Bobby Seagull, our new FT Money columnist and University Challenge maths champion
© Anna Gordon/FT

“I will say that you guys, you’re very, very clever. It was a pleasure to watch this match. Emmanuel, sadly you have to go home now.”

Those words of comfort came from quizmaster Jeremy Paxman in March 2017 after our 170-140 loss to Wolfson College, Cambridge, on the BBC’s University Challenge — the tightest semi-final in 12 years.

I was captain of the Emmanuel College team. Despite demonstrating a breadth of knowledge (Davis Cup tennis winners, moons of Jupiter and music of Benjamin Britten), we were defeated by a fellow Cambridge side led by my then rival and now friend, Eric Monkman.

With #UniversityChallenge trending on UK Twitter most Monday nights, participants often experience 15 minutes of fame. But this extended a little longer for Monkman and me. The unexpected followed: our own BBC Radio 4 programme on polymaths, a joint quiz book and a BBC TV series, Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain.

Anne Hegerty, the expert from the ITV show The Chase, has turned quizzing credentials into much greater fame. She became a national treasure after her appearance on I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here, the jungle-based reality show usually confined to sport, pop music and TV celebrities.

Quizzing was a Victorian parlour game and is now a global phenomenon. So, fingers on buzzers, your starter for 10 is: what lies behind our obsession with quizzes?

In the 1980s, general knowledge board games such as Trivial Pursuit paved the way for the pub quiz — “a uniquely British invention”, in the words of a character from James Graham’s play Quiz. Conservative estimates suggest that weekly UK pub quiz participants could fill Barcelona’s 99,354-capacity football stadium, the Camp Nou. The humble pub quiz can be seen as a Great British institution, as comfortably as the royal family, fish and chips or Wimbledon.

Competitive UK quiz leagues may have begun on Merseyside in the late 1950s. As in football leagues, quiz teams are joyously promoted and unceremoniously relegated through multiple divisions. I am part of a team in the Quiz League of London. Sadly, however, my busy schedule promoting maths has meant that I haven’t taken part this season. For now, my quizzing urges are restricted to the Monday night TV double of University Challenge and Only Connect.

Stephen Fry, former host of the quiz show QI, was a guest on my BBC radio programme on polymaths. He said quizzing has “all the raw savage pleasure of sport and nakedly raw competition wrapped in the suitably pleasant (sh)amateur tweed of a mild and often eccentric British pastime”.

While quizzing is a popular UK pursuit, it has an international appeal. Imagine a silent exam hall with only the sound of quizzers furiously putting pen to paper for 240 written questions on everything from culture to the sciences: welcome to the World Quizzing Championships. Quizzing established itself as a global superstar in 1998 with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The format was sold to 106 countries, inspiring the 2005 Vikas Swarup novel Q&A, which itself spawned the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Quizzing was making serious money for contestants, TV production companies and even movie makers.

As a secondary school teacher, I test the general knowledge of my students. “But sir, why do we need to know the capital city of Nigeria when we can Google it?” pipes up an occasional teenage protest.

There is a legitimate question about the role of knowledge when search engines can reveal answers in a flash. A simple smartphone can threaten the fair play of a pub quiz. With apologies to English band The Buggles, has Google killed the trivia star? Shaun Wallace, the barrister, former Mastermind winner and expert on The Chase, thinks otherwise. He described to me the “Corinthian spirit” of quizzers, which drives participants to “pit themselves against the quizmaster”.

My students sometimes even question the need for arithmetic skills such as recalling multiplication tables in the era of calculators. However, without basic number facts at our fingertips, we are at the mercy of those who would hoodwink us in a world of numbers. Likewise with knowledge, if we know nothing, how can we know what else there is to know? (No apologies to former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.)

Cheating can be seen simply as cheating yourself. Although the incentive to deceive might prove overwhelming, as it was for Charles Ingram, a former British army major, in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in 2001. After winning a million, he was convicted of fraud, along with his wife, for deliberately timed coughs to guide answers, inspiring the 2017 play Quiz.

More positively, there’s something to be said about the micro-rush of endorphins when retrieving obscure facts from the depths of our grey matter, such as the date of the Battle of Marathon or the name of The Beatles’ debut studio album. Quizzes in a communal setting, whether in a pub, company or school, promotes group bonding (though disputes can be sparked by excessive competitiveness).

Quizzing covers the sum of all human knowledge and common experiences distilled to millions of bits of trivia that a quizmaster deems appropriate. In the post-truth world, where fake news vies with real news, the quiz is one of the last bastions of truth. We can draw comfort from relying on a quiz fact being a correct fact — unless of course you’re being asked about ephemeral things such as who is the UK’s Brexit secretary.

Bobby Seagull is a maths teacher and a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. A long-suffering West Ham fan, he is co-host of the podcast ‘Maths Appeal’ and the BBC’s ‘Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain’. A chartered accountant and former trader at an investment bank, he is author of ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers’. Twitter/Instagram: @Bobby_Seagull

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