Home Business Q: Who Found a Way to Crack the U.K.’s Premier Quiz Show?

Q: Who Found a Way to Crack the U.K.’s Premier Quiz Show?

Q: Who Found a Way to Crack the U.K.’s Premier Quiz Show?


Brandon Blackwell sits in his apartment in the Jamaica section of Queens, training with a collection of 30,000 homemade flash cards the way weight lifters train with barbells. Each card contains an obscure fact about the world. Which country is home to Lake Assal, the largest salt reserve on earth? (Djibouti). Which metal is smelted using the Hall-Héroult process? (Aluminum).

It is the fall of 2016 and the 22-year-old is struggling to reach the highest echelons in the little-known world of competitive quizzing. He’s earned about $400,000 by appearing on “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and a handful of other shows. But he fares poorly when up against top quizzers in online contests and does not exactly dazzle at the Quiz Olympiad held in Athens that year.

Mr. Blackwell wants to get better. Much, much better. He’d also like to turn quizzing into a full-time job, although how exactly that will happen is unclear. The more he thinks about it, the more he realizes that he has no choice.

He has to move to London.

“Eight of the top 20 quizzers on the planet lived there,” he said during a recent interview. “It’s the epicenter and competing in the city was the only way I was going to improve quickly.”

To land a British visa, Mr. Blackwell — who already had a degree in computer science from New York University — needed to enroll in a British university. And if he was moving across the Atlantic, he figured he might as well finagle his way onto one of the country’s televised quiz shows. When he searched “university” and “quiz” on Google, up it popped: “University Challenge. “

The BBC show is a cultural institution, now in its 53rd season. Each year, four-person teams from colleges around the United Kingdom compete in what is essentially a tournament of brainiacs, with episodes that air on Monday nights. Questions tend to the wildly esoteric. Recent topics have included the chemistry of pine trees and the films of Youssef Chahine.

Mr. Blackwell applied to just one place, Imperial College, a science and engineering school with about 20,000 students, located in the South Kensington section of London. It was hardly an obvious choice. Imperial had not won “University Challenge” since 2001. But he knew that when players buzz in to answer questions, the show’s unseen narrator shouts the name of the school, followed by the name of the player.

“So he would have to yell ‘Imperial Brandon!’” he explained. “I’m a ‘Star Wars’ fan. I loved that.”

In September 2016, he began executing the plan: Get admitted to Imperial. Move to London. Make the school’s “University Challenge” team. Win the championship. Go pro.

Nothing about this seemingly long shot scheme would be left to chance. Mr. Blackwell would study “Challenge” like a puzzle that could be solved, dreaming up what he privately called BISQUE, the Brandon Imperial System for Quiz Efficiency. And he would apply this system with an approach that is quintessentially American and decidedly out of favor among Britain’s academic elites.

He would work at it, shamelessly.

Mr. Blackwell would spend more than a year on a self-taught crash course in British history, most of it gleaned from Wikipedia. He watched in excess of 100 hours of “University Challenge” on YouTube. He went through his entire set of flash cards eight times. It was the same grind-it-out ethic he’d used for years prepping for shows and competitions.

“When I started flash carding 10 years ago, I was like a pariah,” he said over dinner at an Indonesian restaurant one night in the Elmhurst section of Queens. “People were like, ‘Oh he learns lists. He flash cards.’ I’m like, I’m a Black kid from the ‘hood. Nobody I know listens to the Beatles. Nobody I know watches ‘Friends.’”

Mr. Blackwell speaks in long, discursive paragraphs at roughly the 1.5x setting on an audiobook app. A warm and intense 30-year-old, he was raised by a mother who is a middle-school teacher and a father who is an insurance adjuster. He attended an elementary school for gifted children on Long Island, then became, by his account, a middling student at the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s most selective public schools. At 5-foot-6, he was shorter than most of his peers and “got picked last for stuff,” as he put it.

One day while at home watching “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament, he told his parents that the questions were easy. They pushed him to apply for a spot on the show. He did and won $10,000.

In his second year at N.Y.U., he landed on a short-lived show called “The Million Second Quiz.” He lost in the season finale to a guy who snagged $2.6 million.

Suddenly, quizzing looked like a potentially lucrative career. A year earlier, when he appeared on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” he’d netted $43,100, more than enough to cover a medical procedure for his grandmother, because he’d learned the word for a fear of bridges just 12 hours before taping (gephyrophobia). He had printed out a list of phobias from the internet, after deciding that knowing words with Latin and Greek roots was essential to “Millionaire” success.

The lesson: With enough sweat, anyone could excel at quizzing.

A self-described ascetic, Mr. Blackwell has lived a no-frills life off his quiz show profits since his college days, and aside from freelance quiz-related writing gigs, has never had another job. The funds bankrolled his move to London and tuition at Imperial, where he studied for a master’s in computer science. By the time of the college’s tryouts for “University Challenge,” in October 2017, he was training 80 hours a week. To his unhappy surprise, the students in charge of the process didn’t seem interested in assembling the best team.

