic banking. Mortgages and loans will use a "hire-purchase" scheme whereby the bank buys goods on the customer's behalf. He then pays the bank a series of instalments until the cost, plus a profit for the bank, has been met.

Some of this may seem like hair-splitting—for example, a normal interest-bearing loan is, in effect, the same as the bank's hire-purchase system—but the distinction matters to many. Mr Hanlon points out that those among Britain's 1.8m Muslims who were previously unwilling to take out a mortgage will now be able to buy a house. Even religious demands create their own supply.

Go | The game to beat all games

http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=3445214

The most intellectually testing game ever devised?

THE heavyweight pros on late-night cable television boast nicknames such as Monster, Razor, Butcher, Assassin and Knitting Needle. The most famed matches in history include the Blood Vomiting Game of 1835, the Famous Killing Game of 1926 and the Atomic Bomb Game of 1945. No, this is not some bone-crushing contact sport. It is a simple parlour game where two opponents, comfortably seated and often equipped with nothing more than folding paper fans and cigarettes, take turns placing little stones, some black, some white, on a flat wooden grid. Simple regarding rules and gear, that is, yet so challenging that in this mind-game, unlike chess, and despite the long-standing offer of a $1.6m reward for a winning program, no computer has yet been able to outwit a clever ten-year-old.

The game known in English as go—Igo in Japanese, Weiqi in Chinese, Baduk in Korean—is not just more difficult and subtle than chess. It may also be the world's oldest surviving game of pure mental skill. Devised in China at least 2,500 years ago, it had stirred enough interest by the time of the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) to inspire poets, philosophers and strategic theorists. One of these strategists, Huan Tan (who died in 56AD), advises in his work “Xin Lun”, or “New Treatise”, that the best approach in the game is to “spread your pieces widely so as to encircle the opponent.” Second best is to attack and choke off enemy formations. The worst strategy is to cling to a defence of your own territory—a warning that would have benefited, say, the designers of France's 1930s Maginot line.

Don't expect to stop

Go also had a place in Han-era folklore, in the form of the oft-illustrated story of the woodcutter, Wang Zhi. Wandering in a forest, he is said to have happened upon two sages playing a game. Wang settled down to watch, and became so absorbed that when at last one of the players suggested he should go home, he found that the handle of his axe had rotted entirely away. Returning to his village and recognising no one, Wang realised he had been gone for a hundred years. A small exaggeration, perhaps, yet the tale says much about the enduring fascination of a game that begins with an empty board and slowly evolves into ever-increasing complexity.

Although the roots of chess extend to ancient India and Persia, its present rules were fixed only in the early 19th century. Arabic manuscripts do record, move for move, chess-like games from a thousand years ago, but the oldest fully registered game played by recognisably modern rules took place in Barcelona in 1490. By contrast, the earliest completely recorded game of go, pitting Prince Sun Ce against his general, Lu Fan, and showing tactics almost exactly the same as those used today, is believed to date from 196AD. The 12th-century go manual, “Wang You Qing Le Ji”, or “Collection of the Carefree and Innocent Pastime”, includes dozens of complete, numbered diagrams from actual games that were certainly played during the Tang dynasty (618-907AD), as well as complex puzzles that remain testing for present-day amateurs.

Tang-dynasty fashion ranked proficiency at go as one of the “four accomplishments” necessary for a cultivated gentleman, along with lute-playing, calligraphy and painting. It was during this era that the passion for go, like so much of the high culture of metropolitan China, made its way to such outlying kingdoms as Korea, Tibet and, most infectiously, Japan. Go was all the rage in Japanese courtly circles by the 11th century, as is known from its appearance in Lady Murasaki's great novel of the time, “The Tale of Genji”, in the famous—and again often-illustrated—scene where Prince Genji spies through a screen on two ladies playing the game.

As in China, go in Japan remained for centuries a mere aristocratic pastime, until a sudden flowering under the shoguns of the Edo period (1603-1867). Many of the great warlords of that age being themselves aficionados—in the belief that go provided excellent training for military tactics and strategy—it was not surprising that patronage of the game should have flourished. Four great go schools, all sponsored by the state, were established during the 17th century, as was the ranking system for players that is still used today and the supreme position of Meijin, or go-master to the shogun himself. Meijin Dosaku (who died in 1702), the fourth head of the Honinbo go school, is held by many Japanese to have been the game's greatest player. Although records of only 153 of his matches are preserved, he is said to have achieved the biggest advances in theory since the invention of go.

