10,000 Questions: How ‘Trivial Pursuit’ Saved Board Games

In the 1980s, pop culture was dominated by one board game. And it wasn’t ‘Monopoly.’
'Trivial Pursuit' became a phenomenon.
'Trivial Pursuit' became a phenomenon. / Sarah-Rose, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Chris Haney and Scott Abbott had little choice but to spend a night in. It was a cold Montreal evening on December 15, 1979, and the two roommates and friends were huddled in their apartment. Bored, one of them suggested a Scrabble tournament, with $5 going to the winner of each game. But they couldn’t locate a Scrabble board, which meant one of them would have to buy a new one. By Haney’s estimation, it would be the fifth or sixth Scrabble game he had bought in his lifetime.

The two agreed that a good board game could be lucrative and that they should try to create one. When Haney wondered what kind of game, Abbott had a ready answer. “Trivia,” he said.

By the next morning, the two had sketched out a rough idea for what would become Trivial Pursuit. The game tested their patience—and finances—before it revived an ailing games industry, outselling Monopoly and making its creators multimillionaires. But Haney and Abbott would also have to contend with a parade of people who alleged the game was their idea and that they were entitled to at least some of those millions. One even had a smoking gun in the form of TV detective Columbo. It was a saga that was anything but trivial.

10,000 Questions

Chris Haney and Scott Abbott were journalists: Haney was a photo editor for the Montreal Gazette, while Abbott worked as a sportswriter for the Canadian Press. Neither occupation was particularly lucrative. Haney shared an apartment with his wife, Sarah, in Montreal; Abbott moved in with them and contributed toward the rent. The night they conceived of Trivial Pursuit was a typical hangout session complete with empty beer bottles—though Abbott would later insist the pair wasn’t inebriated at the time of the game’s conception.

Imran Khan and Graham Dilley are pictured
Imran Khan and Graham Dilley promote a sports version of 'Trivial Pursuit.' / Fox Photos/GettyImages

In any case, the two hatched a plan to pursue a trivia board game. The next morning, they had a sheet of construction paper covered with ideas, including the basic layout and rules of the game. Players would take turns rolling dice and answering trivia questions from six categories on cards. As they got the answers correct, they could fill a plastic game piece with wedges. Whoever filled up the “pie” first was the winner.

At the time, trivia games were not pervasive. Television’s Jeopardy! was off the air and wouldn’t return with new host Alex Trebek until 1984. The tabletop games industry wasn’t in great health, either, with sales in a slump and classics like Monopoly, Clue, and others gathering dust on family room shelves.

Haney and Abbott were undeterred. Using their media credentials, they attended a toy convention in Montreal to solicit information from game distributors and gather knowledge of the business side. They also pitched Trivial Pursuit to game giants Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, who both declined. The games industry was insulated: Two newcomers with no track record were unlikely to raise interest.

Instead, the two formed their own company, Horn Abbot (Horn was Haney’s nickname, and Abbott dropped one t from his name), and decided to try and raise money by soliciting investors. They scrounged $40,000 from friends and family buying shares; another $40,000 came from Abbott’s father; a bank extended them a $75,000 line of credit. It was enough to fund a small production run of the games to use in a trial, but one major obstacle still persisted: They needed trivia questions. Lots of them.

In 1981, Haney and his brother, John, went to Spain to escape distractions and compiled thousands of questions using books, almanacs, and newspapers as resources. Others they solicited from family, paying 25 cents upon acceptance of a question. (Abbott remained in Canada with another recruited partner, attorney Ed Werner.) They eventually had roughly 10,000 questions, of which 6000 were curated for use in the game.

Trivial Pursuit went on sale in Ontario and Manitoba in late 1981 for $30. The gaming industry doubted that a hit was imminent. Some criticized the box art, which was spartan and somewhat sophisticated. But to Haney, that was the point.

“The whole idea was to appeal to people who don’t play games, and that’s exactly what we’ve done,” he said.

Trivial Pursuit sold extremely well in Canada, ringing up $70 million at retail counters. By late 1982, Horn Abbot struck a licensing and royalties deal with Selchow and Righter, a distributor that brought it to America in 1983. Already profitable, Trivial Pursuit was about to become something else: a cultural sensation.

A Trivial Phenomenon

Almost immediately, retailers had trouble keeping Trivial Pursuit in stock. People formed lines, hoping to be there when toy and department stores got new inventory; Macy’s proclaimed they were sold out.

