FOLLOW-UP

In pursuit of the trivial millionaires

Patricia Hluchy October 1 1984
FOLLOW-UP

In pursuit of the trivial millionaires

Patricia Hluchy October 1 1984

In pursuit of the trivial millionaires

FOLLOW-UP

Patricia Hluchy

Chris Haney and Scott Abbott were playing Scrabble in Haney’s Montreal kitchen five years ago when they hit upon an idea: why not invent their own board game? During the next half-hour, Haney, then a photo editor at the Montreal Gazette, and Abbott, a sports writer for The Canadian Press, sketched out what would become Trivial Pursuit, the enormously successful quiz game that has made its two inventors and their two partners multimillionaires while they are still in their 30s. Imitators appeared soon after Trivial Pursuit’s triumphant debut, but the $30 game’s popularity shows no signs of diminishing. Indeed, manufacturers expect to sell almost two million copies in Canada this year and 22 million in the United States. And with the game becoming increasingly popular overseas, it should earn nearly $1 billion this year in worldwide retail sales. The incredible success of Trivial Pursuit has left its inventors numb. Declared 34-year-old Haney: “Every quarter, when our

cheques are deposited in the bank, we cannot believe it. It is just totally crazy.” That success is partly due to the fact that Trivial Pursuit has become a growing series of games catering to different

age groups and interests. Each edition features the trademark cards bearing 6,000 questions to which players must provide correct answers in order to advance on the board. In addition to the original “genus” edition, there are now versions for sports and movie fans and for children, as well as the Baby Boomer edition for the generation that grew up during the 1950s and 1960s. There is also a French-Canadian edition, called Quelques Arpents de Pièges. This fall, Horn Abbot Ltd., the Toronto-based company consisting of Haney, Abbott, 35, Han| ey’s brother John, 38, and Edward Werner, 35, that owns the Trivial Pursuit trademark will introduce the Genus lí edition and a French Trivial Pursuit for children. Next year the company will produce an RPM edition for music buffs.

So far, the Haney brothers and Abbott have been too busy with their brainchild to begin enjoying their wealth. Said Chris Haney: “There is so bloody much to do. It is just a monster we have created.” During the past several months they have spent hundreds of hours sequestered in a motel on the outskirts of Toronto to complete questions for the Genus n edition. One favorite is: who ran unopposed in the 1984 Hawaii Democratic Primary and finished second? Walter Mondale. (Voters had a choice of voting for Mondale or nobody. A majority chose the latter.) Another is: who is the only U.S. president to have worn a Nazi uniform? —Ronald Reagan, in the movie Desperate Journey. The creative trio has taken few vacations and they generally work five or six days a week. Said Abbott:

“Now I guess I am able to do anything I want, except I do not have the time. This has hardly been retirement.” They are loath to reveal how much money they have made, and insist that wealth has barely changed them from the “good ol’ boys” they consider themselves to be. And, although they will divulge few details about how they have spent their money, Scott, for one, has bought his first house—a 10-room rambling log home with a swimming pool on 46 acres near Toronto, although he will not move in until December.

The Haney brothers and Abbott say

they hope they can soon draw back from the business and begin to enjoy being rich. Said John Haney, a former professional hockey goalie: “I am pretty tired of writing questions. I think we all are.” For their part, John Haney and Abbott hope to collaborate on a novel about a hockey player’s sex romp through Europe. And all four owners will embark on a special Trivial Pursuit cruise on the Queen Elizabeth II next January. Said John Haney: “I can see next year as being the first nonguilty-feeling holiday, when you feel as if you are not leaving anything undone.”

The partners are becoming more familiar with the business world, but they are still not entirely convincing as tycoons. When they decided to invest some of their earnings this year, they chose a new kind of hockey goalie stick and a vineyard in southern Ontario as well as blue-chip stocks. They were proud to receive an Ontario Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Business Achievement Award in Toronto on Sept. 11, but their pride had an irreverent tinge. Declared Abbott, who wore a rented tuxedo: “This is the establishment finally recognizing wackos.”

