How Did Missing Scrabble Pieces Lead to the Creation of Trivial Pursuit?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to board games and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of all board game urban legends so far.

BOARD GAME URBAN LEGEND: For lack of a Scrabble tile, Trivial Pursuit was born.

Scott Abbott and Chris Haney were two 30-year-old Canadian journalists who were also good friends. They would routinely play Scrabble with each other, evenly matched enough that both men got a more or less equal chance to brag. However, a little before Christmas in 1979, the two men decided that they would have a knockdown, dragged out grudge match Scrabble tournament for complete Scrabble bragging rights.

That tournament would ultimately change board game history forever, for a surprising reason!

Their problem was that they were unsure that either man had a complete Scrabble set, so Haney went out to buy a new set, to make sure that the tournament would go smoothly.

Now here’s where most versions of the story go a bit astray – they usually go something like, “The two men wanted to play Scrabble, but pieces were missing.” I don’t believe that’s accurate – I think the version that Jeffrey L. Cruikshank told in his book Shaping The Waves: A History Of Entreprenuership At Harvard Business School is more accurate, as it comes directly from the two men. In THAT version, Haney remarked to Abbot when he returned with the set that, due to pieces continually going missing, this was likely the eighth copy of Scrabble that he had purchased.

That led to a discussion about how much money there must be in games, and THAT then led to the friends determining that THEY should create a board game. The basic rules for the game were settled that day, and Haney’s wife came up with the title for the game – Trivial Pursuit.

The new endeavor had a rough go at it originally, with their attempts to raise money mostly rebuffed, except for a few friends. The pair used their newspaper connections to go to Game Fairs pretending to be doing interviews for the news, but really gathering information.

Ultimately, though, the game became popular in Canada and eventually it was brought down to the United States where it became an absolute sensation. A copy boy who worked at the same newspaper of one of the guys had bought into the company using a savings bond and a gift from his mother – his $1,000 investment paid off at over $2 million!!!

And all because they thought that they were missing some Scrabble tiles!

The legend is…

STATUS: Effectively True

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