RIP Chris Haney, co-creator of trivial pursuit.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
June 1 2010 1:50 PM

RIP Chris Haney, Co-Creator of Trivial Pursuit

Can his board game survive in the age of Google?

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With nothing less than cultural identity on the line, Trivial Pursuit matches became pitched battles. "This game can make you feel incredibly brilliant or incredibly stupid," a player told the New York Times in 1984. The social stigma of losing necessitated strategy, even chicanery. In a 1983 volume called How To Win at Trivial Pursuit, author Robert J. Heller suggests that a player memorize all 6,000 answers before his opponents arrive and be prepared to contest the validity of any question in which his answer is deemed to be wrong. He continues, "If your opponents are people with whom you may expect to play again, you will be better served by suggesting that the correct answers not be read aloud." If that fails, a player may attempt to "throw his opponents into a tizzy by providing extra bits of information or alternative correct answers they will have to look up, only to grudgingly agree that he is right." And, finally: "The possibilities are limited only by the deviousness of your mind and the viciousness of your competitive drive. Have fun!"

Whether one memorized the questions or not, the original Trivial Pursuit contained a finite amount of entertainment. As the years passed, Abbott and Haney worked furiously to reinvent the franchise, creating new editions like "All-Star Sports" and "Baby Boomer" (which seemed slightly redundant). Purists, though, ignored the new games and gravitated back to the blue box; 23 years after its American debut, the original edition still accounts for a huge percentage of Trivial Pursuit's 80 million units sold.

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This runs counter to the spirit of most board games—like Monopoly and Scrabble—which promise endless permutations. Trivia, it turns out, is nonrenewable. The Genus Edition so ably flattered boomers that they saw no need to buy later editions that included questions about, say, Melrose Place. What about children of boomers, Trivial Pursuit's other major demographic? They were warned away from the original—the box declared, "Age: Adult"—which of course made mastering the original game even more enticing. To compete at Trivial Pursuit, and maybe answer a question or two, was to secure a seat at the adult table. I remember my grandparents' astonishment when I correctly answered that Radar O'Reilly's favorite drink was Grape Nehi—a fact I'm pretty sure I learned directly from a Trivial Pursuit card. However sacredly boomers regard their nostalgia, it turns out their children regard it as more precious than their own.

Then came the Internet: How could Trivial Pursuit survive in the age of Google? The Internet has rewritten the rules of the game. The old measure of the trivia master was how many facts he could cram into his head. The new measure is how nimbly he can manipulate a search engine to call up the answer. The ABC show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire included a lifeline called "phone-a-friend," in which a desperate contestant was supposed to call upon the knowledge of a smart companion. Seconds after the contestant dialed for help, you could hear the guy on the other end pecking away at a keyboard—Googling—and I thought, This is it. Trivia is dead.

That's overstating it a little. Trivia lives; it's generalist trivia, the kind of fluency that Trivial Pursuit prized, that's ailing. Just as the Internet splintered trivia into thousands of niches, Trivial Pursuit has contented itself with turning out games like "90s Time Capsule" and "Book Lover's," and, more frighteningly, those devoted solely to the vagaries of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Gone is the proud generalist of the original Trivial Pursuit, who knew the most common Russian surname (Ivanov) and the international radio code word for the letter O (Oscar). In his place is the specialist, who knows every inch of Return of the Jedi. There are many of us who have a nagging fear we belong to the latter group. "What jungle planet do Wookiees hail from?" a Star Wars card asks. Let's say, hypothetically and only for the sake of argument, that I know the answer. Who is supposed to be impressed by that?

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.