This guide was largely inspired by two experiences – firstly my own as captain of the Royal Academy of Music’s University Challenge team in 1999, and then from following the (much more successful) campaign of my friends at Newcastle University in the 2017-18 series.
It is aimed primarily at teams preparing for their appearances on the show. Institutions with a history of sending teams to UC will often have an experienced coach, official or otherwise, overseeing their strategy. Less traditional UC colleges might not have the benefit of that support, so this is an attempt to level the playing field a little bit.
I also hope that UC viewers reading this will gain an insight into what it feels like to be in the firing line, and therefore more enjoyment from watching the show.
I’ll be endeavouring to update and expand the guide, so any comments, disputes, queries or requests are more than welcome.
Everyone’s a novice
The biggest thing I can tell you about playing UC for real is that it’s absolutely nothing like it is sitting and watching at home. That might seem like stating the obvious, but I’m constantly amazed at how many people don’t seem to get this from the comfort of their armchairs, where you can tick off how many answers you reckon you would have got at your leisure. Since UC reappearances are not allowed, at the start of each series every competitor is a complete novice. Some will have had the advantage of better preparation than others, but nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of facing Paxman under studio lights with the cameras rolling.
It’s tempting for TV audiences to judge the Round One teams against the finalists from the previous series, but remember they were novices too when they started out. Watching a team improve their strategy and develop as players is one of the joys of following the series throughout its run.
It’s not what you think
The number one thing that hits you when you kick off for real is that at the front line UC is not a general knowledge contest. It’s a buzzer speed test. You could know the answer to every single question on the show, but if you’re slower than the opposition, you will score precisely 0. This is perhaps why older teams don’t tend to fare as well as you might expect, given their (one would assume) greater breadth and depth of general knowledge – the kids are, in general, going to be quicker on the draw.
So players need to be prepared to be confident and proactive in their use of the buzzer. Here’s the thing – the rules state that if you buzz you need to answer straight away, which seems to imply that you shouldn’t buzz until the moment you know, or think you know, the answer. But one of the unique features of UC is that in actual fact you have the time it takes Roger “The Voice of University Challenge” Tilling to enunciate your college and your name, plus the length of the buzzer sound itself of course. (Let’s call this the Tilling Interval.) Altogether that could be two seconds or more. So the optimum time to buzz is two seconds before the answer pops into your brain – in other words, your brain has the time to go “I know the answer to this, it’s……” and then it comes out of your mouth.
(I suppose this means it’s an advantage to have a long college name and/or player surname. While that probably shouldn’t be a high priority during team selection, if you do have various versions of your surname – perhaps an optional hyphen, patronymic or tussenvoegsel – then you may want to opt for the longer version.)
Of course relying on the Tilling Interval for your final recall of an answer is a high-risk strategy, and it depends not so much on you knowing things, but knowing what sort of things you know, and how well you’re able to recall them under pressure. I’ll come back to this point in the notes on preparation in Part Two.
The downside of the aggressive buzzer approach is that you will more than likely incur a few 5-point penalties for incorrect interruptions. Overall, a confident team will probably decide that’s worth it – after all, a starter + bonuses should gain you 15-20 points, so over the course of a match it’s worth taking a few -5 hits. You can’t score a goal if you don’t have the ball, and you can’t score your bonuses if you don’t get the starter. The crucial point is that your buzzer strategy needs to be a team decision – the risk is collective, and only works if it’s shared (although it doesn’t necessarily need to be shared equally – see Part Two).
It also depends on the team being clear about who is primarily responsible for which subject area, but again that’s something to which I’ll return in Part Two.
Alternatively you may decide that you’ll employ a more aggressive buzzer strategy if you go substantially behind (let’s say three starters – 60 points or so) at any stage, especially to a team who may have more firepower than you – again, that’s something you should discuss collectively.
One more thing – if you buzz in early (before your opponents), and then realise your answer is incorrect, you’re actually better off not giving it – otherwise you’ve eliminated one possible answer when it gets handed over to the opposition. Even more importantly, unless your brain is lightning fast it’s better not to change your answer or hesitate – the worst case scenario is to buzz in early, delay before giving the answer and then blurt out the correct answer but too late for the points to be awarded to you – you’ve just effectively handed 15 points plus bonuses to the opposition. If in doubt, stick to your original thought, unless during the Tilling Interval you’ve realised it’s wrong, in which case say nothing.
You can see two good examples of an incorrect starter potentially giving the opposition a hand from Royal Academy Jones here at 1’40” and 4’28”:
One of the crucial factors about UC is that it’s a game of emotions and psychological pressure, and an aggressive buzzer strategy, even if only partially successful in itself, puts pressure on the opposition, and can in turn lure them into a more aggressive buzzer strategy than they’d like to adopt. So if you’re up against strong opponents, or if you go significantly behind, it’s worth being brave. You might as well go down fighting.
By the same token if you find yourself ahead in the game, and the opposition switches to more aggressive buzzing, then you have two options – fight fire with fire, and step up your own buzzing, or stay calm and focus on picking up on their incorrect early buzzes. Both involve an element of calculated risk, but for my money the latter strategy is probably smarter, especially if you combine it with good clock control.
Here’s something to bear in mind while you’re filming – the primary aim of the producers is, ultimately, to produce good television, not, as you might think or hope, to produce a fair or balanced contest. That’s not to say they don’t want to, but it means that if you feel you’re being hard done by, you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, before and during the recording. After is too late.