A good portion of the hype was stirred by Linda Pezzano, a marketing expert who made sure copies of the game wound up in the hands of toy industry veterans as well as celebrities who were named in questions from the game, including actor Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Larry Hagman (Dallas). When they wrote a letter of thanks or complimented Trivial Pursuit, Pezzano made sure to mention it.

By 1984, Trivial Pursuit had totaled $660 million in sales, more than twice the revenue of the entire board games category in 1983. People bought 10 editions of Trivial Pursuit for every one of any other adult games sold during the holiday gift rush. It even outsold Monopoly, the crown jewel of Parker Brothers and the very same company that had once declined Trivial Pursuit.

Newspapers delighted in reporting on the Trivial fever sweeping the country. Parties devoted to playing the game cropped up; a cruise ship offered a special Trivial Pursuit route, with tournament play and live appearances by Haney and Abbott. The two had tapped into a seemingly insatiable appetite for demonstrating long-harbored knowledge on familiar and arcane topics. If one knew the name of TV puppet Howdy Doody’s brother (Double Doody) or could navigate the tricky wordplay (the world’s largest diamond is a baseball diamond), one would be revered by peers. In the pre-smartphone age, possessing information was celebrated. Not possessing it was worthy of scorn. (Said one partygoer who heard someone answer “Charles Dickens” as the writer of East of Eden: “You can’t really be that stupid.”)

“It's like a sickness,” one player told The New York Times. “You want to see how much garbage you know. I adore it.”

To Abbott, the social component of Trivial Pursuit was no surprise. “The subject matter changes every 30 seconds,” Abbott said. “It’s a gold mine for conversation and jokes. That and the fact there’s a lot of information on the tip of your tongue and you can’t remember it.”

Haney and Abbott also viewed the board as a kind of hardware. The “software,” or questions, could be updated as new card sets, which they did regularly. The original game was rapidly supplemented by question-stuffed boxes devoted to movies, sports, and the Baby Boomer generation. Horn Abbot also licensed the brand for merchandising like mugs. By the mid-1980s, one of the original investors who paid $1000 for shares now had a claim to hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit. Haney and Abbott were multimillionaires.

But some would-be claimants felt the entire Trivial Pursuit fortune was owed to them. And they would spend years trying to collect.

Legal Trivia

Fred Worth, a former air traffic controller from Sacramento, California, authored two trivia-filled books, including The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia. In 1984, he picked up a copy of Trivial Pursuit and thumbed through the question cards. To his surprise, several of them appeared to use trivia culled from his books.

'Trivial Pursuit' is pictured
A '90s version of 'Trivial Pursuit.' / Matthew Simmons/GettyImages

Worth filed a $300 million lawsuit, charging copyright infringement. All told, Worth asserted that his work comprised roughly 30 percent of Trivial Pursuit questions. His most damning evidence that Haney and company had freely borrowed from his work was in a question regarding iconic television detective Columbo, played by Peter Falk in a series of made-for-television movies of the same name. The question: What’s Columbo’s first name? The answer: Philip.

In fact, the detective had no canonical first name. He was simply known as Columbo. Worth alleged he had left that phony factoid in his book, just as mapmakers or dictionaries slipped in similar information to prove that another entity had taken their work without permission.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Haney and Abbott acknowledged they had used Worth’s work but that it was impossible to copyright a fact. The Supreme Court agreed, ruling against Worth in 1988.

A more protracted lawsuit arrived in 1994 when Haney and Abbott were sued by a man named David Wall. In his claim, Wall alleged he was hitchhiking in Nova Scotia in 1979 when Haney picked him up. The two struck up a conversation in which Wall detailed the general idea of Trivial Pursuit. A little over a year later, he said, Haney phoned him offering shares in the game. Wall declined, believing it had been his idea.

Haney denied the car ride had ever taken place. His attorney pointed out that Wall kept changing his story, first recalling the drive was in 1979 and then 1980.

Wall didn’t get his day in court until 2006 due to a lengthy pretrial process; despite a parade of witnesses, he was unable to convince a judge of the merits of his case. He was ordered to pay about $1 million.

Trivial Pursuit hysteria (as well as litigation) cooled off after a few years, though it’s remained a popular part of board game shelves. In 2008, Hasbro purchased all rights to the game for a reported $80 million, another windfall for the already-wealthy Haney and Abbott.

Haney passed away in 2010. By that point, the game he co-created had sold 100 million copies. At its height, one in five American households had a copy somewhere.

Trivia is now everywhere, in web games and apps, televised game shows and even in the analog board game market that Trivial Pursuit nourished in the 1980s. In the age of instant information, people still respect those who can share organic knowledge, like knowing it was John Steinbeck who wrote East of Eden—not Charles Dickens.

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