Gary Gabrel built Pente from a college-student's hobby to a million-unit sales success. But it may be time to trade in his unconventional moves for a more traditional game.
Gary Gabrel, the boyish 31-year-old president of Pente Games Inc., stands alone inside the television studio. A rolled-up Pente board rests in a tube under his arm; two velour bags of playing stones bulge in his pockets.
Another morning, another interview: He has been scheduled for two days with the press before this weekend's big tournament. It is not quite the life he imagined for himself.
After the first few dozen, local TV shows become a blur. While such giants of the board-game industry as Parker Bros. and Selchow & Righter Co. can afford to buy advertising to build a product, Gabrel knows Pente could never have reached $4.5 million in sales last year without the push of free publicity. But at times he tires of the endless succession of club sandwiches and tea, sterile motels and rented Chevrolets, of the same questions asked again and again.
Waiting his turn in front of the camera, Gabrel links his hands together, raises his arms over his head, and stretches from side to side -- the pride of Stillwater, Okla., dutifully loosening up. Under his pressed olive suit and white shirt he still has the thick thighs and barrel chest of a one-time high school defensive back; his face still carries the dogged clench of a regular starter before the big game. "A quitter never wins, and a winner never quits," his football-coach father used to tell him; the old truisms die hard.
"Today we'll discover Pente, the new mating game for the glamorous," the talk-show host announces. "And we'll talk about the medical consequences of nuclear war and fashion for pregnant women. But first, this message."
Gabrel is led to the chair he is to fill for the next 8 1/2 minutes. The host manages a wan smile. "Comb your hair," his public relations woman whispers. The harsh lights make him squint. "Fix your tie," a voice hisses.
"I'm talking this morning with Gary Gabrel, the inventor of Pente, a new board game that is being called the backgammon of the '80s. Tell me, Gary, just what is Pente?"
"Well, we call Pente 'the classic game of skill,' " he explains. "But actually Pente is the third generation in a family of classic games." The first generation was go, the complicated and time-consuming strategy game that originated in the Orient. The second generation was go-moku and go-narabi, speedier and less complicated. The third generation of games is Pente, an even quicker version, packaged for the Western lifestyle.
"It's simple to learn," he says, pointing to the Velcro display board set up behind him, "but difficult to master." Two competitors sit across a board of 324 squares, each player taking a turn placing one of his stones at the intersections of the grid. The winner is the first player to place five stones in a row or to capture five pairs of his opponent's stones by surrounding them. Just as go means five in Japanese, pente means five in Greek.
"How did you come to inventthe game?"
As often as he has told his story, it remains fresh. In the early 1970s, as a college student at Oklahoma State University, Gabrel took a job as a dishwasher at the Hideaway, a local pizza joint. Night after night, he and his coworkers would gather to play games on the restaurant's checkerboard tablecloths, classics like checkers and chess, go and its descendants, including the game two hippie friends taught him that would become Pente. Convinced that the game had all the makings of a great product, Gabrel sent it to 10 game companies -- and got 10 rejections. So he decided to sell Pente himself, out of the back of his van, traveling to craft fairs and trade shows. In 1979, he incorporated Pente Games and staffed his fledgling company with other recent graduates of OSU.
"We just sold our millionth set," he says proudly. "Sugar Ray Leonard plays Pente. So does Hugh Hefner. President Reagan has a set, too -- only his has jelly beans rather than stones."
Gabrel knows his lines by heart; over the summer his New York public relations firm ran him through a TV training course. Shy and soft-spoken in person, he is warm and believable on the air. But with a scant 8 1/2 minutes to fill and the host reading questions from a prepared list, he has to leave a great deal out. In 1981, according to a Game Merchandising magazine survey, Pente -- not Monopoly or Scrabble -- was the best-selling board game in the United States. That same year Gabrel himself was proclaimed both the Oklahoma small businessman of the year and a Casmopolitan magazine bachelor of the month.