Proper patronage, professionalisation and the rivalry between schools certainly elevated the standard of play in Japan far above that in China. It was in Japan, too, that skill in the manufacture of go equipment reached its peak, in the cutting of perfect boards from the rare, 700-year-old kaya tree, the use of slate for the black pieces and clamshell for the white, and in the fashioning of bowls made of precious mulberry wood to keep them in. Today, a new, top-quality set of this type may cost $150,000.

Not even the end of state go sponsorship that came with the 1868 Meiji revolution—Japan's dramatic opening to the West and its headlong embrace of modernism—was to dent this dominance. By the 1880s, Tokyo newspapers had begun sponsoring go tournaments on a scale that made it possible both to sustain high standards and to maintain a class of full-time professional players. When they ventured abroad before the 1930s, to Japan's new colonies of Taiwan and Korea, and then to Manchuria, or into the warlord-torn Chinese hinterlands, such players felt obliged to handicap themselves by granting native opponents large advantages.

A century of surprises

That has changed. The past century has been the most dramatic in go history. The first surge of excitement came in 1926, when a Japanese pro, Iwamoto Kaoru, discovered a 12-year-old prodigy by the name of Wu Qing Yuan in Beijing. Once word of the boy's skill had reached Japan, invitations were soon forthcoming. By the time he was 19, Mr Wu was beating Japan's top players. Having eliminated all rivals, he won the honour in 1933 of battling the tenth reigning Meijin, Honinbo Shusai, 21st in the line of masters of the great Honinbo school.

Mr Wu's opening, a sharp, direct lunge for territory, was seen as shocking, even insulting, to his elder. The ailing Meijin eventually carried the match, but only just, and after shamelessly exploiting his rank to postpone play 13 times, over three months. It was even rumoured that his brilliant, tide-turning 160th move had been devised, in breach of strict rules, by one of the Honinbo disciples.

Five years later, Shusai was unseated by a friend of Mr Wu's, in another excruciatingly long match that was to become the subject of an allegorical novel about the decline of old Japan by Yasunari Kawabata, who won the 1968 Nobel prize for literature. Soon after, Mr Wu beat his friend and, over the next 20 years, until he was injured by a motorcycle while crossing a Tokyo street, the Chinese prodigy proceeded to crush every one of Japan's top professionals in an unbroken sequence of victorious ten-game super-matches, known as juban-go.

Mr Wu's game declined after his accident, and he retired from professional play in 1983. Still, at 90 years of age, he has had the pleasure of seeing his own countrymen re-emerge as serious challengers for global ascendance. During the Cultural Revolution, go was demoted from its place among the “four accomplishments” to become one of the four, discarded, “rotten pasts”. Yet in the 1970s a few Chinese players, among them Nie Weiping, who had spent years on a pig farm in internal exile, managed to chalk up individual successes against Japanese opponents. In the 1980s the Chinese began to score team wins with growing frequency, until in 1996 the Japanese cancelled a series of bilateral contests because the results had grown embarrassing.

Significantly, the only two women to reach the rank of nine-dan, roughly equivalent to grand master in chess, are Chinese, and both have emerged within the past 15 years. One of them, Rui Naiwei, is among the world's top 15 players. In 2000 the Iron Lady, as Ms Rui is often called, trounced the world's two top-seeded male players, one after the other in a single tournament.

China's resurgence may not be surprising. Half of the world's 30m or so go players are Chinese, and sponsorship has grown in China, along with general prosperity. China now fields some 300 professional players, compared with 450 in Japan.

The new phenomenon in go is the meteoric rise of South Korea, a country long regarded by its neighbours as a backwater. The first Korean to be noticed internationally was Cho Chik-un. Moving to Japan as a child, he went professional in 1967 at the age of 11. By the time he was 27, Mr Cho held all four top Japanese titles at once. Mr Cho still earns more than any other go player in Japan and, say some, ranks fifth in the world in skill.

Yet Mr Cho's record pales in comparison with South Korea's own Cho Hoon-hyun, currently the world number three. Preferring to stay in his native land, this Mr Cho won a record 16 consecutive Paewan titles, one of South Korea's swankiest, before losing, in 1992, to his own pupil, the current world champion, Lee Chang-ho. Mr Lee, whose legion of Korean fans call him the Stone Buddha, has the distinction of concurrently holding five out of the seven main international men's titles. He is thought to earn nearly $1m a year.

