"WE'VE WORKED HARD to get here and now we're on a treadmill keeping up," says Scott Abbott. "You don't just cash in your chips and walk away." It is July 1984 and for the past 16 days, Abbott, Chris Haney, and Haney's brother John have been secluded in a room at the Ascot Inn in suburban Toronto, the vertical blinds drawn against the seductive summer sky. There they have been crafting their sixth set of 6,000 questions -- their second edition on general topics -- for players of Trivial Pursuit.
Abbott mans the computer, editing out questions that have appeared in earlier editions. Some of the new questions seem too obscure even for trivia buffs . . . Where can you find the 100,000th piano made by Steinway & Sons? (The White House). Others pass through without a smile from their creators . . . What chemical is most widely used to keep swimming pools clean? (Chlorine). "We're through lot of our richest material," says Chris Haney on an afternoon in which the drone of questions is punctuated by too many silences.
He is a big, rumpled man of 34, a high school dropout who later became photo editor for The Gazette in Montreal. He invented Trivial Pursuit with Abbott, 35, a trim former sports editor for Canadian Press, who is equally quick with a biting remark or an infectious laugh. Each owns 22% of the company they formed, Horn Abbot Ltd. Their partners, with 18% each, are John Haney, 38, a former hockey player, bit actor, and bookstore manager, and Ed Werner, 35, a lawyer who played hockey with John at Colgate University and in Europe.
After work when they gather in the bar across the hall, the flashes of humor characteristic of their game come frequently as they savor stories of past years and questions of past weeks. . . . Who ran unopposed in the 1984 Hawaiian Democratic Primary and finished second? ("We were going to put Fighting Fritz Mondale.")
They speak of the freedom their wealth has brought -- their company's royalties will, they say, "very conservatively" exceed $50 million this year. But earlier, closeted in a motel room beneath two imitation candelabra chandeliers, they seem bored. The pursuit of trivia has begun to look a lot likework.
"THIS PLANT CAN BE thought of as a big machine. It has a capacity geared for the games of Selchow & Righter -- Parcheesi and Scrabble. Well, Trivial Pursuit comes along and demands four times that, five times that. You say, 'Put on a night shift ' Well, we don't have room for supplies."
Bob Bohnenberger joined Selchow & Righter Co, the U.S. producer of Trivial Pursuit, 35 years ago as a bookkeeper. He is now vice-president of production at the Holbrook, Long Island, plant. "I don't have room for more than two days of boxes," he says. "I try to keep a week's supply of cards, a week's supply of boards, a week's supply of plastic. . . . It's not just numbers on a piece of paper. There's a tremendous amount of volume here."
The process looks deceptively simple. A stack of elegant-looking, navy blue setup boxes is piled at the head of a 45-foot conveyer belt. A worker opens a box and puts in a sheet of waxed paper. As the box passes down the line, other hands put in game platforms, two boxes of question cards, a bag of plastic pieces and a die, a square, double-folded playing board, and lastly, a code card and instruction sheet. The box is checked and closed. A machine wraps the box in shrink-film, and another worker carts the games away.
In February of this year, with Selchow & Righter producing 63,000 games of Trivial Pursuit a week, back orders had passed a million. By August, back orders had reached 11 million games, and sales projections surpassed 20 million.
To handle the load, Bohnenberger decided to contract out much of the manufacturing operation. "There is no way with our staff [almost doubled in a year, from 80 to 150] and with our plant [100,000 square feet] that we could have increased production capacity tenfold without doing what I did," he says. Indeed, the Trivial Pursuit games expected to be sold in the United States this year alone will consume more than 70 million pounds of a special paper stock; will require the printing, cutting, collating, and boxing of more than 20 billion cards; and will enlist 2,000 to 3,000 workers at more than two dozen suppliers.
To put all this in perspective, consider that, in 1983, toy manufacturers nationwide shipped a total of $201 million of children's and adult board games to retailers and wholesalers. This year, if Selchow & Righter meets its projections, it will sell very nearly twice that much of a single game. Its revenues are projected to jump from $40 million in 1983 to more than $400 million in 1984.