"I've tried to run my business like I play the game," Gabrel explains later. All the strategies that Gabrel used to make Pente a success -- its product position and market approach, its packaging and promotion -- were born of necessity. He approached the business as if it were an empty Pente board. There are an infinite number of possible moves. The challenge is to play each stone to maximize your opportunities.
Pente has already overcome long odds. The market for board games is small, estimated by Game Merchandising to total some $213 million in sales for 1982, less than one-tenth the market for electronic games and equipment. And most board game successes are modest; a game will appear, sell 10,000 or 20,000 units in a season, then disappear.
The truly profitable games, the classics, keep on selling year after year. Since 1935, Parker Bros. has sold more than 80 million Monopoly sets worldwide. Last year, according to John Nason, marketing vice-president for Selchow & Righter, Scrabble sold "several million sets."
To become a classic, Nason says, "a game must be simple to learn and play, and it must play differently every time." According to Geoffrey Wheeler, editor of Game Merchandising, it must increase in complexity as well, being simple for the novice and difficult for the master. Pente, Wheeler says, has just those qualities.
"In the last two or three years I've seen thousands of games introduced," says Wayne Schmittberger, senior editor at Games magazine."But I don't know any that have caught on like Pente. I don't think there's any upper limit on how big it can grow. "
How big the company can grow, however, clearly depends on the flexibility, savvy, and sophistication of the effort behind it. The time has come for Gabrel to make his next move. The opportunities at Pente Games are not the same as they were when he was a college student selling games from his van. There are new necessities. To succeed as a classic product, Pente will have to move beyond the giftand department-store retailers into the mass market. To grow larger, the company will need to find and develop new products as well.
Most important, perhaps, both tasks will require professional management. When Gabrel began Pente Games he staffed it with novices like himself, people without any business experience. While the energy and enthusiasm of those people has fueled the company's expansion, the demands of the future may well be beyond the capabilities of the company's executive staff.
There are times when Gabrel wonders if even he as president can bring Pente into its future. And he wonders if the payoff will be worth the price.
The crew at work at the 1983 Pente World Championship tournament in the ballroom of the Boston Marriott Hotel Long Wharf one Friday afternoon in March looks like a reunion from Gabrel's days at the college pizza parlor. Gabrel's new bride has been invited. Three members of the company marketing staff have come as well. Richard Dermer, owner of the Hideaway and Gabrel's first business mentor, is tournament director. Twenty-four-year-old Tom Braunlich, author of the company's two Pente strategy books and another old friend from Stillwater, is assistant director.
Play begins at five o'clock sharp. Five tables holding two games each are set up beneath the crystal chandeliers. The atmosphere is as tense as at a chess tournament; the only sounds are the hum of the air conditioning and the click of the time clocks. The players huddle over their boards, totally absorbed, long-haired cab driver versus high school kid, doctor versus lawyer, computer programmer versus systems analyst.
Twenty competitors are vying for the $5,000 first prize. They are the best of some 1,000 players from 18 regional tournaments, plus the defending champion and the first player to solve a puzzle printed in a Pente players' association newsletter. All are men, all are middle class, all, at Gabrel's request, are dressed in coats and ties. The clear favorite is Rollie Tesh, a 24-year-old video-arcade attendant and would-be game designer from Stillwater. Gabrel is offering 3-to-2 against Tesh on the field. He has three takers, each wagering $5. Tesh is sipping bourbon and water with an Alka Seltzer chaser, conferring with his second like a Russian chess master. The wife of another competitor, wig askew, sits fingering her rosary and reading a devotion to St. Jude, the patron of lost causes.
Hands in his pocket, face entranced, Gabrel walks the aisles softly, marveling at how far his game has come. Most of the time Gabrel is too busy to watch, however. The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy is holding a meeting at the Marriott as well, and each group of phamacists that wanders in is met by Gabrel's earnestly smiling face. "If any of you would like to play, I'd be glad to teach you," he tells them.