“They’d only told their friends about the tryouts,” he said. “Plus, they’d pick people who scored the highest on the test, rather than looking for specialists in different areas.”

It was like recruiting a football team and only hiring quarterbacks. He made the squad, but when he met with his new teammates, none seemed especially hellbent on winning. Or maybe they simply couldn’t match Mr. Blackwell’s startling intensity.

“I asked them, is this a Tinder-pic team” — in other words, a group that just wanted a photo from the set of “University Challenge” to enhance a dating profile — “or a we-want-to-win team?”

Tinder pic, apparently.

Mr. Blackwell quit Imperial, at least temporarily. “University Challenge” allows students to appear on the show just once and he didn’t want to waste his sole shot with a group that he considered doomed. (As it happened, that team wasn’t picked by the BBC to compete.) After putting his belongings in storage, he headed back to Queens, though not before telling the student union that the people running the “Challenge” tryouts were a disaster.

“I got an email back that said, ‘It’s just a game,’” he said.

When Mr. Blackwell returned to London in 2018, the selection system was not exactly overhauled, but his complaint seemed to persuade the school to publicize tryouts more widely. He made the team again, this time with three people — Richard Brooks, Caleb Rich and Conor McMeel — who didn’t balk when Mr. Blackwell suggested that they immediately spend a couple hours in the library plotting how to train. They had three months to prepare for the opening round.

“There was definitely an extra layer of enthusiasm there,” said Mr. McMeel, who now works at a trading firm in London. “I was a little worried that I’d roped myself into some version of a hyper-serious sports movie.”

During the meeting, the four figured out their strengths — Nobel Prizes, the periodic table, British castles — and wrote down their blind spots — sports and biology. Those topics were divvied up and assigned to different players.

Then the real work began. The team gathered once a week for practice games, typically an online episode of “University Challenge,” which they watched with an electronic buzzer system borrowed from the school’s quiz society. In the “University Challenge” format, there are “starter” questions worth 10 points, which either team can buzz in and answer. The winner of those points then gets three bonus questions on a niche topic — events that lasted 44 days, monarchs nicknamed “the conqueror” — worth five points apiece, which only that team can answer.

Teams are given about 15 seconds for a quiet huddle about those bonus questions. Mr. Blackwell proposed a rule to his teammates about how to confer during matches: The person with the most expertise was not allowed to speak first. That way, the nonexperts would get a chance to offer an idea, which they might otherwise have kept to themselves.

In February 2019, the team traveled to a studio in Manchester where episodes are filmed. The show was then hosted by Jeremy Paxman, a veteran broadcaster and journalist known for amusingly withering comments about errant guesses.

In the opening round, Imperial crushed Brasenose College, Oxford by a score of 255 to 70. Mr. Blackwell stood out immediately. He fist bumped teammates. He wore a pin that read, “I’m not here to make friends,” which he describes as only semi-ironic. When he got a question right, he pursed his lips and looked skyward, as if he’d spotted a noxious bird. It was actually an expression of relief that Mr. Paxman mistook for arrogance.

“You look as though you find the question insultingly easy!” he quipped with a smile after Mr. Blackwell nailed one about the number of planets in the solar system known in 1820. (Six, excluding Earth.)

“No, no, no, it’s not like that,” Mr. Blackwell replied, waving an arm and grinning deferentially.

“You want a more difficult one!” Mr. Paxman said.

Social media in Britain lit up with commentary about this wildly expressive American. He was fidgety and eager, a living retort to the Oxbridge ethos of “effortless superiority,” which casts overt striving as a bit gauche. While much of the online feedback was supportive, some was racist and plenty of it was critical. “Brandon Blackwell responds after drawing flak for showing emotion on the BBC show,” read an article in The Guardian.

The British love quizzes. More than 20,000 of the country’s pubs hold a quiz night once a week, a fervor that led to cultural exports like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

“University Challenge” is the most durable of Britain’s trivia institutions. Started in 1962 on a different network, the show is actually an Anglicized rendering of the “College Bowl,” which began as an NBC radio program in 1953 and became a Sunday night staple of American television.

Rights to the “College Bowl” are owned and managed by Richard Reid, the son of the man who created the show. He runs the College Bowl Company, which operates from a third floor office in the Wild Hills section of Los Angeles. Mr. Reid licenses the format of “University Challenge” to ITV Studio, which produces it for the BBC.

“It’s safe to say that it’s been extraordinarily profitable,” he said, declining specifics. “Gets renewed every two years like clockwork.”

“Challenge” regularly attracts an audience of three million. Viewers don’t come to match wits so much as marvel that anyone can answer the questions. Others tune in for the quiet reassurance that a new generation of super nerds will soon tackle the world’s problems.