"We have bought some new equipment but not on a grand scale," says Bohnenberger. "We haven't bought collating machines and cutting machines. We didn't bring in plastic molds. . . . This is a nice clean place. We've worked very much like a family through these years. We have a very good rapport with our people. We do what we do best."
"I AM WAITING FOR THE day to get even with them. It's easier for me to reach the Kremlin in Moscow than it is to reach this company. They don't call you back. It takes them 30 days to call you back." He is the president of a company that distributes games wholesale. He says he has been shipping Selchow & Righter games for 30 years, and in big numbers -- more than 100,000 a year before Trivial Pursuit even came on the market.
"I believe really deeply that this item was put in the wrong hands," he says, requesting anonymity. "It's an old-line company that has been in the business for many years and has not progressed. It has been far surpassed in new business, far surpassed in promotion, in creativity, and especially in terms of customer relations. It is a backward company. It would have been out of business many years ago if it hadn't been for Scrabble."
He ticks off a list of complaints: surly shipping agents, salesmen who don't call back, and a price structure, which, he says, gives no break on the listed wholesale of $19 for the complete game -- not even to distributors who buy in bulk "I can get merchandise from the Orient as fast as I can get it from them for anything -- Scrabble, Parcheesi, you name it. They'll have an order for months and months for 100,000 pieces and a little retailer calls up for a few dozen and will get it before I do -- and it's my customer. They'll say they haven't shipped for weeks and weeks and weeks. Well, that's a lie. The retailer gets it. My credibility has been hurt tremendously with retailers. My salesmen have had to go into stores and say, 'We can't get six pieces.' The answer comes back, 'What do you mean? We got 72 yesterday.' I used to talk to their salesman every week. Now he never calls back."
"I HAVE A GUY WHO wants to use the [trademark] on etched crystal. I have a guy who wants to do a brass box for the game. I've got a guy who wants to do tablecloths."
Since opening the doors of Horn Abbot Merchandising in April, president Randy Gillen, a former law partner of Ed Werner's, has been swamped with proposals to put the name, artwork, and questions of Trivial Pursuit on everything from highball glasses to umbrellas.
"Including the 15 requests for T-shirts, there have easily been over 1,000 phone calls, and it's getting worse," says Gillen. "I'm to the point now where I'm sending out letters in which I say, 'I am not an SOB and I am not ignoring you, but I just don't have time now to get back to you.' I just don't know how many of these licenses we'll be able to get in place by Christmas sales "
At the moment, Quillmark, a division of Random House Inc., is producing four types of Trivial Pursuit calendars, a memo pad, and an appointment book. Collegiate-Pacific Cos., in Totowa, N.J., is doing the T-shirts.
"I don't think any of us involved with this game really understood what the potential was," Gillen says as he talks of products to come -- pine and oak tables with the gameboard etched in; a 14-karat, electroplated playing set; Trivial Pursuit linens; Trivial Pursuit athletic apparel. Rejected are "chintzy-looking school supplies" and "a cheap-looking carrying case," but, says Gillen, "frankly, I'd look at anything." Quality, he insists, is the key. "That's our style. Things for the upstairs portion of the department store where the expensive stuff is."
"I'M A TROUBLESHOOTer," says Joe Cornacchia, who works out of a makeshift office on the fifth floor of a narrow brick building three blocks east of Manhattan's Washington Square Park. He is a graphic engineer and president of his family business, Cornacchia Press Inc. "I enjoy putting pieces together, making it work. It's dealing."
Since September 1982, he has been doing just that for Trivial Pursuit. First, says Cornacchia -- who has done "odd jobs" for Selchow & Righter since the early 1960s -- Bob Bohnenberger asked him to estimate manufacturing costs. Then he asked him to find a printer for 10,000 sets of cards, then 30,000, then 100,000, then millions. Orders for games followed, growing and growing through the first half of 1984: 15 million at George Banta Co. in Menasha, Wis., 3.7 million at Toronto's Chieftain Products Inc., the Canadian manufacturer of Trivial Pursuit, 2 million at Western Publishing Co. in Racine, Wis.
