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Chris Haney dies at 59; co-creator of Trivial Pursuit board game

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Chris Haney, a former Canadian journalist whose fascination with entertaining, barely useful tidbits of information led him to co-create the bestselling board game Trivial Pursuit, died Monday in Toronto. He was 59.

He had been in poor health the last two years with kidney and circulatory problems, said Scott Abbott, who created the game with Haney more than 30 years ago and watched it become a cultural phenomenon across North America and around the world.

"I was the architect and Chris was the general contractor. I invented it and he made it happen," Abbott said of the partnership that resulted in more than 100 million copies being sold in 33 countries by the time Hasbro bought the rights to the game for $80 million in 2008.

Decades before data hounds had Google, there was Trivial Pursuit, a $29.99 board game that elevated the acquisition of a wide range of arcane knowledge to a coveted social skill. Players answered questions in six broad categories to collect six colored pie wedges to win. The game rewarded people who knew such factoids as what part of an elephant has 100,000 muscles, what was Elvis Presley's highest-grossing movie and who invented the flush toilet.

Although trivia games and books were not new, Trivial Pursuit "spread like a virus all over the culture," said Syracuse University pop culture expert Robert Thompson, who attributed the game's enormous popularity to a critical mass of college-educated people that began building after World War II.

"By the time we get to the late 1970s, early 1980s," Thompson said Tuesday, "we've got a lot of people in this country with a whole lot of information flowing in their heads .... Trivial Pursuit was a way to make some of that information useful. At least you could get a piece of the pie and impress your friends."

For his part, Haney never had the appearance of a striver. He was often described in articles as somewhat scraggly looking, usually dressed in jeans that might have burn holes from the cigarettes he smoked. He was more than 6 feet tall, with a handlebar moustache he was fond of twirling.

Born Aug. 9, 1950, in Welland, Ontario, he often described himself as a beer-swilling high school dropout whose biggest mistake was quitting school at 17. "I should have done it when I was 12," he said in interviews.

When he dropped out, his father, a radio news reader, insisted he get a job and helped him find one in the photo department at the Canadian Press wire service. Haney worked at various bureaus of the service from the late 1960s through the late '70s.

He met Abbott, a sports writer for the Canadian Press, in 1975 when he was assigned to the Montreal bureau to organize photo coverage of the 1976 Olympics. They became close friends and housemates.

In 1979, Haney was married to his first wife, Sarah, and working for the Montreal Gazette when he and Abbott hit on the idea that would change their lives.

It was a Saturday night before Christmas, and Haney and his wife had returned from grocery shopping with a surprise for Abbott: a Scrabble set. But Haney groused about paying what he believed was an inflated price — $11 — for the board game. "He said, 'There must be a lot of money in games. Why don't we invent one?' " Abbott recalled in an interview Tuesday. "Then he said, 'What should it be about?' I said, 'Trivia.' " Abbott then sat down with pencil and paper and worked out the basic details in 45 minutes.

Haney suggested calling the game Trivia Pursuit, but Sarah suggested a crucial tweak: adding an L to make it Trivial Pursuit. "That made it," Abbott said.

He and Haney didn't quit their day jobs just yet, however. They recruited two partners, Haney's brother, John, and a lawyer friend, Ed Werner, and Haney and his brother spent the next two years writing the trivia questions — 6,000 of them.

The partners tested the game on friends and were convinced that it would sell, but potential marketers were dubious. A common criticism was that people wouldn't buy a game that made them feel stupid.

In 1980, with an infant son to support and a second child on the way, Haney quit his job at the Gazette to work full time on the game. He and his partners raised $40,000 by selling shares to 32 people. His personal finances became so shaky, however, that he was redeeming empty beer bottles for cash. He suffered a nervous breakdown.

But after the first 1,000 games sold out, orders began to pour in. Encouraged by the reception for the Genus Edition, as the first set was called, Haney began to work on a second edition focused on the movies, called the Silver Screen Edition. In 1981 an American company, Selchow & Richter, offered a contract with a generous advance on royalties and a plan for wide-scale distribution in the United States. The popularity of Trivial Pursuit snowballed, and in 1984 more than 20 million sets were purchased in North America.

The game's success allowed Haney to indulge his passion for golf. With Abbott, he built Devil's Pulpit and Devil's Paintbrush in Ontario; they were named the best new golf courses in 1991 and 1992, respectively, by Golf Digest magazine. Until his health began to deteriorate, Haney played golf six days a week, Abbott said. He spent winters in Marbella, Spain, traveling there by sea because he was averse to flying.

In addition to his brother, Haney is survived by his second wife, Haim; a daughter, Shelagh; two sons, John and Thomas; and a sister, Mary.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

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