If you ever have experienced maddening frustration because you couldn’t land your final piece of plastic pie, you can thank a couple of Canadians.
Scott Abbott, a sportswriter, and Chris Haney, a photo editor at the Montreal Gazette, both lived and worked together. Haney and his wife had led a peripatetic life, alternating work and travel; now, they had a baby and had come back to Montreal, sharing rental accommodations with Abbott to economize. One dark December night in Montreal, Quebec, they came up with the idea for Trivial Pursuit.
I remember playing the game at the height of its popularity, and knowing Canadians had invented it, but the questions were so American. We used to joke: if it’s a geography question and you don’t know the answer, say “Mississippi.” If it’s a history question and you don’t know the answer, say “Kennedy”. You had a shot of getting it right, in either case.
While over the years there were multiple versions of Trivial Pursuit, themed to everything from sports to Disney to Star Wars, the “Genus”, or original / general trivia questions, were deliberately American in slant, co-creator Scott Abbott has said. He had a university degree in psychology from McGill and began a journalism career at the Sherbrooke Record, a small Quebec paper, but later wanted to go back to university to get a journalism degree. He chose University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
As he told the Torchbearer, the magazine of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, : “In the process of creating Trivial Pursuit, it was important that I went to an American university and that Chris and I had been in the news business, not just in coming up with the questions but also being sensitive to the American market and the kind of enterprise that could work there.”
Trivial Pursuit was born one night when Haney and Abbott wanted to play Scrabble but discovered the game they had on hand had tiles missing. History does not record what words came out of their mouths but my guess is they rhymed with “duck” and “pit”. Haney went out to buy a new Scrabble game, grumbling about all the money he’d spent over the years; this morphed from “there’s money to be made in board games” to, from Abbott, “why don’t we make one about trivia?”
The pair brought in two other partners: Chris’s brother, John Haney, and lawyer Ed Werner. Inventing the game was the easy part. It took more than three years of development — they needed thousands of questions and researched answers — prototyping the game itself, figuring out how to manufacture it at a salable / profit-turning price point, and borrowing money (set up as shares in future earnings) from friends, colleagues, and family before Trivial Pursuit finally caught fire in 1983. In 1984, more than 20 million copies of the game flew off the shelves. The friends and family who had scraped up a few thousand dollars each suddenly found themselves with cushy nest eggs. Haney had quit his journalism job in 1980 to work full time on the game and lived on the brink of financial disaster before the boom began.
Trivial Pursuit is now one of the top-10-selling board games of all time, topped only by venerable international oldsters such as chess, checkers, backgammon, Scrabble and Monopoly.
In 1998, Hasbro licensed Trivial Pursuit for royalty payments and in 2008, bought it outright for $80 million. While the game still exists in physical and online versions, it never beat that 1984 sales year. It was a time before any question could be answered with a quick Google search on a mobile phone; the early 1980s were also a time of recession, when people were looking for for more-economical forms of entertainment.
Arts & Literature
Haney’s mother, Sheila Wollatt Haney, was an actor at the Stratford Festival, and his sister Mary Haney has been a long-time member of the Shaw Festival company.
Sports & Leisure
Details of Abbott’s post-Trivial-Pursuit life are best captured in that Torchbearer profile. Writer Brooks Clark reveals that “after the big payday, Abbott recalls talking with Chris Haney’s brother, John, about their finances. ‘He said, we’re going to be OK, as long as we don’t do anything stupid like invest in racehorses.’ In fact, Abbott did just that and in 1987 had the rare good fortune to spend $50,000 on a yearling named Charlie Barley, a son of Triple Crown winner Affirmed, who became Canada’s champion turf horse of 1989 and had more than $900,000 in earnings. As a stud, his offspring earned more than $5.6 million.”
This former sportswriter was also mad for hockey and in 1996 bought an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) expansion team, the Brampton Battalion, the OHL being one of three Canadian leagues ranked “Junior A” for players 16 to 21 years old, considered the final step prior to professional hockey. In 2013, facing declining audience and revenues in Brampton, Abbott moved the Battalion team to North Bay, Ontario, where (so far) it’s thriving.
In the years after the game launch, according to a Globe and Mail story, Haney “built a palatial home in Caledon, Ont., sailed on a luxury cruiser to Spain every winter and helped several friends build dream houses. With Abbott, he built two magnificent golf courses, Devil’s Pulpit and Devil’s Paintbrush, on the escarpment in Caledon. He began working on new electronic board games, and studied photography.”
Science and nature
Unfortunately, Haney’s nature overpowered the capabilities of medical science.
At the end of his too-short life, he suffered serious circulation problems, which culminated in a systemic breakdown, including kidney failure. He died in 2010 at age 59 and, in his obituary, his family attributes his death to “heart disease and kidney failure brought on by years of excessive drinking and smoking.”