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Magazines > Business > "Born to Win: Trivial Pursuit Investors"
© 1984 Allan Gould. Uncredited use of this material, in whole or in part, is prohibited.


Trivial Pursuit investors show off their winning investmentHow a motley crew of Investors took a flier on a new game called Trivial Pursuit -- and are on their way to becoming newly minted millionaires.

Quick, now, pick the best investment of the past decade. Gold at $30 an ounce? A hundred shares of Apple Computer Inc.'s
first public offering? Art? Real estate?

Wrong. The right answer is five shares in Trivial Pursuit, the most successful board game since Scrabble (1953) and Monopoly (1935). By now nearly everyone knows about the enormous fortune accruing to theguys who invented it. But you may not yet have heard about the 34 people who backed it in the first place-friends, passing acquaintances, drunken strangers. Many of them had never invested in anything riskier than a Canada Savings Bond. Today they're collecting five-digit dividend cheques. And no one knows when it will stop.

Take Jo Ann Sauk, 34, the very first investor. She took a thousand-dollar flier on Trivial Pursuit back in 1980, when she was still a student and working part time as a nurse. She'd gone to high school in Hamilton, Ont., with Chris Haney, one of the game's inventors. That summer she visited Haney at his in-laws' farm. "Chris told me about the game they were working on, and I really liked the idea," she says. "I just knew that people would love it." She borrowed the thousand from her boyfriend, Toomas, now, lucky for him, her husband. To date she has earned about $50,000 on her investment; by Christmas of 1985, her dividends will add up to half a million dollars or more. She had never invested in anything in her life. "I never had any money before," she says.

Trivial Pursuit should earn more than $225 million in 1984 - as much as the entire board game industry earned in 1983. Sauk and the other investors are splitting 20% of the profits; the rest goes to the inventors, Chris ("Horn") Haney, 34; his brother John, 38; Scott Abbott, 35; and their lawyer, Ed Werner, 35. Their own story has been widely celebrated in People magazine ("It may be the best thing to happen to board games since Pac-Man began gobbling up industry profits") and Time ("the hottest game in town").

It happened like this: Haney, then photo editor of The Montreal Gazette, and Abbott, then sportswriter for Canadian Press, sat down over a few beers in late 1979 and thought up a new game, based on questions of trivia, in less than an hour. It would consist of 6,000 questions in six categories (entertainment, geography, sports and leisure, etc.). Haney and Abbott were soon joined by brother John Haney, who was then house manager for the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. John Haney, in turn, recommended a fellow hockey player and buddy from his days at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY, Ed Werner, who had been practising law in nearby St. Catharines, Ont. He helped them incorporate Horn Abbot Ltd., which was all well and good. But they needed money
-- about $75,000 -- in order to test market an edition of the game, so they decided to sell five share lots at $1,000 each. They also needed time. Chris Haney was to quit his job at The Gazette and go off to Spain with his wife and child, his brother and, later, Abbott, where they spent much of the fall and winter of 1980 doing research for the 6,000
questions for the firstgame. It was two years, says Chris Haney, before they "saw
a nickel" from their idea.

Jo Ann Sauk was an old friend. But nearly all of Haney's and Abbott's colleagues at The Gazette turned them down flat. And who could blame them? Recalls Terry Mosher, the editorial cartoonist Aislin at the paper: "I did some posters to advertise their new game for a thousand bucks. They offered me cash or part of the action. But Haney is notorious for bumming beers. Under the circumstances, and knowing how tough games are to sell
-- I'm always being approached to put up cash for one project or another -- I took the cash."

Mosher claims he's not sorry, though his wife has given him a hard time for his shortsightedness. "But she's conveniently forgotten," he says, "that she urged me to take the cash in the first place." He adds, "Since Haney got famous, he still pays me the same for posters, the cheap bastard." Chris Haney has his own recollection of the Mosher connection: "I tried desperately to get Aislin to take shares. He's been trying to remove his foot from his ass ever since."