In the fall of 1982, Cornacchia approached 50 printers before he could find one that would handle an order for just 30,000 card sets for the game. The next problem was finding a way to handle the 1,000 cards contained in each game and subsidiary set of Trivial Pursuit. "We had to decide how to cut them, how to collate them, how to pick them up," says Cornacchia." I've got big hands. How does a girl on an assembly line handle thousands and thousands of cards without dropping them all over the floor?
"My nature is always pie in the sky," adds Cornacchia. "I was always doubling what Selchow wanted. Around the time of the [American] Toy Fair [in February 1983], Selchow said they could use 30,000 card sets a week. So I went back to Banta and said, 'We better plan for 60,000.' In the fall I went to Selchow and said, 'Let me do 30,000 games for you complete. You may need help.' They said, 'Don't be silly, we can do 3 million games. . . . In the meantime, I get word from Canada [that they are selling 2.3 million games]. I said, 'We will sell 25 million.' Selchow was still figuring 4 or 5."
In 1983, Cornacchia assembled 30,000 games complete. A year later, his three submanufacturers turned out that many every few hours. "When I had all the cards I needed, I didn't have enough plastic. When I had enough plastic, I didn't have enough cards. And when I had both, I didn't have enough boards."
Hating to have to constantly fly on commercial airlines around the country, Cornacchia spent $3 million to buy his own 10-seater, twin-engine turboprop. "The toughest part was waiting to see if it really would happen," says Cornacchia. "Would it sell? Am I doing all this work flying all over the country for nothing? I had stopped doing any other work for anyone. If it had dropped dead, I had nothing. That was two years ago. And where are we now? Is it going to sell out? Is it going to die? Where are we going to be next year? I have a three-month lead time. Should I buy dice?"
"YOU ALWAYS GET THE nuts coming out of the woodwork who say they've invented this before, who say, 'This is our game -- we invented it in Ireland in 1974 but never showed it to anyone,' " says Jim Carson, a patent lawyer with McBeth & Johnson in Toronto." And, of course, you do get these funny things where people don't like the questions written about them. There is the question, 'What's the nickname of the L.A. Rams cheerleaders?' The answer is, 'The Embraceable Ewes.' Well, they didn't like that. Horn Abbot got a letter saying it wasn't in line with their image of clean-cut American girls.
"I'm not aware of any question that's been replaced because of a complaint," he adds. "Chris is sort of irreverent but I don't think there's been any libel, any untruths."
Carson got involved with Trivial Pursuit in September 1981, when he was approached by Ed Werner, an old law school friend with a new idea. Carson says he did "the standard things we do for every client." He filed for a design patent on the board, a trademark on the name "Trivial Pursuit," and copyrights for the questions and answers, the board design, and the game's graphics. He took on the work for expenses only, a practice that continued into mid-1982.
"In the beginning there was nothing [to do], but now there's tons," says Carson, whose billing to Horn Abbot will be well in excess of $100,000 this year. "I suppose some days I get tired of trivial matters."
Close to half of what Carson does for Horn Abbot is to see that the game's copyrights, trademark, and patent are protected -- first in Canada, then in the United States, and now in at least 32 countries around the world. The inventors jealously guard the name of their creation, as Carson was quick to inform a bar owner who borrowed it in British Columbia, and a real estate company in Oakville, Ontario, which used the name in a trivia promotion that had nothing to do with playing the game.
Three dozen or more trivia games have flooded the market since Trivial Pursuit's success. Most, Carson says, have been "legitimate" competitors. Others "have actually ripped off questions from the Genus [master] game." Of equal concern to Carson -- and to Selchow & Righter's law firm, which is suing -- are two companies that are marketing trivia cards specifically for play with the Trivial Pursuit board: Trivia-Sense Inc., in Minneapolis, and Decipher Inc., in Norfolk, Va. "If you subscribe to the idea that Scott, Chris, and John have a little magic in the way they write questions -- especially the questions for the first edition -- then why let the public be disappointed by people who imitate those cards and hurt the potential success of future games?" asks Carson.
