On a bitter December day in 1983, journalist David Cobb took a break from his contract job as a writer for the CTV television program Live It Up, strolled toward the corner and stumbled into a queue of people stretching backward from the Toys "R" Us store on Toronto's Yonge Street.
"What are you guys lining up for?" he inquired idly.
"We're waiting to buy a copy of that new game Trivial Pursuit," somebody replied.
"Ah," thought Cobb, with the equivalent of that dumbfounded look on the faces of lottery hopefuls the moment they realize that the numbers on their ticket might actually be worth something.
For once, Christmas had come early, not only for Cobb, but for a circle of small investors who had ponyed up some not-so-ready cash to invest in an untested board game invented in 1979 by Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, a couple of unheralded Montreal journalists. Cobb won't say how much he has made in the past 27 years although he does allow it was "one of the very few investments where I have ever made my money back." And then some.
That was the beginning of the Trivial Pursuit phenomenon, the most successful board game in Canadian history. Why it was such a bit hit is the stuff of pop culture theses, but its popularity probably has a lot to do with the times and the people who played it so avidly.
In the early 1980s, early boomers were in their late 20s and beginning to settle down, but the recession had curbed free spending; they had grown up with leisure time and sassy educations so their memory banks were stuffed with general and arcane knowledge, which they delighted in spouting − this was the era when The Book of Lists by Irving Wallace and his offspring became a bestseller. The Internet existed, but Google was not yet a noun or a verb, so it was not possible to look up everything, anywhere all the time. Testing each other's information base was a pleasurable and time consuming pastime. Throw in chance and a set of dice and bingo − Trivial Pursuit was the next big thing.
If TP was good for investors, it should have been a fairy tale for the founders and the small coterie of friends and family who helped to develop and market the game in the early days. And it was − for all of them except Chris Haney, the driven, creative visionary who died on May 31 at age 59 of heart disease and kidney failure brought on by years of excessive drinking and smoking.
"We grew up with nothing," said his younger sister, Shaw Festival actress Mary Haney. She can remember the scoffing when Chris, then in his early 20s, gritted his teeth and insisted, "I'm going to be a millionaire by the age of 30. He made it by 32," she said, and he did it with humour and without being boring or tedious.
"He spent most of his life, even when he was young, being a good buddy and a friend, and once the game got going, helping and looking after everybody, but he forgot to look after and love himself. That is what saddens me more than anything. I will miss him terribly."
Older brother John Haney is more explicit. "He was the most charming person to be around, constantly telling stories and surrounded by a group of people," but he also had a "very dark" streak. "He didn't tolerate fools much, he drank too much and he smoked too much and it wore him down," he recalled. "As Chris once said about himself, 'His best friend was a bar stool.'"
Christopher Frederick Haney, the middle of three children of broadcaster Jack Haney and his wife, Stratford Festival actress Sheila (Woollatt) Haney, was born in Welland, Ont., on Aug. 9, 1950. His parents had met in England at a dance during the Second World War, when Jack was serving overseas as a sergeant in the Canadian Army and Sheila had the corresponding rank in the British Forces. They married early in 1945; at war's end, he was shipped home to be demobilized and she arrived late the following year on the Queen Mary as a war bride with a babe in arms, the Haney's eldest child, John.
The Haneys lived a peripatetic life when their three children were young because Jack Haney's career as a news editor took them to radio stations in Welland, Cornwall, Saint John and Hamilton, before he ended his working life at the Canadian Press's Broadcast News Division in Toronto.
Chris was a maverick, says his brother, John, a child who couldn't stay still and who was always into mischief. Back in Welland days, when Chris was little more than a toddler, John Haney remembers his mother, who was "quite the character" saying in her British accent: "John go outside and get your brother off the roof. He is naked and waving at the cars." That unbridled, rambunctious personality was typical of Chris's life, said his brother. "He was a true extrovert, but one with a darker, anxious side."
Although Chris was smart, curious and well-read, he was also impatient with sitting in a classroom and left school in Grade 12. His father helped get him a job at CP in Toronto as a "gofer" running errands, delivering copy, getting coffee for the journalists and hanging around the photo desk after work. Within a few months, he was an assistant editor and by his late teens, he became the youngest photo editor in CP history at that time, according to his family. Journalism was a natural choice for a boy who had grown up hearing his father lead discussions around the kitchen table about breaking news and world events.
Jack Haney was "very funny, and a "jokester," according to his elder son. But he was also a "a heavy drinker" and "a hard liver," traits that Chris inherited along with the family tendency to heart disease. Mr. Haney died of a stroke in 1972, at age 53, leaving his widow $32,000 in insurance money. Encouraged by an actor friend, Mrs. Haney spent $30,000 of her inheritance on a small villa in Nerja, Spain, near Malaga on the Costa del Sol, planning to recoup the purchase price by renting it to tourists. That never happened, but the house did nurture Chris's love affair with Spain.
About a year before his father died, Chris Haney had met a nurse named Sarah Crandall. "He was the handsomest, most intelligent and funniest man I have ever met, bar none. The party began when Chris entered the room," she said. Together, they moved to Ottawa in 1972, where she nursed and he worked in the CP bureau earning money to go travelling. He left for Europe in the fall of 1973, she met him up with him the following February and they set off in a Volkswagen to travel "from Stockholm to the Sahara desert."
They returned to Ottawa in the spring of 1975, recouped their resources and then drove across the country and spent the summer in a tent at the Robert Service Campground in Whitehorse. "Chris had an amazingly curious mind and that man knew more about the Yukon in three months than people who lived there all their lives," she said. That summer, the Canadian government hired him to set up all the darkrooms to process photographs from Prince Charles's royal tour of the Arctic.