Every year, hundreds of schools apply for a spot on the show. Just 28 make the cut, and only after an in-person interview, known by players as the charisma check. Some teams go into it with a plan.

“I was the dark Russian, saying eerie things in an exotic accent,” said Nikita Trojanskis, a 26-year-old Latvian who played this season for Balliol College, Oxford. “And we decided our British guy would speak in elegant, enchanting sentences that didn’t really make sense, with long pauses, so you didn’t know if he was done speaking.”

Typically, 20 to 30 percent of the teams hail from either Oxford or Cambridge. This isn’t necessarily a matter of intellectual wattage. Those universities are made up of about 30 colleges apiece and they apply separately to the show.

That enrages Frank Coffield, a retired professor of education at the University College London. Yes, Oxbridge colleges are financially independent, but students sit for exams and are marked by the university as a whole, he points out.

“This is exactly how British society runs,” Professor Coffield said in a phone interview. “One rule for the rich and powerful, another rule for the rest of us.”

A more benign theory is that the viewing audience loves watching the overdog smarty pants tussle with everyone else. A preoccupation with the countless gradations of class is the subtext of just about every interaction in Britain, so why should “Challenge” be any different? Or perhaps there’s fear that if the two most selective universities in the country field just one team each, those teams will be unbeatable.

In an email to The New York Times, a BBC spokesman wrote, “All education institutions that design and deliver teaching towards university level qualifications are welcome to apply to University Challenge independently.”

To the show’s credit, the pool of players on “Challenge” has been getting more diverse every year. Three decades ago, teams were reliably four white guys. Now there are far more women and far more players from around the world. Schools from Oxford and Cambridge still represent 20 percent or more of the teams every year. Which makes the amiable new host, Amol Rajan, a perfect reflection of the show’s current demographics. He was born in India and attended Cambridge.

Imperial and Mr. Blackwell rampaged through the tournament in 2020, posting some of the most lopsided results in the show’s history. By the time the final aired in April, against Corpus Christi, Cambridge, Covid lockdowns had elevated the show’s profile and Mr. Blackwell had achieved the status of national character. The Daily Mail tagged him “The Scowler.” On YouTube, someone made a compilation of the show’s announcer shouting “Imperial Brandon!” over and over.

He played the final in a sweatshirt with the “We Are Happy To Serve You” logo found on coffee cups in New York City’s Greek diners. Ten minutes into the game, Imperial was winning 100 to negative 5. The squad seized the lead by correctly answering this brain-glazer: “The Kirkwood gaps are regions of low population on graphs showing the distribution of what objects plotted against their semi-major orbital axis?” (Asteroids).

The final score was 275 to 105.

“The triumph burnishes Blackwell’s credentials as one of the sharpest quizzers in the English-speaking world,” said a story in The Times of London, under the headline “Brandon Blackwell’s Imperial Rout Rivals.”

The attention made him squirm a bit, because it ignored his teammates. “They were all monsters,” he said over dinner. “They absolutely would have won without me.”

Mr. Blackwell left England in November 2019. (Episodes of “Challenge” are taped months in advance.) But while Imperial Brandon is no longer competing for the school, he looms large over its quizzing tactics. In the years since, his methods have been adopted and tweaked at Imperial. If Imperial prevails on Monday against University College London, it will have won in three of the last five years and become the winningest school in the show’s history.

Suraiya Haddad, the team’s captain, called Mr. Blackwell “the father of this dynasty.”

“He came in and said, ‘You guys need to play more strategically,’” she said.

Ads for tryouts are now ubiquitous. Instead of choosing the four top scorers, players with deep knowledge of a few topics are sought, with care to prevent overlap.

“It’s better to have three specialists and one generalist than four generalists,” said Fatima Sheriff, who was on Imperial’s winning team in 2022. “ I wasn’t the highest scorer on the test, but I was strong on film, literature and anatomy.”

In November, Mr. Blackwell flew to Spain for a quiz competition and tacked on a visit to London for a special meal. He’d invited all the players on recent “Challenge” teams at Imperial to have dinner, his treat, at an upscale restaurant in the city’s Mayfair section. He wanted to acknowledge everyone’s success and, as importantly, build camaraderie.

After remarks by Mr. Blackwell, the assembled presented him with a gift: a coffee mug with the words “Imperial Dad.”

In the years since his victory, Mr. Blackwell has fulfilled his improbable ambition to turn quizzing into a full-time profession. He now appears on both the U.S. and Australian version of “The Chase,” nationally syndicated shows in which a group of mortals play for cash, which they keep unless a somewhat villainous character called the Chaser outplays them. Mr. Blackwell is the only on-staff Chaser on both shows, a dapper and deadpan figure called “The Lightning Bolt” by producers. He regularly swipes more than $100,000 from contestants, and he does it without mercy.

“It’s not all that different than being on ‘University Challenge,’” he said. “The idea is the same — make someone else go home unhappy.”


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