"We don't think it's a rip-off, but more like an add-on," counters Peter Zollo, co-inventor of Trivia-Sense cards. "It's the same thing as buying a computer. One question is, How much compatible software can you add on? . . . It's just a new set of cards to be used with Trivial Pursuit. We think what we're doing is increasing the longevity of their game."
"OUR TYPE OF PAPER IS very tight," says Joe Lukowski, general sales manager of bleached paperboard for Federal Paper Board Co. in Montvale, N.J. In late 1983, Federal promised Cornacchia about 40 million pounds of a special card stock, 10-point Carolina Coated Bristol, covered on both sides with a clay that gives it a glossy finish and a smooth printing surface. The order was for nearly 20% of the capacity of the only machine in the country capable of milling and coating both sides of the paper in one operation. But it still wasn't enough.
"They've revised their figures upward and upward, and we can't go any further. We can't just walk away from our regular customers. You know, this is sort of a flash-in-the-pan thing."
"WE HAD LANDED OTHer business, but nothing anywhere near close to that," Dennis Lowry recalls, laughing. He is plant manager of Northern Plastics in Elroy, Wis. "And we had three presses. One was even running. We had four full-time people and two part-time people." He laughs again.
In the late fall of 1983, Joe Cornacchia flew into Elroy, population 1,513, to meet with Lowry. "They had advertised in The Wall Street Journal," recalls Cornacchia, "and I called this guy and said, 'Do you need work?' He said, 'Yeah,' so I flew in. . . . There was nothing there. It looked like a steel building completely empty, with one machine sitting in the corner. I said, 'Are you guys for real?' They said, 'We have 300 or more people who will come to work tomorrow.' I advanced them the money for the plastic bags. I advanced them money for the plastic. I put up money for the molds. They started running and the product was good.
"All my life I've always visited a plant before I give them work," Cornacchia continues. "You make a judgment. Either they can do it or they can't do it. I just thought these guys could do it. . . . I don't know if you want to print that. It sounds a little flaky. But the reason I liked this plant being empty is that most plastic people have customers, so they can't commit to something like this without throwing out their customers. Well, these guys had nothing. I knew they could commit wholeheartedly."
As the operation has grown nationwide, so has the magnitude of the problems. "The usual," says Larry Ormson, president of Northern Plastics. "When you are going 24 hours a day, there is no overtime." Before Cornacchia came along, Ormson had invested about $820,000 in equipment for a business he had never worked in, just so he could return t the hometown he had grown up in as the 15th of 17 children
Northern Plastics now has 140 employees and eight press es running full tilt. Six more are on order. And the doors never shut. "We are open seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Lowry. "We couldn't teach anyone to close the doors, so we keep them open." Every 12 seconds, the injection plastic molds at the plant produce 12 swizzle sticks -- each attached to one of six plastic disks that go in a game of Trivial Pursuit.
"I JUST HEARD ABOUT IT yesterday," says Bernard Graham, an insurance dealer visiting from Caracas, Venezuela. He reaches for the All-Star Sports Edition on one of the two six-foot-high bookcases of trivia games at the Barnes & Noble Sales Annex on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. "Someone I know played it and liked it very much.. .. No, I'm not a game player normally." Graham has not been stopped by the prominently displayed orange and black sign: "Master Game Trivial Pursuit is temporarily out of stock."
Does he know what he is about to spend $22.95 on? "I have no idea. Can you play the game without the master? It's cards? Six thousand cards?" After soliciting advice from another customer, Graham, not a sports fan, grabs the maroon box of the Baby Boomer edition and leaves.
"BELIEVE ME, IT'S NO fun" says Dick Locher, Selchow & Righter's vice-president of sales. "I take my work home at night for the luxury of doing it without interruption. Otherwise I'd never get anything done. I spend the days trying to placate customers."