Korea is go-mad. With less than half Japan's population, it has almost three times as many active players. Go schools and clubs clog the halls of apartment buildings in Seoul, a city that supports two full-time go channels on cable television. No surprise, then, that Koreans have taken 41 out of the 54 international cups won since worldwide tournaments, rather than just national ones, were first launched in 1988. That compares with ten for Japan and three for China.

The grandest of all, the $400,000 Ing cup, established by a Taiwanese magnate and contested only once every four years, has never left Korea. The best-of-five games finals for the 2004 Ing cup will take place early in January, pitting Korea's latest bombshell, 19-year-old Choi Cheol-han, against China's 28-year-old Chang Hao. It promises to be a mighty clash, since—as the Chinese proverb says—chess is a battle, but go is war.

Play to win

http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=386127

Games and the Internet go well together

"GAMES have been on a 20-year detour," says Ed Fries, Microsoft’s vice-president of games publishing. Games, he points out, used to be mostly about socialising. People don’t play bridge for the cards, but for the other people. Then computers turned gaming into a solitary activity. But now that the Internet has linked everybody’s computers together, "Online is bringing back the social dimension into gaming," says Mr Fries.

Games are the stepchild of the entertainment industry. Until 25 years ago, they were hardly a business at all. Computer games created an industry, but the mainstream of the entertainment business still dismisses them as being for kids, geeks and other undesirables. They have no stars, so lack the glitter of celebrity. Few have intellectual pretensions. And they are part of the despised computer software industry. Hollywood has paid little attention to the games business.

But games have slowly been creeping up on the movie business. The industry got its big break when Sony’s Playstation was launched in Japan in 1994 and in America and Europe in 1995. Sony pushed the Playstation in clubs and at concerts, and turned games into something adult and hip by dint of what Peter Molyneux, Britain’s best-known games designer, calls "a miracle of modern marketing". The average age of a Playstation owner is 22; nearly a third are over 30.

In the past five years, from a standing start, Sony has wrested the market from Nintendo and Sega, selling 73m Playstations and 600m games. Now around half of all Japanese households, a third of American ones and a fifth of British ones have a console of one make or another.

Over the past five years, the games industry has been growing faster than any other part of the entertainment business. In terms of revenues, it is now running neck-and-neck with movie box office. Movies still make much more money once television sales, videos and licensing deals are included, but $20 billion a year worldwide shows how far the underdog games business has come.

It still has a long way to go. It remains skewed towards the young, and its customers are almost exclusively male (except in Japan). If women could be persuaded to play, it might really take off.

Technology has driven the growth so far, and will drive it much further. Games are now at the cutting edge of several different technologies. Until recently, it was computer-aided manufacturing and design that were leading advances in graphical interfaces; now it is games.

Unlike movies, which do not change much, games are getting better every year. Remember Space Invaders, the little beasts you used to burn up in the bar? Forget them, and try one of the current crop of games. The experience is entirely different. First, 3-D imagery made the pictures better; now the application of physics is making movement more realistic; and artificial intelligence is getting players emotionally involved. The result is that, according to Peter Molyneux, games are acquiring some of the sophistication of movies. "I want you to laugh, I want you to cry, I want you to do everything the film industry wants you to do." Only, unlike films, games are naturally interactive: the player, not the director, is always in control of the story.

Virtual playmates

Now games are taking the next big leap, on to the Internet. People in the games industry are much more positive about the Internet than those in other areas of the entertainment business. They are convinced that it will be the making of them. John Riccitiello, president of Electronic Arts, says that probably two or three times as many people are playing games online as offline. "It’s like a big party out there. Lots of people are wandering around, looking for something to do, and they are knocking on the door of the games business." Most of them are playing very simple stuff. The most popular is Tetris, a dull affair requiring players to stick pegs in holes. It is said to appeal to people who enjoy tidying up.

At the other end of the scale are the "massively multi-player games" (MMPGs), such as Ultima Online and EverQuest. These are role-playing games that grew out of Dungeons and Dragons, an old text-based cult game that started in the 1960s. Before computers were linked, people played by themselves. The next step was “multi-user dungeons”; then they went 2-D, and later 3-D; and now there are wild worlds where people can build alternative lives, go off on chivalrous quests, and team up with other players to fight dragons—or each other.

