The Quiet World of Quizzing

Charlie Dowell: Week Three

bums Cambridge kevin ashman Oxford quizzing tournament

I am sitting in St John’s College Oxford, my sweaty palms clasped over an electric buzzer. The panelled room is in silence bar one man reading out questions from behind a laptop.

“In this painting, sheep can be seen in the top left corner looking through an open door…”

My heart thuds hard. I know this one.


“Christ in the house of his parents,” I burst out in a wave of adrenaline.


The right answer btw


After getting selected for my college University Challenge team in November, I had no idea I would immerse myself into the world of quizzing. I thought we would have a few pub quizzes and that would be that, not eight hours’ training a week and a tour to Oxford. Now, after initially feeling I was a little too cool, I am a member of this whole new little world, with cult figures, jargon, technique and camaraderie.

My acceptance into the quizzing world was cemented last weekend at the Oxford Open quiz tournament. This competition is one of the hardest on the circuit, featuring Mastermind contestants and University Challenge winners. My preparation for what was to come started in my car journey to the Other Place.

I was sharing a ride with my team captain and a previous head of the quiz society. The journey I have to admit had little conversation, but when it did it was about the quizzers we were going to face. My team captain described these minor celebrities with the excitement normally reserved for ten year old football fans. There was the “Alex Fergusson” of quizzing Steven Pearson, the infamous Chicago University team, Shaun Wallace a star on the Chase and Kevin Ashman, the first man to have won the world quizzing championships twice.

Kevin Ashman, a goliath of quizzing

I on the other hand struggled to share his excitement. I was going to be in a competition with middle aged men without a hope of winning. What essay should I have been writing that weekend?

Anyway 9am in Oxford, hung over from a night out, I arrived to a sea of grey heads, sensible shoes and wire-framed spectacles. I was in. No going back now. Game face.

The competition

Our first match was against the notorious Chicago B team. This was a motely crew of university students that should go out more and maybe find girlfriends. What they didn’t have in social skills or skin quality, they made up for with lightening quick reflexes, using the technique of “riding the buzzer” to gain a fraction of a second.

They trounced us 395 to 130.

Haven’t got a clue

The only solace I had was that I got shitfaced the night before, while they were probably reading up on Nietzsche or the angular momentum of electrons.

As the morning progressed our initial loss turned into a losing streak, being defeated in all of our first five games. If this were a normal sport, I maybe would have felt a little dejected, downbeat, guilty at having got drunk, but this was quizzing for Christ’s sake. Who gave a shit?

Besides I was having fun.

This may sound a little strange but quizzing can give you an adrenaline kick like no other. As you hear the question being read out the tension builds. You think you know the answer. Your heart rate increases. Your mouth goes dry. You buzz. Pulse at 180. Correct. Relief and a sort of post coital satisfaction seeps from fingers to toes.

In this odd corner of England, in pubs and oak panelled rooms in Cambridge are intellectual adrenaline junkies, each craving the next right answer to a complex question. Behind their flabby exteriors and internet dating stereotype, the people who at first seemed a little odd and sad, are actually just addicted to harmless fun. Now I am one of them, hooked on being a know it all.

It’s funny what people do with their spare time, especially in as odd a place as Cambridge. Looking at the long list of societies on the CUSU website there are heart-breakingly many left to try.

Being in third year I know I’ll never get the chance to properly engage in lion dancing or get involved in Fujian white crane kung fu, however at least I have found something off the wall, uncool and a little Cambridge before I leave: quizzing.