As I was recently watching the documentary about UK’s premier General Knowledge quiz show ‘University Challenge’, I came across an interesting bit of information. Apparently, the college which wins the University Challenge each year sees almost a ten-fold increase in the number of students applying to that college in the following year, a huge windfall for any college, as this ensures both quality students and continued revenues as tuition fees. This reminded me of my own parallel experiences as a quizzer in college.
But first, about the University Challenge quiz. This is not your friendly ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ format where you have four choices, three lifelines, a friendly host and anything from 2-3 minutes to answer each question. University Challenge is brutal. The typical question is on a buzzer, to be answered in like, 10 seconds and goes thus - “What is the common name of the marine arthropod Limulus Polyphemus sometimes called a living fossil? An extract of its blood cells is used in the detection of bacterial endotoxins?” (that’s a horseshoe crab). Some 130 colleges apply and barely thirty are chosen to be quizzed on subjects from Particle physics, Chemical bonds and Astronomy to Shakespeare, Post-Impressionists and New Wave Cinema. If you can win some five quizzes in series against the best student brains in the world, several of them PhD students, you win a trophy, with no prize money whatsoever. Yes, no fancy cheque to take home and no goody bag either.
That brings me to my own quizzing experiences. In 1985 when Doordarshan was the only TV channel in India, it began beaming episodes of Quiz Time, the inter-collegiate quiz competition that was hosted by Siddhartha Basu, the same gentleman who today produces the money-spinner KBC. Money-spinner for the producers that is, from all those expensive calls that you make to try to get on to the show.
Imagine a programme on Indian TV that combines the following of KBC, Indian Idol, Big Brother and MTV Roadies. Well, Quiz Time was that big. It was on prime time, 9 PM on Sunday nights, probably the only English programme on Doordarshan and everyone watched, from Union Minister Gulam Nabi Azad, who congratulated an NCC contingent from my college for our success and international commodities billionaire trader Rajendra Sethia (himself a quiz question as the world’s biggest bankrupt in the 1980s) who watched it from Tihar Jail.
RVCE’s (RV College of Engineering, Bangalore) unheralded team stunned viewers with its performance, primarily because everyone expected the fancier teams from the IITs and IIMs to sweep this quiz. What went in our favour was that we came from a circuit in Bangalore that had prepared us well. I still remember answering a question on the name of the free tract speech penned by John Milton (‘Areopagitica’ - someday I will actually get around to reading it) and identifying a painting by Eugene Delacroix called ‘Liberty Leading the People’ that has special significance in French history. The team was captained by yours truly, eventually a Chemical Engineering graduate of the 1987 batch. The 1985 performance was bettered in 1986, with a top-four placing in India. I have since made a career in industrial product marketing and have helped export engineering goods from India to the oil and gas markets in Malaysia and South-East Asia.
But then I have digressed, so let me come back to the story I wanted to tell. What University Challenge does to UK’s colleges; Quiz Time did to RV College of Engineering. RVCE came to be recognized far and wide in India as a centre for academic excellence, a tag that has eluded it for years. This is hard to imagine today but the college that is today ranked a little below the NIT’s was once known mostly for its rowdy students, two of who have since made a career in Karnataka state politics. Quiz Time changed all that and when I accompanied my cousin to the admissions interview the next year, I was shocked to find out that the entrance fee had almost quadrupled. When I expressed surprise, the official in charge shrugged his shoulders saying, ‘all thanks to you, young man – we are flooded with admission queries, some from as far as Assam.’ Maybe, someday RVCE will put up a plaque acknowledging my contribution to their coffers.
This was some thirty-three years ago, but I still pursue my quizzing hobby on and off, both as a Quizmaster and quiz participant. My last big placing in quizzing was world number 36, some four years ago and a top Asian placing both in the World Quizzing Championship and the Asian Quizzing Championship. Preparation for both almost consumed all of my personal life and somewhere sanity prevailed and so it’s mostly casual quizzing now (I’ve since discovered that I am still married and have a 17-year-old kid that somehow turned into a sane adult, all by herself), though like the habitual criminal, I get dragged into the deep end now and then. Fellow enthusiasts, one of whom is the current quizzing world champion, sneaked me into the Singapore team for the world team quizzing championship which was held online on weekends and which just concluded last month, where we were mostly trashed by teams from the USA and UK that do quizzing for a living, though we did hold our own in several matches. My current idea of relaxation is helping set questions and run an online Asian quiz league, mostly for novices, that currently has some thirty teams.
Enough said about me. Now to a question that I get asked often is ‘How does one prepare for a GK or trivia quiz?’. Let me attempt an answer.
Like they say about swimming, you can’t learn swimming unless you actually step into the pool. My advice - take part in quizzes, see where your shortcomings are and prepare accordingly. Often it means brushing up on the stuff you learnt in school and college, reading up the old classics again, doing background reading on the music and movies you enjoy. Join online or offline quizzing forums, check out quizzes that are posted online, on blogs and websites. SlideShare also has tons of stuff that you can access. Quizzes like BBC Mastermind and University Challenge are now on YouTube. Another thing I tell budding quizzers - set questions yourself and offer them to fellow quizzers for review. Learn from their feedback and from their reaction. Another technique that many quizzers employ is familiarization, which is different from memorization. Mugging up the capitals of 190 nations is memorization. Knowing that a cricketer called Marnus Labuschagne plays for Australia (he’s a quiz question too - the first cricketer to become a concussion substitute in a Test match) is familiarization.
The best part of quizzing is not the prizes and accolades you win - it’s about the wonderful people you get to make friends with who in turn open your eyes to new knowledge, books you should read and the movies that you should watch. You will be exposed to worlds you didn’t know existed. Try it.