University Challenge champions are really just people with good memories
University Challenge is a national institution. Every couple of years, one contestant does stupendously well by answering nearly all the starters for 10. "Super guy", "brilliant woman", everyone says, and then the amazing student slips back into ordinary life. This year, a young Cambridge law undergraduate, Ted Loveday, has become the star of the show. He answered 10 different "starter for 10" questions in the final in which Magdalen College, Oxford, confronted Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
Loveday commented with modesty that most of the answers could be found on Wikipedia. People expressed surprise, but the internet is the most common source of information for most people.
Loveday showed an impressive range. He knew about classical music, ancient Greek, modern British politics. He correctly identified a quotation from the great economist, John Maynard Keynes. He was the perfect University Challenge contestant.
University Challenge really satisfies the public's desire for instant gratification. It is quick-fire and fast moving. Seemingly commanding leads can evaporate over a couple of minutes. Apparent no-hopers can answer three "starters for 10" in a row correctly and bounce back into contention.
I remember appearing on the first round and being about 120-60 down halfway through the programme. My Cambridge college was pitted, typically enough, against an Oxford college, whose team members seemed to us to have lightning-quick reflexes. I distinctly remember thinking, "Oh, well, that was fun. At least my mum would like watching me on TV".
Then we got a starter for 10 right, and then another. We answered the bonus questions quite well, and then pulled level. I think we won the round on the last question, when one of our team buzzed and just said, "Wuthering Heights". I can't even remember the exact details of the question, but the answer is seared into my memory.
The show doesn't really test depth of knowledge, but a certain quickness and mental agility. Usually the answers are quite easy, if you know anything at all about the subject raised. The difficulty is that you may know absolutely nothing about Italian opera, or Euclidean geometry.
It's quite superficial in that the first answer that pops into your head is probably the right one. I remember a "starter for 10" about Wagner's Ring. I buzzed and answered "Siegmund", Siegfried's father, who is killed in the opera, Die Walkure. Of course, the answer was Siegfried.
It was particularly frustrating because I had buzzed in early, which means if you get the answer wrong the other team gets a crack at answering. Edinburgh, in this case, got the right answer. It was pretty depressing, as we were locked in a tight semi-final against a really good team. That experience taught me not to overthink the questions. University Challenge relies on buzzer speed and quick recall. It also requires accuracy; it's no good half-remembering something, or almost getting to the correct answer.
The programme doesn't require any profound thought or analysis. It would never have lasted if it did.
It's altogether unclear how being good at University Challenge relates to anything in what people call "real life". Certainly, the various students who have appeared on the show have gone on to do all manner of things.
There are some famous media figures, such as Stephen Fry and Clive Anderson and a few other people in the public eye, but the vast majority of people who appear on University Challenge do ordinary jobs. Every so often, there are stories of winning contestants who have spectacular falls from grace.
There was the case of Tony Gillham, from Birkbeck College, London. He was part of the winning team in 2003, but struggled with alcoholism for years after his victory. Gillham remembered even appearing on the final inebriated.
"The best victory we ever had was when I had 16 rum and blacks the night before. I was incredibly dehydrated, I stank of booze and I was still completely drunk when I got in front of the cameras," he remembered in 2009.
Success on University Challenge justified Gillham's lifestyle. He thought if he could win University Challenge while blind drunk, there would be no need to change his ways.
The problem with any kind of success is that people lack the psychological capacity to deal with it. University Challenge champions are not rock stars. They are people with an unusual capacity for retaining arbitrary bits of information - the more random and disconnected the better.
Success in the programme does suggest a certain amount of curiosity, but it's too much to expect much else.