Most of Gabrel's Pente opponents for the last few years have been novices like the pharmacists at the Marriott. That is still his favorite way to sell the game, teaching it one on one. He likes to see the enthusiasm kindle in their eyes; selling through retailers isn't as satisfying. All his life, he thinks, he has been starved for approval; it has made him "a compulsive overachiever."
Gabrel is a son of the harsh standards of the Baptist Southwest. He was born in 1951, the first of five children. His father drove his mother from their home in New Mexico across the border into El Paso so that Gabrel would be a Texan, "sharing in the belief that you can have anything you want, if you only go out and get it."
Locker-room "exhortations on the value of hard work were our daily bread and butter," he remembers. Although his father was never around much -- he had joined the ranks of college coaching, and when he wasn't on the field he was either scouting or recruiting -- Gabrel enjoyed being the son of a "local celebrity," a football coach in the land of the Sooners and Longhorns. Gabrel had his own triumphs as well: Named "best all-around boy" by his elementary school graduating class, he was class officer in high school year after year, always a starter on the football team and usually a captain.
"Because I was a jock, I could afford to be a little different," Gabrel remembers. He started to read philosophy in high school and was struck "by the fact that all those guys like Socrates and the guy at Walden Pond were solitary. It seemed, if you were really living the life of truth, you couldn't be accepted by the real world, because the real world was too corrupt. The more you fit in, the more you'd sold ou.-" It is a doctrine he still half-believes, his own example notwithstanding.
I was always trying to get my father's attention, but he was too caught up in providing for his family to notice," says Gabrel. "I always admired him and wanted his love and respect. But somehow I always fell short. Then in my senior year I started speaking out against my father's values, against his politics, and against the war in Vietnam, and in favor of the values of the hippies, free love, anti-materialism, anti-capitalism."
The blow-up came in 1972, before Gabrel's sophomore year in college. When Gabrel refused to get his long hair cut short, his father ordered him out of the house.
Rather than pledge a fraternity, he lived in a rooming house for $50 a month, supporting himself as a dishwasher at the Hideaway. Since philosophy required foreign-language study, he majored in sociology instead -- "taking a degree in sociology at that time was a badge of rejection in itself; there was no secret even then that
Offered a fellowship when he graduated from OSU in 1974, Gabrel took a $10,000 a year job as manager of the Hideaway instead. There, at least, he felt accepted.
When Gabrel's friends taught him to play go, he set out to extract the commercial possibilities of the version he called Pente. Convinced that it was "a chance to do a great thing, to get out in the real world and do something big," he named it, packaged it, positioned it, and promoted it.
He had found a mission, although he found it hard to make converts. Gabrel contacted all the major game companies, but none was interested. "I went to the very few acquaintances I had, but they all rejected my propositions because they didn't understand the promise of the game, and they didn't have any respect for me as a prospective professional."
Looking for a partner with money and expertise, he found the one listed "inventor" in the Dallas phone book. Although the man already had his own project, marketing birthday records for pets, he agreed to help Gabrel. With feelings about the war still running high, Gabrel decided against an oriental name for the game. He called his discovery Pente instead, applied for a copyright, made up his first 200 sets, and began two years of research and planning.
By 1978, Gabrel was ready to quit his job at the Hideaway and devote himself to Pente -- only to run into more walls. His partner balked at Gabrel's plans, insisting that the world wasn't ready for Pente. His personal bank in Stillwater seemed to agree. The bank, says Gabrel, "turned me down for $5,000, then $4,000, then $3,000, then $2,000, and finally $1,000, against my name, my copyright, everything I had in the world."
That summer, with a small loan from another bank and money from his family, Gabrel bought his partner out, made the down payment on a GMC van, and hit the road. Gabrel would spend a day or two in the cities and towns of the Southwest, telling Pente's story and teaching the game to gift-store owners, club owners, and any reporter who would listen. "A good few days was selling $500 or $600 of the game. That was enough to keep me going for two or threeweeks."