That offbeat image almost thwarted Chris Haney and Abbott when they first began to promote the idea for Trivial Pursuit. In early 1980, they approached their friends at The Gazette and The Canadian Press, as well as others, asking them to invest in the game. But their colleagues were skeptical. Recalled Derrick Ramsey, a copy editor at The Gazette: “These guys were known as beer sippers. They used to hang around the taverns and they used to do chain letters and stuff like that.” But Ramsey and 31 others did buy shares, giving the partners $40,000. At the same time, Haney and Abbott got John Haney and St. Catharines, Ont., labor lawyer Edward Werner involved in the project.

By September, 1980, Chris Haney was on his way to Spain with his wife, Sarah, and their son, John, now 5, brother John and a stack of books to devise questions for the first edition. More than a year later, about 1,000 copies of the game were ready for trials in a few stores across Canada. Orders came slowly, and Chris Haney went so deeply into debt that he still cannot obtain an American Express credit card. Despite the risk of financial ruin, the four owners persevered. Said Abbott: “We had this almost maniacal faith in the thing, so we just forged ahead.”

The payoff came the following year, when sales began to increase dramatically in Canada. And when the New York company Selchow & Righter Co., the makers of Scrabble, agreed in 1982 to manufacture and distribute the game in the United States in return for royalties estimated at about 15 per cent, Trivial Pursuit was on its way to becoming the biggest board game rage since Monopoly and Scrabble. This year Selchow & Righter expects U.S. Trivial Pursuit fans to spend $750 million on the product-more than twice as much as the total amount paid last year for all board games, including Trivial Pursuit. For the 34 people who invested in the game, there has been vindication as well as handsome dividend cheques. Said Ramsey, who bought five shares for $1,000: “When they went to Spain to write questions, everybody said, ‘There goes your money, Derrick—they are going to

drink it away.’ But I am getting a cheque in October which should bring my total dividends to almost six figures.”

As the Trivial Pursuit motif expands to numerous other areas, it is entering a whole new era of profitability. During the next few months, U.S. manufacturers will launch Trivial Pursuit jigsaw puzzles, calendars, stationery, coffee mugs, pool and patio ware, umbrellas, linens, clothing, glassware and children’s books. Randy Gillen, president of Horn Abbot Merchandising of St. Catharines, said that demand for the Trivial Pursuit logo is phenomenal. Said Gillen: “The phone rings off the hook, nonstop.” A comic book which the company will launch this fall will immortalize Trivial Pursuit inventors Chris Haney and Abbott, and there is even talk of a daily comic strip for newspapers. As well, ABC-TV will air a one-hour Trivial Pursuit special in November.

Trivial Pursuit is now becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Sales of the game are brisk in Australia, where people play the game on the beach and local manufacturers cannot obtain enough paper to keep up with the demand. As well, it is catching on in Britain, Germany, Holland and France. Blake LeBlanc, president of Horn Abbot International in Barbados, says his group will introduce the game this fall in Spain, Italy, Sweden, Brazil and Japan, in the languages of those countries. By 1987, LeBlanc expects to have 100 editions in 30 countries, including Venezuela, Argentina, Greece, Israel, India and Hungary, where Rubik’s Cube inventor Erno Rubik has agreed to assemble the questions and answers. As well, LeBlanc has made preliminary inquiries about adapting the game for the Soviet Union and China. Said LeBlanc: “It is a very difficult process and it would take a long time, but we are certainly going to try.” Trivial Pursuit may flourish unimpeded abroad, but it will have to face some tough competition in Canada and the United States. Scores of questionand-answer board games are now available, featuring everything from rock music to antiques, and some have found themselves embroiled in copyright lawsuits with the principals of the original game. For their part, Trivial Pursuit’s inventors say they are not worried about the competition. Said Abbott: “We always knew that if we were successful, there would be knock-offs or clones. They do not compete with us—they only compete against each other.” So for now, Abbott and his partners are catching their breath and contemplating the sensation that they have created. Said Abbott: “It is sobering at times. You wonder, ‘Why me? What have I done right?’ ” But if that question appeared on one of their cards, the answer would be obvious: Trivial Pursuit.