He had harboured an acute fear of flying from the time he was a teenaged hockey player, when the plane carrying his team to a game in Quebec had suddenly plunged 5,000 feet. But for this government job, he quelled his nerves and flew aboard a Hercules in the Arctic. That was one of the very few times he travelled by any means other than train, ship or automobile.
After the trip to the Arctic, he worked for CP on the photo coverage for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and met Scott Abbott, then a sportswriter for the wire service agency. Chris Haney and Sarah Crandall married in September, 1977. Chronically short of funds, especially after their first child was born in November, 1978, they used his mother's place in Spain as their home base until they returned to Montreal in 1979, where Haney took a job as a photo editor with The Gazette. To reduce expenses, the Haneys began sharing a place with Abbott.
On a sleepy, wet December day ─ the 15th to be exact ─ the three of them and baby, John, were hanging around the house when the two men decided to compete to crown the best Scrabble player of all time. Alas, six tiles were missing. The Haneys ran out to buy a new game and as they came back in the front door, he bemoaned the amount of money he had spent on Scrabble over the years and suggested there was money to be made in board games. Abbott suggested they should do one about trivia. A few beers later, Scrabble forgotten, they had sketched out the idea for what would become Trivial Pursuit. The next morning, Haney came downstairs brimming with ideas, found a cardboard box and some construction paper, and within 45 minutes had produced the skeleton of the board game.
That was the easy part. The next two years were an arduous slog of writing questions ─ they needed 10,000 from which to hone 6,000 keepers ─ making prototypes and finding seed money. The banks weren't interested in lending money for a start-up board game invented by a couple of journalists, so at one point Scott Abbott's father offered to mortgage his house. Haney had quit The Gazette and moved to Spain in the spring of 1980 with his family and every reference book he and his wife could cram into their suitcases.
Working full time on the game, and with no money coming in, he began suffering from anxiety attacks. That winter, John Haney remembers sitting in bars and reading the backs of gin and vodka bottles to come up with arcane facts that could be turned into questions. Sister Mary Haney, who also dreamed up questions, remembers getting the princely sum of 25 cents for every question that her brother accepted.
The first 1,200 games were put together in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1981, just as the recession that had begun in the U.S. hit hard north of the undefended border. The manufacturing cost was about $60 per game because of the heft of the box and the quality of the board and the cards, but the inventors could only wholesale it for about $15. Money was so tight that Sarah Haney, who recalls cashing in beer bottles to buy food, went back to work as a nurse after their second child, Tom, was born in November, 1982.
Eventually, they sold shares at $1,000 each to 32 small-time investors, including the copy boy at The Gazette, journalist Susan Ferrier MacKay who was friends with the Haneys and was working at CTV on the television program Live It Up. She in turn persuaded David Cobb to put some money on the line. And so it went until they had enough money to produce 20,000 games, which they began shipping to stores in the spring of 1982. Everybody was tense, especially Chris Haney.
And then suddenly, Trivial Pursuit took off. Sarah Haney can remember receiving the first welcome returns in the form of a cheque for $5,000 in April, 1983. The lineups began in the pre-Christmas rush that year. The following year, 20 million TP games were sold, "one every second, 24 hours a day, we used to say," recalls John Haney, who along with lawyer Ed Werner were partners with his brother and Abbott. That November, the annual general meeting, which had always been a drab low-key affair, was shifted to Deerhurst Resort, just outside Huntsville, Ont. (and the site for the 2010 G8 meetings).
The four partners played a joke on the assembled shareholders by giving them each an envelope, one of which supposedly contained a winning ticket for a custom-made Trivial Pursuit gaming table. Instead, the envelopes contained dividend cheques ─ $50,000 for a lot of five shares in the game ─ the amount being a closely guarded secret, according to John Haney. Actor Peter Hutt, who had two lots of shares, was sitting in the front row, and expressed the general mood in the room, by yelling "Holy fuck!"
Life should have been golden for Chris Haney. Instead, he was as driven as ever. After the sale of TP to Hasbro in 1988 for $80-million (U.S.), he needed a new challenge. He built a palatial home in Caledon, Ont., sailed on a luxury cruiser to Spain every winter and helped several friends build dream houses. With Abbott, he built two magnificent golf courses, Devil's Pulpit and Devil's Paintbrush, on the escarpment in Caledon. He began working on new electronic board games, and studied photography, creating some stunning images and reaching level 8 of Photoshop, according to his brother John.
About three years ago, Haney's genetic predisposition to heart disease, along with his excessive drinking and smoking, caught up with him. He suffered from serious circulation problems, which cumulated in crippling pain in his legs and eventually a systemic breakdown, including kidney failure.
Although their marriage had disintegrated in 1990, he and Sarah Crandall Haney remained business partners and close friends. In the mid 1990s, Haney married his second wife, Hiam Bohsali, the mother of his stepdaughter, Fetorun Reda, and his partner and caregiver until the end of his life.
In late May, Chris Haney decided he wanted to come home from Spain, but he was too ill to travel by anything but air ambulance. His sailing days were over. Even then, he didn't think he was going to die. "He was always an optimist that way," said John Haney. "Every time he survived a medical crisis he would say, 'I just dodged another bullet,' with his typically, black sense of humour."
On landing, he was taken immediately to St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. "Over the years, he suffered anxiety attacks, but he chose that self-destructive lifestyle, and that is what eventually killed him," said John Haney, who added the plea, "May he finally rest in peace" as the final line in the death notice he wrote for his brother.
Chris Haney is survived by his wife, Hiam, three children, two siblings and his extended family.