Through 1978 and the first half of 1979, the good days kept getting more and more frequent. He sold 5,000 sets. The game was being played in Oklahoma City's trendiest clubs; Gabrel had been written up in Oklahoma magazine and in scores of newspapers.
"But in the summer of 1979 I began to get this feeling of quiet desperation," Gabrel remembers. "I was afraid that I wasn't going to be able to get enough financing to make enough sets to take advantage of the opportunities that were very clearly there."
During that summer, he turned Pente into a business -- Pente Games Inc. Gabrel became president and chairman of the board. He was introduced to Dr. Lee Centraccos and his wife, Cookie, local investors with experience in restaurants and cable TV, who agreed to give him "a small amount of cash" and a $100,000 line of credit in exchange for 20% of the equity, a share of the profit, and a position on the Pente board of directors (each now has a position on the board). That board would eventually include an Oklahoma City high-fashion retailer, a lawyer, and a business professor. The Centraccos, Gabrel says, are "surrogate parents," his most trusted advisers, with a hands-on role in running the company.
Growth came from turning necessities into opportunities. The backgammon example convinced Gabrel and his board that to grow, Pente "would have to be fashionable and prestigious to play. It made sense for the kind of game Pente was -- colorful, rich, and expensive." They aimed at young professionals, 18 to 35, upscale and fashion-conscious. They sold through boutiques and placement in chic watering holes, advertising in city and regional magazines like Texas Monthly and The Washingtonian. The "Neiman-Marcus" strategy, Gabrel calls it. "Although I was not exactly a Neiman-Marcus type, my directors knew how to reach those circles."
It was also necessary to avoid mass merchandisers. "We couldn't have approached retailers like K mart and Sears. You walk into one of their stores and say, 'Do you want to buy some games and sell them for me?' and they think you're crazy. 'Go talk to our buyer in New York,' they'll tell you. The only people you can sell to are local and regional people, gift and department stores. That fit strategically, too. I didn't want to be on the shelf with Monopoly and Risk, to compete with price and product."
Unable to afford boxes, Gabrel packaged Pente as a rolled vinyl set in an inexpensive, cardboard poster tube. This was a mixed blessing. While many retailers were loathe to stock a package that, unlike most game boxes, would neither fit on their shelves nor show a picture of the game on the front, those that were willing to stock the tube ended up with a visually unique product, a package that was ideal, when teamed with point-of-sale advertising, for in-store display. Unable to afford a professional staff, Gabrel hired part-timers -- and got a huge pool of energy and enthusiasm. While Gabrel is the promotional star and main idea man -- staging the world's largest board game in the Los Angeles Coliseum, for example, and a game with precious stones as "the most expensive board game" at the tournament in Boston -- the freshness of his employees works perfectly for the store-to-store demonstrations and for instruction at the grass roots.
At about $17 for the rolled vinyl set, Pente was priced high enough to support the upscale image to which the game aspired. In addition, it generated enough revenue to support the company. In the fall of 1979, Gabrel went to his last craft fair; Pente was picked up by John A. Brown, the Oklahoma department store. That Christmas season, J. A. Brown sold some 20,000 sets; Gabrel himself had to drive a truckload down to Oklahoma City on Christmas Eve. In his first full year of business, he sold 100,000 sets. He sold 300,000 his second year. By 1984, Gabrel expects to sell some 1 million sets annually.
"The last four years have been an incredible roller-coaster ride," Gabrel marvels. "But along the way, a romance turned into a business."
Romance comes back with the Boston tournament. Along with coverage in both city newspapers, the tournament made the 11 p.m. news on the local CBS affiliate. Les Levi, editor of Backgammon Times, was there, too, talking of adding regular Pente coverage to his magazine.
Gabrel spent most of his time in Boston working, meeting with his Canadian distributor, his printer, his would-be European distributor, a sales representative, and his investors. The company is about to introduce a magnetic, checkbook-size Pente set, the seventh repackaging of the game, and Gabrel needed to discuss colors with his consultant on the company's move into mass markets.
