If you think your annual Thanksgiving Day Monopoly game is tough, because you play against your sticky-fingered brother-in-law, who has to be watched when he serves as the Banker, consider the game Carmel Elementary School students played Friday.

Three of the four teams were made up of advanced math students, two of them from Tim Vandenberg's advanced math classes, one a mix of fifth and seventh grade math "all-stars" and the fourth was a solo player: reigning United States Monopoly champion Matt McNally.

Oh, and the game was being filmed by a documentary film crew as well.

"You don't want to put it up for auction?" McNally asked 7th grader Amarris Dennison, the team captain of the all-stars team, shortly after play began. She toyed with the thimble piece just after having made the turn to the second side of the board.

"I'm sure," Dennison said, not sounding it.

"OK, I may not offer later," McNally replied, smiling. Since winning the championship in 2003 -- including a $15,140 purse, equal to the amount of play money each copy of the game ships with -- McNally, a stage manager for a Las Vegas show, spends a lot of time playing against students and serving as a living classroom prop.

But Dennison is no rookie, either: She was one of Vandenberg's students at Carmel last year, and when he announced his intention in January 2008 to take his class to a Monopoly tournament in Redlands in the spring, it was Dennison who defeated Lee Bayrd, the world's first Monopoly champion, in the first round of play.

"I've been using games for years," Vandenberg said. "At lunch time, we have a game club."

Indeed, the shelves of his classroom are stocked with dozens of board games, including more than two dozen sets of multiple versions of Parker Brothers' real estate game.

"It's instructional, which is why my principal is letting me do this."

"Anything that makes learning more fun, I approve of," said Carmel principal Chris Mauger. "Years from now, they're going to remember playing Monopoly against a world champion much more than if they'd just read about probability in a book."

The watching crowd behaved like golf tournament spectators: There might be brief outbursts of applause or groans, but for the most part, the players were the loudest people in the room, speaking in quiet voices, discussing trades and talking strategy. And, of course, it was still math class.

"I have a five in 36 chance of landing on New York [Avenue]," McNally said, shaking his dice.

"Aww!" the crowd sighed, as the dice came up in his favor.

The crowd encircling the players was in turn encircled by a production crew filming material for "Under the Boardwalk: A Monopoly Documentary," which is tracing the path to the October 2009 World Monopoly Championships in Las Vegas.

"First monopoly on the board goes to the fifth and seventh grade all-stars," Vandenberg announced, as other students updated the white board where all of the property information was being tracked, and the crowd applauded. "A natural monopoly, Mediterranean [Avenue] and Baltic [Avenue]."

A moment later, another monopoly, and it's the big one: The 6th grade boys team had paired the most expensive properties on the board: Park Place and Boardwalk.

"All other teams should start feeling nervous right now," Vandenberg said.

"How are you doing over there?" McNally teased Dennison. "Not feeling too good with Mediterranean and Baltic any more, are you?"

Anyone eating Thanksgiving dinner with Dennison, be warned before you pull out the Monopoly board: She and the 5th and 7th grade all-stars beat McNally in total winnings, making him the second national champion she's beaten this year.

For more information on "Under the Boardwalk," visit www.MonopolyDocumentary.com.

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.


Update from teacher Tim Vandenberg: "Here are the final scores after two hours of play, after totalling all cash, properities & houses. Dollar totals are approximate.

1st--$3600 asset value: 5th/7th Grade "All-Stars" (4 students from our gifted program representing the past & future of my 6th grade math class)."

2nd--$3200 asset value: Matt McNally, U.S. Champion

3rd--$2800 asset value: 6th Grade Boys

4th--$500 asset value: 6th Grade Girls

"The game was a blast, and Matt was an even better player, sportsman, and diplomat for the game than I could have ever expected. However, the strong will of all three teams to not fall into any sucker trades kept Matt from pulling out a victory. The winning team was actually led by a girl who defeated Lee Bayrd, former World Champion, in a tournament last year, so she's already got a couple of huge Monopoly wins under her belt, and she's only 12!"