Chris Haney, who co-created the popular board game Trivial Pursuit with Scott Abbott in 1979, died Monday at 59. In 2005, Bryan Curtis described how the game was once "a great repository of middlebrow culture" and lamented its decline.
In college, I played Trivial Pursuit. For some, the undergraduate years mark the emergence of a first novel, or issuance of a political identity; for me, they were a chance to win at board games. Trivial Pursuit matches were nasty business. Once, after correctly answering a question about the sequel to The Pink Panther, I found myself accused of cheating, and the whole group nearly came to blows. Another time, my roommate and I were pitted against a guy who was rumored to have memorized all 6,000 of the game's questions and answers. He was doing pretty well there for a while, until he was waylaid by drunkenness; no points for guessing who was bringing him the beer.
Trivial Pursuit still sells briskly, thanks to a 1990s edition and movie tie-ins, but the game seems to have receded as a cultural icon. Today, Trivial Pursuit is a museum piece, a fond reminder of the frivolities of the 1980s. What happened?
Those who revere Trivial Pursuit for its wit and erudition may be heartbroken to learn that it was created by Canadian hockey fans. The game was hatched by Scott Abbott and Chris Haney on Dec. 15, 1979, when they met for a few hours of Scrabble, noticed some of the pieces had gone missing, and set about creating a game that would test inconsequentia in history, geography, popular entertainment, the arts, science, and sports. In 1982, they brought the game to a New York firm called Selchow & Righter, which manufactured Scrabble and Parcheesi. The boys envisioned something grander than a mere board game. They wanted to make Trivial Pursuit a tony accessory for the baby boomer, like Eagles albums and the Volvo. The price hovered at $40, nearly twice that of most games. The cadet-blue box included a quote from Alexander Pope and no impossibly blond children smiling and rolling dice on the cover, in stark contrast to the cheerier offerings from Hasbro.
For the trivia itself, Abbott and Haney zeroed in on baby-boomer nostalgia. The game concerns itself with useless information, yes, but useless information of a very specific sort: detritus from the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, which flattered the baby boomer by making his golden years seem vital, even historic. The theme held for questions ranging from foreign affairs ("Which eye did Moshe Dayan wear a patch over?") to television ("Who was Howdy Doody's twin brother?") to the Beatles ("Who replaced Pete Best?"). Abbot and Haney added just enough happy-hour impishness to keep the game from becoming too earnest. What's the largest diamond in the world? Why, a baseball diamond!
Trivial Pursuit became a great repository of middlebrow culture. Flip through a stack of cards at random and you assemble a list of middlebrow writers (James Thurber, Gore Vidal), movies (Mutiny on the Bounty, Love Story), and television shows (Gunsmoke). In 1983, a marketing consultant named Linda Pezzano shipped board games to actors featured in the entertainment questions. Pat Boone, Gregory Peck, and James Mason sent back adoring fan letters, which Selchow & Righter used in promotions. When Time reported that Trivial Pursuit had become popular with the cast of The Big Chill—the quintessential boomer flick—the game attained a newfound cachet. To win at Trivial Pursuit was to achieve something greater than mastering a board game. It was to achieve mastery of one's subculture: to have successfully determined which bits of information to retain (anything about Gunsmoke) and which to discard (anything about Rimbaud).