Gabrel was of two minds when the tournament ended. Rollie Tesh, the Stillwater game designer, walked away with the winner's check and a sand-cast, Grecian-style urn. Gabrel the president was disappointed: It would have been better, from a marketing standpoint, if the winner hadn't been a part of the OSU gang, if he had been a little older, and if he had been from virtually anywhere else in the United States. It would have been nice, too, to have a world Pente champion who could take over some of the time on the promotional treadmill.
But Gabrel the game player was satisfied. At least justice had been served. Gabrel had lost his bet and his money, but the best player had won.
Still, he felt a pang when he passed out the trophy. "There was a time when I could have beaten almost anyone in this room," he remembered. "But the game has gone way beyond me now."
New house, new bride, new car, new puppy, new kitten: Gary Gabrel has turned into one of the pillars of the Stillwater establishment. He enjoys being a local celebrity, recognized as the Oklahoma small businessman of the year rather than the son of the coach. But the responsibility sometimes staggers him. "I try to delegate," he laments, "but there is always more I have to do." When he gets home the Monday night after the tournament, after a day of meetings in New York, he feels bone weary.
"It's harder to make money than I expected. I thought it would be easy once we got our volume up. And sometimes it is easy. But it's easy to spend, too.
"I'd love to be taking a month in Colorado every year, working at a resort and learning to ski. But I'm lucky to get away for a weekend. The best years of my life may be passing me by. I want to have a family. And some home life. And some time to do things just for fun.
"And I will someday," he promises. "I get tired of having all the responsibility on my shoulders all the time."
For today, however, the company needs him. Pente Games is on a cusp. Although it has stressed off-season sales with special retail and wholesale promotion, as with all game companies, it still does most of its volume during the Christmas season. Last year, with business off for retailers nationwide, the company fell short of its optimistic sales and profitability projections for the first time.
This year, hoping to position Pente as a family game through such high-volume, mass-market outlets as Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Toys "R" Us Inc., Pente Games can ill afford to take a false step. As sales have exploded, the management demands have become even more harrowing. The opportunities are different. The stakes are higher. So are the risks.
Ever since his days at the Hideaway, Gabrel has preferred working nights, sleeping late and avoiding the 9-to-5 routine. So it is 10:30 Tuesday morning before he heads for the office, in the new corrugated-metal building between an electrical supply shop and a home improvement store, across from the Eastern Villa trailer park. Inside, the office is casual, with movable dividers rather than walls or doors, a hum of activity, of hurried conversations and ringing phones. The corners are littered with new games to be tested; during the past year Gabrel has looked at more than 100, trying, without success, to find another product for his company to market.
"When I created the company, I wanted it to have the same great feeling of some of the better football teams I played on," he says. "That was such a great feeling of camaraderie, of shared accomplishment.
"It has never quite worked out that way, though. The staff has gotten older; people age a lot between 20 and 25. It's not enough for them to be part of the experience anymore, just to have an opportunity to learn. They're into making money. And it's gotten to the point where I'm eventually going to have to decide how many pieces of the pie I'm going to cut."
"We're all thankful for a chance to get in on the ground floor of a company like this," says a 24-year-old administrative assistant. But there is some restlessness. Some staffers are ready to move out of Stillwater unless Gabrel begins to share his equity. Others are nostalgic for the old days, when everyone came to work in cut-offs and sandals, when the organization was looser and the hours more flexible, when everyone was pitching in to put game sets together and ship them out. The one universal is a rueful recognition of their own business naivete. "People will just bleed you dry, just because you don't know any better," the 24-year-old marketing director complains.
Gabrel, too, feels the lack of experience painfully, criticizing particularly his own inability "to look out for my own best interests" in negotiations.
