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Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia

Interview with Fred L Worth

Fred L. Worth: the man who made everything possible

We'll get to Fred L. Worth in a minute. But first, you need to understand just how dead the trivia world was in the late-1970s. Jeopardy was gone. Some campuses had quiz bowl or the odd radio contest; there was a TV quiz show for Canadian high school kids; stray groups of British expats ran pub quizzes (including, in fact, one in the Bay Area that Worth attended). That was pretty much it. But not only that, it was almost impossible to get good information you could use to build great trivia questions. This was before the Internet, and encyclopedias looked down their noses at pop culture. And at fun generally. In 1974, Fred L. Worth changed all that.

The Super Trivia Encyclopedia

He wrote what eventually became The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia, which was such a hit that it was followed by three sequels. The book even has a cameo in the film Almost Famous, and spawned a newsletter (Trivia Unlimited) and a brief gig writing for the TV game show Trivia Trap. "Whenever a question came up, there was no reference book covering it, if you wanted to know the Seven Dwarfs or Santa's Reindeer," says Worth. "So everybody would call the San Francisco Chronicle, which had an information desk dealing with that." Working as an air traffic controller in Fremont, California, Worth realized there was an opportunity. "Once I was established as a controller and I had time to myself I decided to write down all the information I'd been collecting all my life, and that evolved into the first book, which turned into the second book." To that end, he would scour libraries, gathering information on alphabetized index cards. But he wasn't just limited to books. "I would go to Toys R Us and look at the names of the toys and games." In particular, Worth's book became notorious for collecting license plates, street addresses, even social security numbers, of fictional characters, a quirk that even Worth acknowledges as being a bit too trivial. But he was stepping into the void. Nobody had done this before. In the years since, Worth's books have also been criticized for their accuracy. Many trivia writing guides specifically forbid using them. But remember: this was the 1970s. There was nothing else like Worth's books. Nobody else had ever compiled this much of this kind of information and there was, literally, almost nothing to fact-check it against. You couldn't even pause the TV for a freeze frame because nobody had VCRs yet.

Worth vs. Trivial Pursuit

The sheer amount of groundbreaking work he did explains his enormous anger with the creators of Trivial Pursuit. As discussed elsewhere on this site, about a third of the questions in the game were drawn from Worth's books, leading to a $300 million lawsuit and a landmark intellectual property ruling. "Research is research and copying is copying," explains Worth. "What the Trivial Pursuit people did was go on vacation in Spain for two weeks and they copied." Worth went through the game, question by question, identifying the page number for each of some 1600 questions. He was even able to find sources for the game's questions in other books, in particular a Merriam Webster dictionary of proper names. "If anything, I was their number one researcher, even though I didn't know it." But as the courts saw it, raw facts cannot be copyrighted. Since the book was called an "encyclopedia," it deemed a reference book, not a creative work, and since Trivial Pursuit had turned the facts into questions, Worth's case was tossed, and subsequent appeals went nowhere. We discuss the deliberate error (about "Philip" Colombo) that triggered the case elsewhere, but Worth was amused to see about five of his accidental errors also became fodder for Trivial Pursuit. "If factual material is in the public domain, if I made a mistake that must be fiction, so they plagiarized my fiction."

The aftermath

Worse, the book ate away at his other markets. He used to be able to count on a spurt of sales in December, as the book was used as a stocking stuffer. That stopped. Furtive plans to turn the Trivia Encyclopedia into a game, in the works before Trivial Pursuit came out, went nowhere. "People think I got something out of it but all I got was 20 cents in royalties from the copy of the book they bought, and they made a billion dollars." The lawsuit was the third blow for Worth in almost as many years. He was one of the union air traffic controllers fired by Ronald Reagan and he and his wife had divorced. Moreover, his publisher had overextended himself and went under, owing Worth $50,000 and forcing him to sue to regain the rights. "Those weren't good years for me." The case behind him and his books ceasing to sell, he went to work handling medical benefits at the Department of Social Services. Now retired, he has mostly stayed out of the trivia spotlight. However, he has been writing other books. One project tracks famous people through World War II. "We found 90 famous people at D-Day invasion, and 70 more at Battle of the Bulge. You had Mel Brooks in one foxhole and Malcolm Forbes in another." And he still compiles trivia, especially on movies. His massive 8000-book collection includes quiz books going all the way back to the 1920s, and he has tracked the changes in how trivia is presented. "Trivia was much more simplistic then, but now it's an art form," he says. "But too much trivia is about showing off what you know instead of seeing what other people know. Jeopardy puts in clues to help you figure things out."

What we all owe Fred Worth

Indeed, Worth himself played a huge role in the history of trivia. Without Fred L. Worth's Trivia Encyclopedia, there would have been no Trivial Pursuit. Without Trivial Pursuit, Jeopardy would not have returned to the air. Without Jeopardy, the 1990s trivia revival (online, on campuses, in pubs, everywhere) would never have happened, built largely by people who became addicted to trivia reading Worth's books. You can argue that the entire trivia subculture we enjoy was created in Fred Worth's vast collection of boxes and boxes of alphabetized index cards. Even if he never got the credit (let alone the money) he deserved, he will leave behind an enormous legacy we can all thank him for. Ken Jennings called him "the omniscient trivia guru of my childhood," a status he holds for me, as well. It was an honor to talk to him.