Before the show, as a technical check you’ll be asked to test your buzzer. Don’t assume it will be in full working order – that set has been around a while now, and maximising your buzzer speed wasn’t a budget priority in the first place. Plus you might be filming straight after a perspiringly vigorous buzzer-presser. So check it, double-check it, and if you’re not happy, speak up.
You should also check your screen visibility – bizarrely in this day and age, you’ll have to share a screen between two of you, and under lights your view of it might not be at all clear. Check it carefully, especially if you have any mobility issues.
Once filming starts, if any of these things turns out to be an issue, don’t be afraid to stop the filming, and do it at the earliest opportunity. The same goes for any issues with the accuracy of the questions and answers – mistakes do happen, and they can’t be fixed once the contest is over. You’ll feel awkward, and don’t expect anyone to be grateful for your intervention (after all, you’re lengthening their working day) – but don’t be afraid to fight your corner.
This is when it can help to have friendly faces in the audience. While you can’t talk to them at any stage of the filming process, it can bolster your confidence to have them there if and when an issue arises.
Play your half of the game
Here’s another area in which the playing the game on TV is – or should be – different from playing it at home. In your living room you’ll attempt to answer all the starters and both team’s bonuses. In the studio, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained in paying any attention to your opponents’ bonus questions – and potentially you’ll cause yourself emotional turmoil of some sort. Your aim in the time they take to deal with their bonus round should be to regroup, slow your heart rates and focus on nailing the next starter question. While you can’t really natter away, some simple sign language and eye contact team discussion can take place – e.g. do we switch to a more aggressive buzzer strategy, reassuring any flagging team mates, and so on.
Conversely, when you’ve got the bonuses, be very aware of what you do during the third bonus. Even if you’re trailing and trying to move the game on, don’t get so tied up in this final bonus that you disadvantage yourselves for the next starter. Use the time you have, even if you know the answer straight away, and make sure you’re all focused (the non-captains especially) when the next starter kicks in – if your opponents are game-smart, they will be.
Successfully executing this strategy should put a lot of pressure on the opposition – it makes it much harder for them to build momentum, in terms of scoreboard position and emotionally.
Teams with official coaches will often have a stat-taker in the audience, analysing the match as it unfolds so that the team can focus on their own game. One of the things they should be looking at is percentage of starter questions won after an opposition bonus round. I’d suggest aiming for something over 70%.
Eat the clock
Here’s where we dip a toe in the darker arts. The rules of UC are something of an unwritten constitution, as you might expect from an old-fashioned British quiz show. Teams are not allowed an unlimited amount of time to answer their bonus questions, but how much time that actually is seems to be, as far as I know, entirely at the discretion of Paxman. (His application of this rule is perceived to be flexible – quite what it depends upon is anyone’s guess, and the subject of a much lengthier discussion than this.)
If you’re trailing on the scoreboard, or if things are pretty close, you’ll most likely be wanting to get on with things as swiftly as possible. So you won’t want to waste time on getting bonuses wrong – achieving this depends again on you as individuals, and as a team, knowing what you know and how likely you are to be able to retrieve it swiftly. That’s an aspect of the team play that will develop over the course of the series, and is a large part of the art of UC captaincy (see Part Two). However, take another look at what I said about Bonus Q3 above – don’t hurry yourself into losing the next starter for the sake of trying to catch up.
If you manage to get yourselves substantially ahead on the scoreboard – let’s say three starters, i.e. 60 points or so – then it’s in your interests to slow the game down, and as the rules of the game stand there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t. So if you know the answer straight away, or if you immediately realise that none of you will know it, don’t be afraid to confer anyway. You may need good acting and improvisation skills – if you just sit there chatting inanely about the cricket or Leon Trotsky then Paxman is likely to tighten the time constraints. This is where some team practice time can be usefully spent – especially in trying to keep a straight face. As a rule of thumb, if you’re 60 ahead and you’re not hearing Paxman’s trademark “Come on!” at least once per bonus round, then you’re not using up enough of your time.
And whatever else you do, if you’re leading and the opposition have incorrectly buzzed early on a starter, take the whole of the starter question before you buzz. There’s absolutely no reason to buzz early under those circumstances.
Let’s look at two great examples of clock-eating from Newcastle from the latter stages of their match against Fitzwilliam College Cambridge. Firstly their poetry bonus round at around 24’45” onwards:
There’s some great work from Nielsen on Q2, controlling the pace as Chair 2 should, and Reynard’s meanderings on Q3 are lovely too. An important point here is that I can’t even tell whether they’re consciously slowing the game down or not – their deliberations appear entirely legitimate, and well within the unwritten rules of the game.
Now let’s look at their Maths bonus round at around 26’31” onwards. I’m especially interested in Noble’s headline-grabbing answer to Q2, which at the time seemed like a lightning piece of mental arithmetic. The alternative explanation – that he knew the answer and killed a bit of time by conferring – is, to the student of UC strategy, even more impressive. Note that I don’t know which explanation is correct, and I’m happy to let Newcastle Noble keep that to himself. What you should consider is this: why is a Maths teacher asking two medical students for their input on a question about Pascal’s Triangle? Either way, it’s a noteworthy piece of UC-ing, and great television.
Overall this match is an excellent case study of Newcastle at their peak – aggressive buzzing gives them a three-starter lead by 11 minutes in, and their game control – regulating the pace of their bonuses, plus an impeccable 100% post-opposition-bonus starter rate – means that from that point Fitzwilliam were never able to get back into the contest.