Video games are blasting their way up the sales charts, manufacturers of the old-standard board games are scrambling to counter declining sales, and 30-year-old Gary Gabrel is smiling.
Gabrel's game is his business, and business is booming. He's president and chairman of the board of a company manufacturing a relatively new board game: Pente, "the classic game of skill."
Pente, claims Gabrel, is in direct contrast with the video games and differs greatly from traditional "time-killer" board games such as Monopoly and backgammon: "With video games," he says, "you're playing with machines and the games at this stage are largely mechanical."
While video games probably will become "more sophisticated, more strategic" in the future, "I don't know how they ever will involve a lot of people," says Gabrel, "which is something right now the traditional board games do almost exclusively."
Pente, he says, is different. The object of the game is to place five colored stones (actually glass) in a row on a grid or to capture five pairs of the opponent's pieces. The game generally is played by two people, though four can play at one time, either as individuals or as two-person teams.
One of the best aspects of the game, Gabrel points out, is that it's fast. Most games, even among experienced players, take less than 10 minutes.
Also, the more logical and uncluttered the mind, the better the player. Children, he says, can play against their parents, without being at a disadvantage, and "it doesn't take two or three hours. You can play it for 10 or 20 or 30 minutes and it's not going to insult your intelligence."
Gabrel got the idea for Pente (pronounced PEN-tay and named after the Greek word for five) in 1973, while a student and game enthusiast at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, where Pente Games, Inc. still is headquartered.
"Pente," he says, "is the third stage of an evolutionary process." The first was Go, a complex Oriental board game which goes back "more than 4,000 years." The second was Go-Moku, a relatively simple but fast-paced Oriental board game. Pente embodies the speed and simplicity of Go-Moku and the strategic depth and action of Go, Gabrel says.
Gabrel began playing the game with friends on a Go board. By 1977 he was selling the first real Pente sets, first from the back of a pizza truck, then at local stores and area arts and crafts shows.
When Gabrel took his idea to several game companies in 1974 or '75, "they didn't believe America needed a game like this." Then, in 1979, "we started to operate as a business and I hired the first employes mainly OSU students . That's when we first sold it to department stores."
Gabrel sold 30,000 games that first "commercial" year. In 1980, 100,000 units were sold; 1981 sales, to 50 states, Australia, England and Canada totaled 300,000.
"This," acknowledges Gabrel, "is a tough Christmas for the game industry, for the whole gift industry. Because of the economy, stores have waited later and later to buy so it's kind of up in the air. I think myself there's going to be a huge last-minute rush." (Pente's sales projections for the year approach nearly 1 million.)
His company doesn't have a "big, fat bank account," says Gabrel, "but I wouldn't sell it for less than $2 million or $3 million -- if it were for sale."
Pente's success has not gone unnoticed: Gabrel was named Oklahoma's "Small Business Person of the Year" this year and appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine as its September "Bachelor of the Month."
There currently are six versions of Pente, ranging from a tube-packaged "soft set" at $16.50 to "Deluxe Wood Board Pastel or Terra Cotta" sets at $90.
The game is making its way into game clubs and is being offered as an alternative to the more traditional backgammon. "We're trying to offer a choice," says Gabrel. "Backgammon is a kind of game of chance. Pente is a game of skills."
Pente sponsored its first world-championship tournament in February. More than 1,000 people entered the 24 qualifying tournaments around the country, with 36 ultimately going to Dallas for the finals. The winner received $5,000.
The 1983 qualifying tournaments will be held in 18 cities in January and February (the Washington-area tournament will be Jan. 29, 6-11 p.m., at Raffles in the Tyson's Corner Marriott) and the finals will be held in Boston, March 25-27. More than $25,000 in prizes will be awarded.
To enter locally, participants must pre-register, either at stores carrying the game (including Bloomingdale's, Garfinckel's, Neiman-Marcus, Woodies, and numerous other hobby and gift shops) or at Raffles on the day of the tournament.
Gabrel says he is plowing profits from sales back into the game, into marketing, trying to develop his organization for the long term.
"If in fact it's going to become rooted in the culture and continue to sell," he says, "then I'll do very well. The blue sky of opportunity is there. If the bottom drops out of the market, it's going to be a rags-to-riches-to-rags thing."
If a game sells for five years, he says, it can become a classic. "If it dies before the fifth year, then it's dead forever. That's the standard the Parker Brothers set."
Pente customers, Gabrel says, include "upscale, middle-income, upper middle class people in the 18-to-40 age bracket, people that are not intimidated by being the first to try something . . . "Hugh Hefner has a set at the Playboy Mansion in California. Sugar Ray Leonard is a big player."
Some people, however, get more out of the game than others.
"We were at a trade show," says Gabrel, "and we had all the pieces displayed in candy jars, and we were serving jelly beans as a kind of gimmick to get people to stop. This one guy missed the jelly beans and went into the red pieces, the glass beads. He put a handful in his pocket, popped some in his mouth and zipped around the corner. We never saw him again."