But there was one colleague who fell in with the starving dreamers - Derrick Rarmsey, 27, a copy editor in the entertainment department. The kid used to go for beers with Haney at the American Tavern across the street from The Gazette. "That's where I signed the two cheques - $500 each - for five shares," he says. "One of them was postdated because I didn't have enough money to cover the whole amount. And I had to cash in a Canada Savings Bond to pay up." He adds, "At the paper, they call me `poor little millionaire' now."

Ramsey blew some of his dividends on a trip to Brazil for Carnaval, and he's now planning to buy himself a big house. He had never invested a cent in anything before Trivial Pursuit came along, but that's all changing. "I hope to start studying financing and slowly invest in other things," he says. Of course, there's always the downside. Says Ramsey: "This year I had to go to an accountant for the first time. A friend used to do my taxes for $10."

John Nason is also stirred by the game's prospects. He's no investor, though. He's the vice-president of marketing for US games giant Selchow & Righter, of Scrabble , and Parchesi fame. In 1982 his company signed a distribution agreement with Horn Abbot for an unspecified royalty (probably about $5) from each game sold in the US. There it wholesales at $19 and retails for $30-$40; bootleg copies of popular new editions, such as the new Baby Boomer edition, have sold for much more.

"We expect to sell more than 20 million games in the US this year," says Nason with scarcely suppressed excitement. "We're following the pattern in Canada, where you sold 100,000 in the first year, and 2.4 million in the second." That includes all the versions: the Genus, the Silver Screen, the Baby Boomer and the All-Star Sports editions. "The real job is to get all of them made," says Nason. "We're selling more than a million a month, and by late summer, we should be able to manufacture two million a month. There has never been a board game like this before. Scrabble, our last big winner, sold three million units at about $3 each in 1953; in more than three decades, it has sold nearly 100 million games. Parker Brothers' Monopoly has taken half a century to sell the same amount."

Only five of Horn Abbot's lucky 34 shareholders have 10 shares, which means they shelled out a giant $2,000 or so. Each investor's share will be worth millions by 1985. One of the big winners is journalist David Cobb, 50, who was writing for the television show Live It Up when a researcher on the show, Susan Ferrier Mackay, who knew the Haney brothers, convinced him to shell out $2,500 for 10 shares. "The price had gone up by then," he explains. Unlike most of his fellow speculators, Cobb had invested frequently in penny stocks and, surprisingly, "done 50-50 on the whole." Says Cobb: "I never even saw a mockup of the game. It was a pure flier. And I didn't even think there was an enormous market for board games. Diplomacy was touted highly some years ago, and it failed. I figured the chances were slim, but what the hell?"

Cobb's skepticism was justified. Even Chris Haney admits today: "If I bad known the toy business, we never would have done it. We just went blindly ahead." Selchow & Righter's Nason concurs: "We review dozens of new games every year, and bring out two, three, maybe four. But we haven't had a success like Trivial Pursuit in more than 30 years. And I doubt if there will be another like it in our lifetime."

Fortunately, Haney didn't know any better, and for the first time in his life, freelance journalist Cobb is considering buying a house. He plans to take a year off and will probably spend it in Italy with his family. "Scott and the Haney brothers deserve all the credit," he says. "They never wavered. How many of us would mortgage everything, be a pain in the ass to our friends and follow it through to the end? They deserve everything." His matchmaker, Susan Ferrier Mackay, didn't do too badly either. She also invested in the dream, and was last seen buying her dream house, wearing her dream mink jacket.

Michael Wurstlin, 30, is the art director who designed that gorgeous board. He was out of work at the time Haney and Abbott hired him. "I entered the project skepticalthey were scruffy, red-necked guys, if pleasant enough - and I was - absolutely dead broke," he says. "I wasn't even getting unemployment insurance. I was convinced that I should take the thousand they owed me." But Haney, living from hand to mouth at the time, was persistent: "Are you sure? We'll give you the money, but are you sure?" When the hungry artist said that he was damn sure, Haney dug in the knife: "You're being very Canadian!"

