Brains, buzzers, battle: Behind the victory of this Cambridge University Challenge Team

Anki cards, on-set jokes, and general knowledge is what it took to crush O*ford with a 240-60

Fingers on the buzzer, heart racing, mind poised with knowledge about everything from geography to pop culture to sports—four students from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, took on Jesus College, Oxford, in the first round of the University Challenge 2023. They emerged victorious with a score of 240-60, securing their place in the yet-to-be-aired second round.

Yet, rather than merely walking encyclopedias or pub quiz enthusiasts, the personalities and stories of this team are bound to surprise you. The Tab Cambridge sat down with three members of the team—Jaya Alagar (Population Health Sciences M.Phil), Jerry Chen (Clinical Medicine Undergraduate), and Alexander Harrison (Chemical Engineering Ph.D)—to cover their experiences on and off the show.

Scores from the teams’ final performance (Image credits: Youtube (CosmicPumpkin))

Before the show: Their Story

When asked why they joined the University Challenge, Alexander reveals that it had always been a passion of his. Not only had he “always been on the Emmanuel Quiz Society mailing list since joining the college,” but he also trained as a reserve for the 2020 team and tried out for the 2021 and 2022 teams.

Similarly, Jerry notes, “I have tried out an alarming number of times for the Emma team.” When asked about the motivation behind trying out, Jerry shares, “I have to confess I’m not a regular University Challenge watcher…but I love a good pub quiz and have never been any good at sports so quizzing used to be one of the only things I could make the school team.”

Jaya, on the other hand, did not consider exploring her quizzing interests through the University Challenge until much later. Despite her involvement in the US quizzing scene in high school, she only considered participating upon a friend’s recommendation and after “hearing about the great cultural significance that the show has had in the UK.”

Jaya, the team captain (Image credits: Youtube (CosmicPumpkin))

For the show: Preparations

In preparation for the show, the three contestants found their existing knowledge to be a great advantage. Jerry credits his “predilection for falling into a deep and niche Wikipedia rabbit hole” and his visits to “museums, galleries, exhibitions, and historic places.” Jaya “grew up in a curious family” and had experience with Quizbowl-style in the US. Alexander commends “listening to Melvyn Bragg harassing terrified academics on ‘In Our Time’ and cursing my opponents on Protobowl for their inhuman typing speed.”

Nevertheless, to compete at the University Challenge standard, they still put in substantial work. The team played friendly matches with other Cambridge college teams and reviewed past matches. Each member also committed to memorising lists with Anki, covering topics such as “chemical elements, Nobel laureates, and Academy award winners.” Jaya, the captain, expresses that “the deep respect that we had for each other’s disciplines made the team dynamic feel natural.”

The team active in discussion (Image credits: Youtube (CosmicPumpkin))

On the Show: Highlights and lowlights

All three contestants had a great time on set. Jaya recounts a lighthearted anecdote from the otherwise stressful show: “Before one of our matches, I jokingly told my teammate Alex Sutton to take one of his rings off and propose to me if we were losing to buy us some time! Amol Rajan, the UC host, overheard us and laughed, saying ‘It’s 10 AM, and these guys are already exchanging rings!'”

Alexander adds another exciting story: “When I told my mother that I was memorising Nobel laureates, she implored me that if a question came up on _______ [to be revealed in the upcoming episode], I had better get it correct, this person being something of a personal hero for her… and so, when inevitably a question did come up on this figure, the fear of being disinherited made me exceedingly rapid on the buzzer!”

On set for recording the show (Image Credits: Jerry Chen)

Since the team’s match against Jesus College, Oxford was the last to be filmed that day, they enjoyed a lively post-match trip to the nearest pub that evening. As Alexander puts it: “Socialising with the team we had a mere hour ago been vigorously competing against was tremendous fun, and an excellent evening ending in the early hours followed.”

However, despite the laughs and excitement, there’s no denying that the competitive process was highly stressful. Jerry elaborates, “playing the real thing felt completely different from watching it at home. So much of the difficulty comes from whether you have the confidence and judgment to press early.” Nevertheless, this pressure can be part of the excitement. As Alexander articulates, “quizzing can be surprisingly adrenaline-inducing, especially when your name is called for an answer.”

Beyond the show: Reflections

All three members regarded their experience in the University Challenge as a highlight of their time in Cambridge. Jerry describes this as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and that “to be selected as a team for the show was a real privilege–it doesn’t happen every year!” Alex credits his experience on the show for giving him “an appreciation for the game of quizzing that I had not previously encountered whatsoever.”

The show has also given them memorable friendships. Jaya mentions that they are still in contact with their opponents, the Jesus College, Oxford team, as well as the UC legend Bobby Seagull, who provided her with some great advice on captaining the team. Alexander jokes that this friendship is especially cherished as they “reminisce and complain about the questions we definitely would have got if we’d been that tiny bit more rapid or found the right Wikipedia article…”

The team waving goodbye to the audience (Image credits: Youtube (CosmicPumpkin))

Stay tuned to watch the remarkable Emmanuel College, Cambridge University Challenge Team tackle more questions in the upcoming second round of University Challenge 2023. It promises to be a battle of brains and buzzers that you won’t want to miss!

Feature image credits: Youtube (CosmicPumpkin)

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