"Because I don't have any experience or training beyond what I got at the Hideaway, I find it very difficult to organize people. I don't like to give people job descriptions or create an organizational pattern. I feel uncomfortable putting people in a niche; it strikes me as artificial." As a consequence, the organization has stayed loose, with virtually no lines of authority, a problem that will become more severe as the company grows. Most of the staff still thinks of Gabrel as a friend and co-worker; if they have a decision to make or a problem, they wantto talk directly with him.
For Gabrel as well, most of his employees remain his friends, "so I find that the hardest thing for me is when I have to let someone go. I'd like to think that everyone here can grow with the company, can maximize all their potentials, can cope with jobs that get harder and harder. But, unfortunately, that's not always been the case."
But Gabrel insists he knows that hard personnel decisions will have to be made in the future, that the company will need people with the background to move the company forward. For proof, he points to Scott Gregory, the 41-year-old comptroller hired last year.
"This is the first time I've ever been a symbol of maturity," Gregory jokes. He has added a computer for payroll, receivables, and sales, including a customer file on all 8,000 wholesale accounts. And generally he feels optimistic. "The problems here are fairly typical for a rapidly growing company," he says. "It's just a question of getting systems into place."
For Lee and Cookie Centraccos, the dominant outsiders on his board of directors, the changes are not coming fast enough, however. For the past four years the board has helped steer the company, sitting through marathon sessions on such details as hiring, salaries, and production quotas. Now the board members are afraid the company and the opportunities may be too big for that to work. The inexperience is beginning to scare them. It has been the major topic at board meetings.
"For three years we've been urging Gary to bring more professionals into the company " Lee Centraccos says. "We can't continue to operate the way we have been. The sales and marketing staffs are dedicated and hard-working, but they get eaten alive at the level the company has gotten to now. We need managers with training."
Even, perhaps, at the top. Gabrel, they say, doesn't have enough background to know how to make the crucial decisions involved in running a big company. And he won't separate running a business from having fun. "He's afraid of hurting people. And he can't stand to fire anyone," says Lee Centraccos. "He's a nice guy, which is admirable, but when you're running a business you have to be hard-nosed.
"For three years Gary wasn't a problem," he says. "But as the company becomes more complex, the job becomes more complex. I don't know when is the time to bring in a professional manager, but that time has to come. So far, though, Gary hasn't wanted to let go."
"Gary was hoping to reach certain destinations in his life," Cookie Centraccos suggests. "But he should think of Pente as a train. Maybe the role for him in the future is to look for new cars, not to have to make sure the train keeps chugging down the track. Maybe that's where he'd be happiest."
"My ego isn't really hung up on being CEO," Gabrel says. No one on the board has ever directly broached the subject of his stepping aside, but he agrees he might be happier letting someone else "steer the train." At times, the thought of giving up budgeting, planning, and personnel, and instead spending his days looking for new product, playing games, and devising strategies for marketing them appeals to him. "If I really want the business to do well, I have to be objective about my own limitations.
"There is a next stage to Pente's development," he says. "Pente has to become a social institution. But for that to happen it has to become a real business first.
"It's hard to understand how many games Pente could sell through mass-merchandise outlets. It's hard to fathom us selling that much product. It's not hard to fathom when you see how big the country is, but that can be a little intimidating from here in Stillwater.
"Because of who I am and who I want to be I'm not sure if I can take the company that next step. I'm not a bad businessperson, but I'm not a fantastic one, either. And I'm not necessarily anxious to become one. I'm not interested in the ins and outs of cash flow and P&L statements. And I'm not interested in becoming hard-nosed."
Gabrel already wonders at the cost he has paid in hours on the road, meetings at his desk disappointments, and frustrations. But he has come too far to stop now.
Gabrel may well step aside, he says, as soon as I stabilize the business." he will delegate. He dreams of the life he has planned. Someday. "But for now I have an obligation."
Gabrel never pictured himself in business. He wanted to be a philosopher. Or a sociologist. He ended up a games player. But the patterns on the board have become more and more complex over the years. And he has learned, in his 32nd year, that each move is irrevocable. So far, the game has proved easy to learn. But difficult to master.