'Trivial Pursuit' Comes to the U.s. to Take the Bored Out of Games and the Profits Away from Pac-Man

updated 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

QUESTIONS:

1. On its April 8, 1966 cover, who did TIME speculate might be dead?

2. Who signed Clark Gable's U.S. Army discharge?

3. Which two Canadian dreamers invented a board game and now find themselves sitting atop a projected 1983 gross of $80 million?

ANSWERS:

1. God; 2. Ronald Reagan; 3. Chris Haney and Scott Abbott.

Call the whole business trivial, Haney and Abbott won't mind. Their game, cooked up one beer-and Scrabble-filled Montreal afternoon in 1979, is a monument to the minutiae that clog the contemporary brain. Called Trivial Pursuit, it's sold more than 1 million units in the U.S. and Canada since its release last year, and it may be the best thing to happen to board games since Pac-Man began gobbling up industry profits.

"We wouldn't be surprised if it sold a million in the U.S. alone this year," speculates John Nason, marketing vice president of Selchow & Righter, the folks who manufacture and distribute Scrabble, Parchesi and now Trivial Pursuit, which sells for between $30 and $40 in the United States. The key to Trivial Pursuit's popularity is the depth and range of its petty concerns. Anywhere from two to 24 players can roll the dice and answer up to 6,000 piddling queries in six categories: entertainment, history, geography, art and literature, sports and leisure, science and nature. The object is to get to the center of the board by solving such brain wrenchers as: "Who, on the night she died, said to Peter Lawford, 'Say goodbye to Pat, the President and to yourself—you're a nice guy'?" (Answer: Marilyn Monroe.)

"We try not to bore people," says Haney. "We don't ask what Babe Ruth's batting average was in 1935, because who knows and who cares? There are better things to ask." Like: "What football player did Connie Stevens refer to when she said: 'Who wants to go with a guy who's got two bad knees and a quick release?' " (Answer: Joe Namath.)

Trivia buffs can supplement the game by buying extra editions containing 6,000 questions each in specialized areas. For instance, next month Haney and Abbott will come out with what Haney calls "the big one, the much-awaited Baby Boomer Edition," which has 6,000 questions of special interest to those born between 1946 and the early 1960s.

While the game's questions are often frivolous, the tale of determination and grit that attended its shaky birth is not. In 1980 Haney and Abbott, then journalists with the Canadian Press, perfected the game by "working seven days a week, 14 hours a day," according to Haney's brother, John, 37, who joined them in the exhausting venture. The three approached a number of potential backers. "Of course, it was no, no, no," remembers Chris—adding, with undisguised glee, "and they all came to us later, and of course we said no, no, no."

In between, the Haneys and Abbott invested every penny they had. They scraped up enough cash for 1,100 units that were tested in a few Canadian stores. Within three weeks every game was snapped up.

Encouraged, the three put their funding together—family, friends and a trusting bank—and by Christmas 1982, 100,000 games had been sold in Canada, attracting the interest of U.S. licensee Selchow & Righter.

"I was mortgaged for 30 years to finance this thing," says Chris, 33. "Finally, in the last few months, we've started to get some money back." He and his wife, Sarah, 33, still live in an 85-year-old farmhouse in the Albion Hills, near Toronto, with their sons, Johnny, 4½, and Tom, 10 months.

Abbott, a 34-year-old bachelor, is realistic about his sudden rise to fortune: "The most important thing that any of this might bring is time and the opportunity to do what you want to do." Like being a sponsor of the Toronto Film Festival (Sept. 9-17), where stars such as Michael Caine, Robert Duvall and William Hurt: "Played what?" (Answer: Trivial Pursuit.)

Abbott and the Haneys have hit a rich vein. "Multo buckos," Chris admits. "And when the U.S. sales start to really kick in, it'll be megabucks."

Which makes Trivial Pursuit, after all is said and done, anything but.

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