Players get hooked on the MMPGs. EverQuest, owned by Sony and currently the hottest, is nicknamed "Evercrack", because people find it so hard to get off it. On average, players spend 20 hours a week on it—not much less than the average viewer spends watching television. At its peak, there have been 60,000 people playing the game at once. It is, in part, the size and complexity of these worlds that keeps people in thrall: EverQuest, for example, features four continents and 25 countries.

But EverQuest has its limits. It may be one of the few entertainments on the Internet for which people are willing to pay—over 300,000 of them cough up $119 a year—but this is a pocket of obsessive, hardcore gamers, not the mainstream. Yair Landau, president of Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, explains that the games business is polarised. "At one end we have EverQuest, at the other we have Wheel of Fortune." Wheel of Fortune is a hugely popular game show, with an interactive version which the very few Americans with interactive television (through, for instance, WebTV) can play. But what Mr Landau really needs is something that combines the power of EverQuest (and its ability to remove money from people’s wallets) with the broad appeal of Wheel of Fortune—which is why Sony has bought an exclusive licence from George Lucas to create a Star Wars game, and has handed it over to the division that built EverQuest.

Like the movie business, the games business is limited by the bandwidth-constraint online, but it has more flexibility to get around the problem. For some games, such as EverQuest, most of the information needed to play the game—the world that appears on screen—is delivered by post, on a CD-Rom. The only information that has to travel down the wires is about the current state of play. Occasional updates, such as a seasonal winter scene, can be downloaded.

"My strategy for Electronic Arts", says John Riccitiello, "is to push ahead around the limitations." That is the idea behind Majestic, a game due to be released later this year that will try to immerse players in an experience without using much bandwidth. Once people have signed up for the game, and revealed their and their families’ e-mail addresses and fax numbers, they will start receiving mysterious communications, sending them to peculiar websites and entwining them in what should feel like a real-life mystery.

Now the consoles are going online. Playstation 2, due to be released in America and Europe this autumn, has a plug-in hard disk and broadband connection, as well as a DVD player. And Microsoft is getting into the business too. Its X-box, with a graphical interface supposedly superior to Sony’s, will also have a hard disk and Internet connection.

"The console is a Trojan horse" says Peter Molyneux. The idea is that games consoles are so powerful (the Playstation 2 has more computing power than a Pentium III) and have such sophisticated graphical interfaces that they can take over the job of the PC, the DVD and the television as well. Whether or not that happens, it looks as though Hollywood will have to start showing the once-despised games industry a little more respect.
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The ancient art of deception

http://www.economist.com/printedition/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=2257235

Iraqis are brilliant hiders and seekers, even when it's just for fun

AS AN aid to hunting Baathist fugitives, the Pentagon devised a poker deck featuring Saddam Hussein as the ace of spades. But America's sleuths might do better to borrow their methods from Iraq's own favourite parlour game, which is known as mahabis (rhyming with cannabis).

It takes a rather large parlour to stage a proper mahabis match, so the game is often played outdoors, traditionally during the long nights of Ramadan. The object is to find a hidden mahbas, or signet ring. Two teams, each numbering from 50 to 250 and seated in rows, face each other, taking turns to conceal the ring. The team leader, or sheikh, starts an innings by passing in front of his own team. With a blanket covering his hands, he stops in front of each player. When the pass is done, all players remain seated with closed fists in their lap, but only one holds the ring.

The fun begins when the rival sheikh approaches to scour the faces of his opponents. The sheikh can eliminate as many players as he wants, but he has only one chance to pick the exact hand that is holding the mahbas. If he chooses wrongly, his team loses a point and the ring stays with the successfully deceitful team for another round. The first team to lose 20 points loses the whole thing. Simple as the game sounds, the sheikh's task requires skill, cunning, a penetrating knowledge of human nature and immense powers of observation.

Before the war, the government itself ran a national mahabis tournament, with the finals beamed live on state television. Iraq's current troubles have made it hard to arrange such a large-scale event this year, but in Baghdad, at least, rival neighbourhoods still tussle.

At a youth club in the Karada district, local boys face visitors from Dora, across the river. Fadhil Abbas, Karada's burly captain, is all ferocity, nostrils blasting thick shafts of cigarette smoke as he stalks Dora's ranks. "You lot, out," he barks, sending off 20 players. A few minutes later he has dismissed all but four, and they have scarcely settled down before Mr Abbas lunges at one of them, so startling him that he cries out as his tormentor triumphantly extracts the ring.

