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Trivial Pursuit Co-Inventor Chris Haney Dies

The high school drop-out exhausted his savings and suffered panic attacks en route to creating what Time magazine dubbed "the biggest phenomenon in game history."

Chris Haney, the high school dropout who was the co-inventor of Trivial Pursuit, died in a Toronto hospital this week. He was 59.

His co-creator Scott Abbott said Haney had been battling kidney and circulatory problems for the last two years.

Haney, a Montreal Gazette picture editor, first dreamed up the game on December 15, 1979, while he and Abbott sat at Haney's kitchen table with a couple of beers, playing Scrabble.

The two men discussed what they considered the high price of board games, and within 45 minutes they'd come up with their own version, complete with the now-familiar wheel-and-spoke design sketched on a bar napkin. (Some, erm, trivia: The pair were introduced in 1975 by a photographer named Doug Ball, who was the first person Haney asked to invest – and who declined. Haney's mother also didn't invest, because Haney feared she'd lose her money.)

Haney left his job and took his wife and child to Spain, spending the fall and winter of 1980 researching the first 6,000 questions. (The game's original name was Six Thousand Questions.) His favorite: "What did Otto Titsling invent?" Answer: The bra. "But we were fooled by a spoof biography on that one," he later said.

Haney and Abbott financed the project by selling $1,000 shares to some 30 small investors and, within two years, found a manufacturer. Trivial Pursuit – all low-budget look and occasionally infuriating questions – was launched in 1981. It was not an auspicious beginning. Sales were slow and not at all lucrative: 1,100 copies were put on the market for $15 in Canada, but each copy cost $75 to make. Initial sales came through mail order. When Haney and his team showed Trivial Pursuit in a remote corner of the New York Toy Fair in February 1982, most of the booth's visitors were people who'd gotten lost on the way to the bathroom. Haney exhausted his savings, began to suffer panic attacks, and did a brief stint in rehab. (For tips on boosting your trade show traffic, click here.)

But thanks to a PR campaign voted one of the 20 all-time best new products promotions, the game eventually became wildly popular. Trivial Pursuit was ahead of its time with celebrity freebies and viral marketing. A savvy PR woman named Linda Pezzano sent it to stars and ended up with thank-you notes from actors such as Gregory Peck – which she then fed to the press. She also staged free game-playing sessions in parks and bars to let people try the game.

By 1984, the game was selling 20 million copies in the U.S. and Canada alone. That year, Time magazine dubbed Trivial Pursuit "the biggest phenomenon in game history." Haney later recalled: "We didn't know we were successful until we saw a copy of Time and found ourselves on the cover. That's when we knew we were in the big league." (The game also made an Inc. 1984 cover.)

More than 100 million copies have been sold in 26 countries and at least 17 languages. There have been 42 different editions of the game, including one for Baby Boomers, one for Disney fans and one for people who love the Eighties. There's even been a Beatles edition and a Star Wars edition.

Haney used the money to indulge his two passions – golf (he had a handicap of 13) and wine. He built two courses, and invested in dozens of vineyards. He began spending his winters in Spain. He hated flying, so he'd travel to Europe and back on the Queen Mary II ocean liner.

More trivia: Haney twice ended up in court for the game, in 1984 and 1994. Once a hitchhiker Haney picked up claimed he'd outlined the game during the car trip and Haney had stolen it. Another time an author alleged the makers of Trivial Pursuit had lifted questions from his quiz book. The courts rejected both claims, the second by the Supreme Court in 1988.
 
In 2008, Hasbro bought the rights to the game for $80 million.
 
Haney, who was known as "Horn," was born on August 9, 1950 in Welland, Ontario. He went to high school in Hamilton, but he left in 12th grade.  "It was the biggest mistake I ever made," he joked. "I should have done it in Grade 10."

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Last updated: Jun 3, 2010

COURTNEY RUBIN

Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.




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