August 30, 1999 12:00 PM

Over the years, letter carrier Robert Poole, 41, earned a reputation in his hometown of Clayton, N.C., as something of a sports sage, a veritable Solomon of jock jurisprudence. In vain attempts to stump him, folks along Poole’s mail route would toss him posers like: “An outfielder trips and loses his glove but catches a fly ball with his hat. Is the batter out?” (The batter is safe and awarded third base.) “Everybody was having such a good time,” Poole recalls, that he wished he could package and sell the fun—then realized he could.

In 1993, with the help of his mother, Mary, who sketched the first board, Poole created Rules of the Game. Drawn from his knowledge of the finer points of competition, the board game challenges the mental muscles of baseball, football, basketball and golf junkies. To raise money for producing and marketing the game, Poole, the father of three boys, went back to the people who inspired it: 284 investors, many from Poole’s delivery route, came up with $580,000. Says store owner Leigh Hudson, who invested $50,000 in the venture: “Robert’s like the Pied Piper—he just picked up his flute, and everybody fell in behind him.”

The first board was printed in 1995, but poor marketing left Rules of the Game on the sidelines. Poole’s big break came in 1998, when Kmart agreed to a marketing test. Stellar Christmas sales persuaded Pezzano Inc., which launched Trivial Pursuit, to take on the game’s promotion. Total sales are projected at 1 million units by April 2000.

But success comes at a price. Denied a leave of absence to promote his game—he has appeared on more than 400 radio and TV shows—Poole may have to give up the mail route he has plied for 18 years. After all, he says, “Rules are rules.”

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