Magazine Society

Fingers on Buzzers

A piece from New Zealand's Brainiest Kid.

I feel like I read a piece once that said being on University Challenge was only an achievement to be shared in the pub for the gentle glow of smug admiration. I say ‘feel like’ because I can’t find it, but it seems right, if only from the sheer number of guys I’ve seen on Hinge dropping their University Challenge cred on their profiles. ‘I’d be great on a pub quiz,’ some of the humbler ones would say; the less humble use a screenshot of themselves on the show. They all seem to work in banking, the law or some branch of government. But I can’t tell any of this on YouTube, which is where I stay up to date on the show.

I became reacquainted with University Challenge when I lived in Barnes two years ago. As I was renting the room from October to December, it got dark fast, and because I was out in Zone 3, I spent a lot of time holed up in the flat. An episode from the airing season came up as a suggested video on my YouTube home page, not that I was watching quiz shows. Well, not on YouTube anyway; using the landlord’s Netflix account, I played Jeopardy in the background on the TV while I applied to graduate actuarial roles (I think it’s clear how that turned out). Maybe the algorithm just knew I was a nerd.

I caught up on that season for those University Challenge obsessives who read this magazine, which I presume is many of you, it was the season of Brandon – through the generosity of a certain Dave Garda. I had no idea if this ‘Dave Garda’ was a single person, or a group of people taking turns ripping the video from BBC iPlayer (did they pay the licensing fee?) and uploading episodes weekly. I went by the assumption that ‘Dave Garda’ may not even be their real name – the Only Connect uploader goes by ‘wheelsongenius’ after all.

A Google search for ‘Dave Garda’ these days will yield mainly results for a one who hails from Illinois, whose job, it seems, is to spread the Gospel. Yet, the one who has really been doing the Lord’s work – well, as far as the University Challenge YouTube comments section is concerned – outed himself in a video he uploaded on 28 July 2021. It’s a reaction video from a home security camera that records him drinking tea from a Union Jack mug, only to choke on it when John Butterworth, on the London Business School team, threw ‘Dave Garda’ as an answer to a music question, which his captain went with – though the correct answer was ‘Manic Street Preachers’. We’re only pretty sure he meant it as a nod to our YouTube-uploading god.

Commenters plied Dave Garda with questions after that video, and he told us a few things. He was born in Ireland; his family moved to Birmingham when he was three; he studied linguistics. He’s younger than most people thought, though I didn’t share the same opinion, judging by how he wrote online.

Those who care on the YouTube community mainly seem to long for their days living in Britain – frequent thanks are sent from the US, Australia and New Zealand. They’re mostly men. Sometimes, the odd contestant will pop up (hello, Brandon!). They seem rather competent at answering the questions on the show, or they say they are, at least, with a hit-rate similar to that of a standard contestant.

I, myself, was on a quiz show as a child – something I have now renounced as a participatory activity. Called New Zealand’s Brainiest Kid, it only ran for a single season in New Zealand. I was ten years old, the only one who had not skipped a year level. My ‘specialist topic’ was the latest general election. I did not prepare anywhere near enough.

Every few years, something to do with it pops up. At the end of my last year of high school, another finalist’s mother messaged me on Facebook, congratulating me on winning a prestigious scholarship. A friend’s boyfriend, at their housewarming, asked me if I was on it, completely out of the blue; she couldn’t believe he’d been right this whole time. Apparently, this was an ongoing conversation.

A few weeks ago, I found the webpage that listed all the finalists, which is still on the TVNZ website, albeit hard to find, and stalked as many as I could, based on details I remembered. The top three had all aspired to be writers – one got a large scholarship to Cambridge out of high school – but none of them are writing in the capacity they would want. Said Cambridge girl wrote copy for charities; the third-place getter, whom I coincidentally went to primary school with, edits a law journal in London. I knew one had gone to Princeton for engineering, but couldn’t be bothered asking his high school mates for further information. Another, who is coincidentally the daughter of my mum’s friend, is an accountant, and another works in the research department of Fonterra, the sole dairy buyer in New Zealand. The one whose mum messaged me is now working in Silicon Valley.

I wonder if any of them mention they were on a quiz show as a kid. I certainly don’t: I don’t want people thinking I’d be useful at a pub quiz, because I’m not. As a good little writer, I prefer my accumulated useless facts to go into my fiction or be fed into the journalism machine.

But those who actually care about the show seem to be a specific subset of nerd, one that thinks memorising useless lists and poring over maps are worthwhile pursuit (hmmm).

If you think about it, those with half-decent monetary stakes are filled with people who like to think they’re good, but aren’t. Those on The Chase don’t stand a chance against people whose job it is to memorise facts; the amount The Tipping Point’s contestants care about the strategy around the dropping of a plastic disc, even though most of the outcome is random. It is antithetical to the rational mind.

That’s probably why, for those who can answer more than a handful of University Challenge questions – or a single Only Connect one – it becomes their personality.

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