He hasn't always succeeded. "I think our credibility in the marketplace has suffered a great deal this year." Locher talks very fast: Dozens of callers are awaiting answers. "On the one hand, we are producing a highly desirable item. On the other, we are frustrating customers with our uncertainties. You are forced to say, 'I think it will be so and so,' but in effect you are saying, 'I don't know.' You can't be sure, because you don't know if there will be a break in the supply line; you don't know if the assembly line will break down. It adds up to a horror story of our inability to give hard information to anyone.
To make matters worse, says Locher, "everyone wants it at once. It is just a situation where nerves are frayed and people aren't thinking coolly. There's just an unbelievable amount of pressure. Our priorities are first in, first out, as fast as we can. The oldest orders should go first. We haven't stopped taking orders from anybody."
Meanwhile, the distribution pipeline sometimes gets clogged. "California is a problem. Texas is a problem. Oklahoma is a problem. . . . Things are happening so fast we just try to cope with each problem as it comes up. Sometimes you aren't aware that a certain area hasn't gotten shipments for a few weeks."
Now, in midsummer, a potentially more ominous problem is developing. Locher has told his company that it will sell 24 million games, based on the number that have been ordered, but some of the orders have begun to dissolve. "In areas where the game is getting more in evidence, where maybe five stores in town have it, all of a sudden these guys who placed tremendous orders are canceling them or cutting them in half. There's a certain amount of sandbagging. People are ordering 8,000, and we don't know if they really want 4,000. When you are making them as quickly as we are, you can get in trouble real quickly."
"CUSTOMERS WOULD BE calling every week and I had nothing," recalls Karen Shutt, owner of the Kings Crown Inc. store in Overland Park, Kan. "Finally, I just gave them their money back." Shutt received her first order in late June -- three months later than promised and too late for the half dozen customers who had paid $45 each in advance, expecting April 11 delivery. She says she had limited her order to only a dozen games because local distributors were demanding $27.99, more than the retail price charged by some of the big chains in the area.
"We haven't seen one since before Christmas," laments Shelton Yee general manager of Gamemasters of San Francisco. It is late July and he has been waiting to place an order since the end of last year. "Every time I call the company, they say to call back next month. They don't have to deal with people looking for it, demanding it, screaming at you and saying 'You are hiding it.' Our retail operation has had about 50 calls a day. There's been a little slackening lately, but not much."
"The big quantities are being sold as loss leaders in the chains," says Tom Driscoll, then general manager of The Game Player in Houston. "It will go as low as $23. The Sears, the Targets, the Penneys will drop an order for 150,000 pieces, and that takes care of what Selchow & Righter can give. We can't get it directly from the factory, so we've got to find a wholesaler. I have yet to see what a month's supply is. I can't get enough games."
But even being a small wholesaler of adventure games hasn't helped Yee. "We've seen none," he repeats. "We have standing orders with our distributors, and we've seen none. We've been promised by distributors and by Selchow & Righter. They can't keep their promise."
"FOR SOMEONE TO DO the kind of volume Trivial Pursuit is doing is simply unprecedented," says Bruce Jones, vice-president of marketing at Parker Bros. "Even something like Rubik's Cube didn't do the kind of numbers they are talking about. It's reminded people again that games are, and can be, very profitable."
In February 1982, at the American Toy Fair, Parker Bros. was one of several companies that sent Haney and Abbott packing when they were desperately trying to peddle their game. Last year, General Mills Inc. -- of which Parker Bros. is a division -- paid an advance to distribute Trivial Pursuit overseas. Parker Bros. has developed its own trivia game, called People Weekly. "It's selling extremely well right now," says Jones. "It's our best introduction this year."
"I THINK YOU'VE GOT to have a gimmick now;" says Scott Robinson, president of Baron/Scott Enterprises Inc., which, in August, introduced a music trivia game, Rock 'n' Roll Replay, complete with two tape cassettes with 5-second snatches of blasts from the past. Robinson's other game is called Sexual Trivia, with questions like, Is keeping a condom in a wallet a good idea? (No, because body heat breaks down the rubber.) "It's extremely educational," says Robinson, who nonetheless doubts that the game will be adopted by schools, since players win by collecting orgasms.
