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Chicago Toy and Game Fair's 11th Expo Includes Young Inventor Contest, Gala

 The 11th annual consumer fair returns to Chicago with five new spin-off events for the four-day expo.
Chicago Toy and Game Fair
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CHICAGO — Forget Mick Jagger and Courtney Love — Chicago Toy and Game Fair founder Mary Couzin wants to see Eddy Goldfarb on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Goldfarb may not be a household name, but the 92-year-old's work is widely recognized: He's the inventor of Ker-plunk, Quiz Wiz and many more iconic games. A Chicago native, he's been in the Toy Industry Hall of Fame since 2003.

He invented the iconic motorized Yakkity Yak Teeth while living on Chicago's Near North Side, "when I was very young and I didn't realize that [dentures are] not very funny" after he'd seen an ad for a ceramic container to store false teeth overnight in a magazine. Millions of the chattering toys have sold since they debuted in 1949.

 Big-ticket games at the fair this year include Feed the Woozle and the Settlers of Catan series.
Chicago Toy and Game Fair 2013
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"If you sell a million CDs, you're on the cover of Rolling Stone," said Couzin, whose fair returns to Navy Pier for the 11th year Nov. 21-24. "If you sell a million books, you're on the New York Times bestseller list. But you can sell, 30, 40, 100 million games and nobody knows who you are."

Couzin, a former toy inventor herself who lives in suburban Lincolnwood, wants to make sure toy inventors get their due.

"It's part of our mission to change that, because it's the same creative process," she said. "There's a real elegance to game design. It's a lot harder than anybody would ever ever guess."

Goldfarb and a host of full-time toy and game inventors who have made the Chicago area their home over the years are part of the reason the city's been called the "toy- and game-inventing capital of the world."

It helps that McDonald's is headquartered nearby: Their Happy Meal output makes them the world's largest toy distributor.

But Chicago owes a lot of its notoriety as a toy and game destination to Couzin, whose fair — also known as ChiTAG  — is the only toy and game fair in the United States that's open to the public and isn't aimed at hobbyists, like comic cons.

Last year, the fair brought more than 20,000 people to Navy Pier. This year, Couzin expects another 5,000 toy and game enthusiasts to turn out for four days of programming.

Couzin founded the fair in 2003 after a visit to Essen, Germany, which annually hosts one of the world's largest toy and game expos open to the public. 

"Kids get off school" during the Essen fair, Couzin said. "Inventors are celebrities over there." During the course of the four-day expo, many are hounded for autographs by fans who recognize their faces.

"I thought we need to do this in the States. We need to get people excited about toys and games ... especially in Chicago," the birthplace of Lite Brite, Radio Flyer Wagons, Lincoln Logs, Scattergories Categories, Rack-O, Simon and most recently, the dorm room staple Cards Against Humanity.

ChiTAG has grown a lot in the decade since its debut. The event date was moved back from Labor Day weekend to pre-Thanksgiving, which Couzin said brings out more consumers looking to get a leg-up on their holiday shopping.

The four-day expo now encompasses six events, including the two-day consumer expo over the weekend: playCHIC, a game-centric fashion show, returns for the second year Nov. 21, showcasing outfits inspired by toys.

The International Toy and Game Developer Conference, or T&G Con, is an industry conference for toy and game professionals Nov. 21-22, featuring keynote speakers and open pitching platforms for new and inspiring inventors.

The TAGIE Awards Nov. 22 will honor designers, inventors and game publishers at a black tie industry gala, and from Nov. 21-24, the invite-only inventors' summit, i-SPi, will host "top-secret" meetings between inventors and game publishers.

Saturday's sixth annual Young Inventor Challenge aims to incubate talent like two-time winner Nick Metzler, whose board game Squashed was licensed after the contest and will be on sale at this year's fair.

Additional spin-off events hosted during "Chicago Toy and Game Week" include a Games for Educators conference Saturday, a Star Wars luncheon that afternoon, and a two-day Settlers of Catan Worldwide Championship pre-qualifier for U.S. entrants into the international face-off in 2014.

On Sunday, organizers will try to set the world record for "most participants in a clapping game" at the World's Largest Play Date.

More than 20 countries will be represented at the TAGIE Awards Nov. 22, and the hard-to-snag sit-downs with game publishers at i-SPi bring designers from around the world to Chicago.

Couzin says she hopes that will get Mayor Rahm Emanuel's attention as he continues his push to make Chicago a "global city" with record-breaking tourism numbers.

"I can't get in to see him. I've tried. I gave up actually," Couzin said. "I want displays in both airports about how we're the toy and game inventing capital of the world. It's playful — 'Chicago, the city that works, and plays.' There's a lot you can do with it."

Whether or not State Street's banners are flying ChiTAG flags later this month, Couzin said she's confident toys and games will continue to bring big crowds to Streeterville.

"You can play with toys and games many more times than you can read a book, or see a movie," she said. "How many nurses became nurses because they had play nurse kits? Almost all architects will tell you they played with erector sets or building sets. A lot of bakers will say they started with Easy Bake Ovens.

"Toys have a big impact on people's lives, much more than a book or a movie," she said. "Those inventors, those designers of these things should be celebrities."

Goldfarb is more modest.

"When I was young, I thought being an inventor was the most wonderful thing," he said. "I think the most noble of all professions are teachers, because they teach kids. And certainly doctors and engineers. And we also need water meter readers and everyone else.

"But I think we're OK. I think we're important too. I always thought that toys were a learning experience, and toys and games brought families and the family unit closer.

"I always thought we were in a very good, noble industry."

The Chicago Toy and Game Fair runs from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Nov. 23 and from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 24. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for kids 13 and under. Teachers, librarians and Scouts can get free admission.