By TOBY ORLANDER THALER
As the flames of the menorah do their dance, sizzling on their cork pods, giving off a faint olive-oil scent, mingling with the aroma of freshly made latkes, I feel a warmth engulfing me that’s not coming entirely from the heat of the flames. I’m surrounded by my children and grandchildren; we are having our annual Chanukah gathering.
We play the traditional dreidel game with the younger children, whose attention span is cut short by the Chanukah presents waiting to be unwrapped. We also have a traditional Chanukah quiz game, and it’s one of the great highlights of our festivities.
Here is a quiz question that stumped even my “genius” grandson, a grand master of trivia.
“What game saved lives in World War II?”
If you don’t know, let me fill you in on a very interesting story.
I say, “Monopoly,” and you’re probably thinking “Great game!” “A classic!” “Been around forever!” You might even have your own favorite symbol — the iron, the Scottie, perhaps the wheelbarrow. I’ll bet you’re among the many people who are unaware that the Monopoly game saved the lives of some 10,000 prisoners of war, Allied soldiers captured throughout Europe during the Second World War.
It all started with Christopher Clayton Hutton, who in 1939 presented himself to the British MI-9, offering his services to the War Office. He had little in the way of recommendation for a job as intelligence officer. Having served for a short time in the RAF, he then became a journalist and Hollywood publicity man. Not exactly the right credentials for intelligence work, until he mentioned an encounter with the famous Houdini and his fascination with illusion. Hutton, or “Clutty” as he was called, told his interviewer, Major Russell, how he “almost” got the better of the “escapologist” Houdini.
In April 1915 Clutty wrote a letter to Houdini inviting him to accept the dare of escaping from a wooden box built on a stage by a master carpenter, from Clutty’s father’s own timber mill. He proposed that Houdini come on stage, enter the box which would be nailed down and secured by a rope, in view of the entire audience. The challenge was to escape without demolishing the box. Houdini accepted the challenge on condition that he be allowed to visit the mill and meet the carpenter in advance.
Clutty, a naive 20-year-old, arranged the meeting, and only realized once it was too late that Houdini used that time to bribe the carpenter, and a scheme was put into play where the end of the box could be removed, and Houdini could escape undetected.
This marked the beginning of Clutty’s obsession with escape and illusion.
Hearing this tale, Major Russell was wise enough to recognize Clutty’s passion and calling, and immediately put him to work on building tools that could be concealed and used to help POWs (Prisoners of War) escape.
With his new rank as lieutenant, Clutty and his team created numerous gadgets: compasses concealed in buttons, knives concealed in the heels of shoes and telescopes in cigarette holders. Yet no matter how clever the gadget, inevitably the Nazis figured it out.
Until the brilliant scheme that Clutty conceived, which in turn saved many, many lives and wouldn’t be declassified until five decades later.
In 1935, Parker Brothers, the owners of Monopoly, entered the English market by licensing the game to Waddington Ltd., manufacturers of packaging and printing. They saw big potential in the game. In 1936 Monopoly hit the streets of London adapted for the English market, and it was an immediate success.
When Great Britain entered the war they realized that every pilot and every soldier would need some kind of map, to aid in their eventual escape if captured. Waddington Ltd. had perfected a system whereby printing on silk was made possible without the dyes running. They were commissioned to print maps for the air force, and every airman had a map sewn into his uniform. This was a solution for those soldiers or airmen downed behind enemy lines who managed to evade capture — but what about those imprisoned in POW camps?
The best secret weapon that MI-9 had was Clutty. Although considered a loose cannon, eccentric, with no respect for rules or orders, Clutty was given free rein to develop tools for evasion and escape, which is what soldiers were being trained for. Clutty realized that the Nazis were allowing games to be sent to the POWs, believing those games would help them keep the prisoners docile. Clutty was determined to invent escape and evasion devices that the Nazis wouldn’t, couldn’t, discover.
Clutty came up with an ingenious idea. Waddington was already producing silk maps, and much could be hidden in a Monopoly game board. Real money — the soldiers would need cash once they escaped — could be hidden among the fake bills. Waddington assigned a few very trusted workers to work on the boards and conceal the special items created by Clutty and his team.
They used molds to cut out the forms of the instruments to be embedded. Files, compasses and saws were hidden in the cut-outs on the board, and then pasted over with the game.
The boxes had special codes to identify which maps were inside, enabling the correct games to be delivered to the correct POW camp. There were different maps for Norway and Sweden, for France and Germany, and for Italy. The little Monopoly game pieces were used to hide mini tools.
A very sophisticated network of “charities” was set up in England to send care packages to the POWs. Those packages included books, articles of clothing, sports equipment and most important, games.
Before taking off on their missions, airmen were told how to identify the rigged Monopoly sets; there was a small red dot located in the corner of the “free parking” square. Once the games arrived at the camps, there were a handful of airmen who unpacked and distributed the tools and money to those ready to attempt an escape. Great attention was paid to destroying the game boards and any other evidence that the Monopoly sets were rigged. Indeed, no known games have been retrieved after the war.
Of the estimated 35,000 Allied POWs who escaped during the war years, more than 10,000 of those credit their safe flight to the rigged Monopoly sets. Perhaps the line “It’s not who wins, it’s how you play the game” has a special meaning when applied to Clutter’s war-time Monopoly games.