The trick, explains Mr Abbas, is to understand that the eyes which stayed watchful, rather than relaxing, in the instant after he declared that only four players remained were the eyes of the ring-holder. Asked if his talents might be used for hunting down Saddam Hussein, he just grins and shakes his head.

Shies, calx and bullies

http://www.economist.com/diversions/displayStory.cfm?story_id=2204483

Don't rush to mock the world's dullest game

It's arguably the world's most elite sport. And to spectators, certainly one of the dullest. The wall game is played on only one ground in the world, at Eton College, a few miles west of London; and even there, only by a select few of the school's 70 “collegers”, or scholarship-holders, plus a small number of “oppidans”, the fee-payers who comprise most of the school's roughly 1,300 pupils. Add a few former (or unsuspecting) players invited to make up the occasional visiting side, and you have the wall game community of the planet.

There are no wall-game leagues, no points tables, no ruling body, and the only match that matters is the annual one between collegers and oppidans, formerly played on St Andrew's Day, November 30th, but now on a Saturday a few days earlier. In that game, and earlier ones as the two sides (separately) get in practice for it, the usual scoreline is 0-0. Last year, with Britain's Prince Harry playing for them, the oppidans achieved a rare 2-0 win.


Why such a low score? For a start, the playing area: bounded on one side by a high brick wall, it is 110 metres long but only five wide. Then the game itself. Massed beside the wall in a scrum, a half-dozen mud-caked players, collectively called the “bully”, try laboriously to push the rival half-dozen―as well as the ball, usually invisible and almost incidental in this struggle―to the far end of the field.

Two or three more from each ten-man side wait, usually on hands and feet, and even muddier, in formation beside them. One, clean-faced and upright, lags behind, hoping the ball will emerge loose from the bully, so he can kick it forward off the playing area: a valuable opportunity, since play will restart opposite where the ball comes to rest, not where it went out of play.

With no width to allow open play, that is about the only means of gaining ground at speed. But it is rare: it depends on a blunder by the other side, since you can't pass the ball backward, or simply leave it behind as you advance, for your man to kick. Nor can you pick it up and run with it. The standard way forward is to shove and shove, inch by hard-earned inch. With two well-matched teams and only 30 minutes of play, often neither side reaches its opponent's end at all.

And if you do at last get that far, the final few yards, marked off by a white line up the wall, are called calx―Latin for “chalk”, probably from that white line. Once there, if you can lift the ball up against the wall with your foot and touch it with your hand, you earn a “shy”, worth one point.

A shy also gives you the right to throw the ball at “goal”: at one end a garden wall, at the other a tree (an ancient and giant oak until recently, when first it died and then the stump, still serving as the goal, was set alight by vandals and a young tree had to be planted in its place). Hit the target and you have scored a goal, worth ten points. But the angle to the door is acute and the young tree slim. It can be done; indeed, a goal was scored in a junior game a few weeks ago, but St Andrew's Day games have been goalless since 1909.

So the usual outcome is much mud, toil and sweat, little movement and no score. But less blood than in the past. In the good old days when The Economist's reporter played, the rules allowed “knuckling”: plant your fist, gently and not with a blow, anywhere on an opponent's face except his eyes, and rotate it. The fist was usually gloved, often encrusted with dried mud, and to the victim the effect was like being sandpapered.

Wise players did not do too much of this, for fear more would be done back to them. It is now banned. Yet this is still a rugged game, and for all the protective headgear worn by the “walls” (those players next to it) flesh is still soft, brick both hard and abrasive. How come, the non-aficionado will ask, that such a slow and at times painful sport survives?

One answer is simply that it has done so since at least the 1760s and probably longer: the wall was built in 1717. Another is that it gives the 70 collegers, who like to think of themselves as the brains of Eton, the chance to show that they are anyone's equal at games too. The wall game is essentially a collegers' sport: even now, they have a ceremony in piam memoriam JKS―J.K. Stephen, a great colleger player (and in later years a very minor poet) of the 1870s. Collegers have more chance to play than most oppidans do, and greater skills can make up for the greater brawn available among their more numerous rivals.