"That was the line that really did rice in," says Wurstlin. "I've always railed against the lack of risk taking in Canadians." So he took the shares. Now he's happy. "It's the father I never had," he says. "I'm going to build an empire."

Down the street from lawyer-partner Ed Werner lives an engineering technician, who desires to remain nameless. When he heard about the game, he figured, "It's only a thousand-at the worst, a tax writeoff." Soon after he made his investment, he was laid off and was out of work for the next 18 months -- the same 18 months Trivial Pursuit became the biggest moneymaker in game history. Now he's starting a boating business on Georgian Bay. He's also scouting such blue-chip holdings as Bell Canada and Toronto-Dominion Bank stock.

How long will he be cashing dividend cheques? For a long, long time. As Werner explains: "When you bought Monopoly, you didn't need a new one until the board fell apart. But we are constantly generating new products." A children's version, the Young Players' edition, is coming out this summer. Genus II (6,000 new questions for the original game) is soon to follow, and there are versions for Germany, Spain and 16 other countries due this year and next. As Selchow & Righter's Nason explains: "The kids can play with their Young Players, the husband with All-Star Sports, the wife with Silver Screen, all at the same time. That extends the life cycle of the game greatly."

Many of the investors in Trivial Pursuit, as one can heartbrokenly see, had the good fortune of either knowing Haney or Abbott, or bumping into friends who did. One group was a regular bunch in Toronto who met Fridays at an informal "Poet's Corner" at a downtown bar. Jack MacLeod, 51, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a successful novelist (Zinger and Me), saw a copy of the trial run of 1,200 games that Horn Abbot had produced at a cost of nearly $75,000. "I was amused by it, and was told they needed investors. I thought, I'll never see this thousand again," he says. Afterward, in the sober light of day, he even offered to buy another block of five shares, but it was too late.

At the same gathering was Bruce Blackadar, 39, an editor at The Toronto Star who, typically, has "never invested in anything in my life. I figured that, if I was going to go capitalist, I'd do it with a twist-to go with something as trivial as a board game, pun intended." He bought only two shares, for $500, and fellow Star journalist Joey Slinger put in $750. "I'm a naive business person," Blackadar says. "Eventually I'll have to face all this money head-to-head, but to me it's still a joke -- and unreal."

But it's no joke to Lynda Hurst, a columnist at The Star, who went to every Friday gathering except the one when the game was passed around. "It makes me sick," she says. "I'm stuck in an office with these two people every day, and it's terrible. Of course, I bought Torstar at 23, and it's now at 11 1/2. That's the story of my life."

But who knew, Lynda Hurst? Who really knew? Certainly not even the people who put in 12-hour days and seven-day weeks over long and hungry months as they dug up the number of ghosts who appeared to Scrooge in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and the name of the dog that went up in that early satellite and never lived to tell, or wag, the tale.

The Haney brothers, Abbott and Werner have invested some of their millions in the new Curtis Curve hockey sticks (which have special curved handles), and more recently, they've been developing new vineyards in the Niagara region of Ontario. You may be pleased to know that Chris Haney's mom wanted to invest in the game, but she lacked the money to do so. However, she hasn't suffered. Haney recently bought her a ticket on the Queen Elizabeth 2. His mother-in-law wanted to buy 25 shares for $5,000, but her husband talked her out of it. They have just returned from a safari in Kenya. "I'm just paying back old debts," says their generous son-in-law sweetly.

"The fact of the matter is," says Haney, "Trivial Pursuit is a money machine." The machine could well crank out a quarter of a billion dollars for its creators within five years. Says his earliest backer, Jo Ann Sauk: "It's nice to see the system work - that you can start with nothing, and strike it rich." To be sure. But we can't help thinking that when capitalism works, sometimes it can be positively frightening. end


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