"We spent $400,000 researching why Americans would spend $1 billion on anything," says Ken Paradiso, marketing manager for Professional Software Inc., in Needham, Mass. The study discovered "psychological flaws" in Trivial Pursuit, such as the inventors' decision not to set up a system of handicapping. Professional Software's Trivia Fever, a $39.95 retail software package compatible with the Commodore 64 home computer and the IBM Personal Computer and PCjr., earned its name by selling 200,000 copies to retailers in its first six weeks, according to Paradiso.
"WE ARE CONSERVAtive, we are cautious, we consider things very carefully, all the options," says 62-year-old Dick Selchow, who six years ago took over as president of Selchow & Righter, the oldest privately owned game company in the United States. "We are not a promotional house. We are a staple manufacturing house, and our hallmark is that we try to select things that will be around awhile.
"We've made a big step upward by attempting such a thing," he says, referring to Trivial Pursuit. "I think we have shown we can handle things of bigger scope." This year, for the first time, Selchow & Righter will enter the preschool market with a line of toys called Scrabble Brand People. And there is talk of a line of wooden toys and of buying a subsidiary plastics plant.
Selchow is a polite, formal executive who dresses in muted suits. He is a vestryman of his church. His favorite game, he says, is Parcheesi, the company's oldest. According to his resume, he also enjoys a good game of Scrabble with his mother-in-law.
Selchow & Righter was the choice of Haney and Abbott because they wanted to be associated with Scrabble. "In my mind," Chris Haney says, "it's one of the most dignified games around." Still, he recalls their first meeting with Selchow & Righter executives on September 22, 1982: "It was 'Saturday Night Live' meets 'The Lawrence Welk Show.' "
Although Horn Abbot retained editorial control of all cards, a few questions in the master game's 6,000 questions and answers offended Selchow. About 15 in the Canadian edition were either sanitized or dropped, and a practice of screening continued in subsequent editions. One Baby Boomer question that disappeared: How many months pregnant was Nancy Davis when she walked down the aisle with Ronald Reagan? Answer: Two and a half. Selchow says simply, "There are very few I recall being changed."
"THIS IS A VERY IMPORtant card set for us," says Chris Haney. "It's our acid test for the future. We're hoping to repeat the success of the first edition."
Today, the creators of Trivial Pursuit are millionaires, talking of boats and mansions; of blue-chip stock and the 60 acres of grape-growing land they own a half interest in; of the one-hour television special they are co-producing to air on ABC. It is just about two years since Haney, feeding his family on $200 a week and the receipts of bottle returns, suffered a nervous breakdown as the first major shipment of games was about to be assembled. The anxiety attacks recur, and he will not appear on live television. And it is just two and a half years since he and his three partners committed themselves to $250,000 for a game the experts scoffed at. They went away from the 1982 toy fairs in the United States and Canada with fewer than 500 orders.
Their game, which chides the world's newsmakers and teases the public's recall of the tidbits of the past, is sprinkled with carefully measured portions of the irreverence its authors still cultivate as a way of being -- or, at least, as a way of appearing. "Nothing is sacred," says Haney.
Nothing, that is, but their game. Perhaps that is why he sneers at the new industry of imitators ("gnats swiping at an elephant"); why he bristles at complaints about their game's answers ("we are so high profile people just want to nail us to the cross"); why he chafes when asked how long and how often their game can be played before it becomes a piece of trivia itself ("that's not a fair question"). And, perhaps, it is why they are spending their summer in the Holiday Inn-chic of a suburban Toronto motel, thinking of questions for a new edition.
"We are working on the next best-selling game in history in that room right now," boasts Chris Haney, four or five beers into the evening. In an industry in which, in the words of one analyst, "there is no future," they want their championship season to linger.