A third reason may seem unbelievable to those who have never played this game: it's fun. Buried in that sweating, unmoving bully are skills and achievement that few watchers—not even the boys looking down from atop the wall— will see, let alone understand. Boys like rough games. They like to have skills, even arcane ones. They like to compete, however eccentric the game. Ask the synchronised swimmers, the shot-putters, the hop-skip-and-jumpers before you rush to mock the world's dullest game.

Thrills and skills

http://www.economist.com/books/displayStory.cfm?story_id=2227280

Monopoly and other games that conquered the world

IT IS a fair bet that many readers of this newspaper gained their first understanding of capitalism from playing Monopoly. A number will have also started thinking about the elements of geopolitics over the board of Risk; a murder-mystery game, Clue, teaches deduction; Careers (now renamed the Game of Life), teaches important truths about priorities and rewards. Just how the inventive George Parker and his brothers developed these marvels is the subject of Philip Orbanes's new book.

The chance to pit wits and luck against chance, topology and imagination that is now offered by computer games used to be provided by dice, counters and a well-designed board. Parker products were sold as entertainment, but are educative and unforgettable too. The young player of Monopoly learns about asset values, cash flow and returns on investment. The Risk player must grapple with the fickleness of allies. All the games build a good understanding of probability. When you learn that the chance of shaking a double six is just one in 36, whereas a seven is the single most likely outcome, you are well on the way to making numbers your friend and ally for life.


Perhaps deepest of all are the lessons taught by Careers, in which players decide at the start of the game what combination of money, fame and pure happiness they will seek. Different careers bring different dividends and risks. Business is said to bring much money but little happiness. Politics brings fame, but misery; Hollywood may bring the lot, but is the most risky. Make priorities, stick to them, move quickly. Those are not bad rules for modern life. Although the categories are crude, and the details may seem off-puttingly quaint (boss's wife likes you, get a pay rise), the game teaches something about the utilitarian calculus at an age when philosophy and economics rarely feature on the timetable: different kinds of good fortune are not easily interchangeable. Happiness, when bought with money, often comes at a high price.

Parker Brothers' games also reflect the American world view of the 20th century. Life is a ruthless struggle in which there are many losers, but it takes place within a framework of unbendable and fair-minded rules. And when the game is over, you can just start over again, hoping to do better next time. Young children are often too nice to understand this, and, when playing Monopoly, will tax adults' patience by refusing to bankrupt other players, or by suggesting a cash injection all round from the central bank.

The Parkers' own story began in 1883, as America was just beginning to develop a middle class with time for leisure pursuits. At 16, George Parker invented a game to amuse his brothers on a wet afternoon. Banking, as it was called, unveiled his talent for game design. His brothers urged him to have some copies printed; all but two were sold, at a profit of $100. He set up a company. As it grew, he set his own 12 rules for success in business. They could come straight from a modern business book: know your goal, find winning moves, play by the rules, choose moves with the greatest potential, and so on.

The poverty-struck years of the Great Depression proved just the right time to launch the company's most successful game: one based on making lots of money. Monopoly was not invented by George Parker. When he played a trial version submitted by the inventor, Charles Darrow, he thought it was too complicated, too technical and it took too long to play. A rejection letter that was sent early in 1934 cited “52 fundamental errors”. A few months later, Parker had eaten his words. He bought the game from Darrow, and rewrote the rules in his trademark crystalline English. Within two years 2m sets of Monopoly had been sold. Parker, characteristically, publicly displayed his scornful letter to Darrow as a lesson in humility.

As with many family companies, the early genius eventually evaporated. The company still launched successful games, including Clue (or Cluedo, as it is called in Britain) in 1947, Careers in 1956 and the blockbuster Risk in 1959. But America's post-war boom disguised grave weaknesses in the company's management. This book, written by a company insider and games expert, is a slender, affectionate retrospective look at the firm's glory years, combined with a mournful account of its decline, including some well-aimed digs at those responsible. After a series of undignified and painful reverses, it is now a mere brand belonging to another games giant, Hasbro.

George Parker, always on the lookout for “pep”—his word for the new products with buzz—might be less sentimental. In his day, he ruthlessly ditched under-performing parts of his empire. Were Parker in charge today, his company would probably have moved firmly and successfully into computer games, which would no doubt be accompanied by instruction manuals of exquisite clarity.

The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers, from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit.
By Philip E. Orbanes.
Harvard Business School Press; 272 pages; $29.95