“To the nearest whole centimetre,” asked Jeremy Paxman, host of BBC2’s University Challenge, “what is one attoparsec – that is, ten to the negative 18 parsecs?”
There was a pause. Some contestants looked searchingly at their teammates, others squinted in thought. Then came a decisive buzz.
With that answer, Simon Gibbons – a Master’s student in Sustainable Development from Nottingham who graduated last spring – clinched St Andrew’s victory against Cambridge’s Gonville & Caius College in the contest’s first round, staving off a draw-induced tiebreaker seconds before a ringing gong marked the match’s end.
And it was a guess.
Universities across the United Kingdom annually nominate contestants to participate in what has become the nation’s best-known and longest-running quiz show: University Challenge. The program has captivated British audiences with its niche trivia questions on a range of topics in the arts, humanities, sciences, and more since its premiere in 1962. With Paxman – who is leaving the show after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2021 – as its host for the past 29 years, the program regularly attracts some three million viewers and boasts notable alumni like actor Stephen Fry, who was a contestant while studying at Cambridge.
In the 2022-23 season, the four-person cohort from St Andrews defeated Gonville & Caius Colleges in a first-round episode that aired in October, besting them 140 to 120 points on a scale where questions are worth five or ten points and penalties are dealt for incorrect answers that interrupt a question. The University was later defeated by Royal Holloway, University of London in an episode that aired in early January.
The St Andrews team, led by captain Joseph Cryan – a third-year History student from Lancashire – was nonetheless applauded for joining just 16 of 28 universities in the tournament’s second round. The group’s triumph came in the same year that St Andrews was ranked above Cambridge as second to only Oxford in the UK, according to The Times & The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2023. Cambridge’s all-female Newnham College has been successful, advancing to the semi-finals after a second-round victory against Cardiff University.
Representing St Andrews was also Alec Csukai from Berkshire, who graduated last spring with a postgraduate Master’s degree in Astrophysics and Astronomy and “set Twitter alight” for a colourful but misunderstood outfit he wore to the second match, and Sofya Anisimova, a PhD student in Military History from Nottinghamshire. Sam Hickford, the team’s reserve – and an English PhD student from Rochdale – subbed in for Gibbons, who was ill, in the second match.
Four St Andrews contestants and a reserve were selected early in the 2021-22 academic year after a three-round selection process that attracted some 180 applicants. The team met weekly until the first and second matches, which occurred in February and March 2022, respectively. The episodes are released retroactively, having been filmed last year.
In the first match against Gonville & Caius, St Andrews sprinted to an early lead, with Gibbons, the team’s oldest member, raking in points on history and geography questions and triggering bonus rounds. The Cambridge students rallied back at the halfway point, momentarily slouching behind but recovering as the match neared its end. The score was 120-130 when Gibbons tied the score with a winning guess of three on the last question.
In the second match, Royal Holloway secured an early 40-point lead before St Andrews rebounded, closing the gap and even inching ahead by the halfway point. But Royal Holloway soon regained its footing, cashing in on a run of questions that ranged from music to the solar system. The final score was 90-145, with Royal Holloway advancing to the semi-finals.
Post-match write-ups and social media posts hardly noticed Royal Holloway’s victory, however, focusing instead on Csukai’s outfit: a bright pink bucket hat and sky-blue jumper dotted with clouds. Viewers took to Twitter in storms to both label him a “fashion god” and to suggest that the show is “no place for a bucket hat.”
But Csukai, who is now pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester, notes that viewers failed to notice why he chose to wear pink, white, and blue – the colour scheme of the transgender community’s flag.
“Nobody has ever accurately represented what I wore,” he says. “At the time that we were filming [the episode] last year in March, there had been a lot of discussion about trans rights in St Andrews. I wanted to show support for that community.”
News outlets compared him to a Eurovision rapper “going to a rave” for his bucket hat’s likeness to that of a member of Kalush Orchestra, the Ukrainian folk/rap group that won Eurovision in 2022, despite the episode being filmed prior to the contest.
Csukai adds that he picked the outfit, which some compared to that of a typical “festival-goer”, to show that the often stuffy climate of ‘serious’ academia can have a lighthearted tone: “It’s not so singular in the way that it works,” he says.
The PhD student from Berkshire was selected for the University Challenge team in his fifth and final postgraduate year at the University. But he has known he wanted to participate in the show since year 10, when a teacher gave his class three sample questions from it.
If a student got all three, the teacher said, that would be “really impressive.”
Csukai got six.
He was hooked thereafter, with his classmates musing that he might be a University Challenge contestant someday. “I guess from there, it had become an aspiration,” he says.
Csukai is drawn to University Challenge by the competitive edge it brings to learning. He often breaks from his academic work by delving into rabbit holes of eclectic information, a pastime that has helped him develop the kind of broad knowledge set that trivia rewards.
“I’ve always been interested in knowledge,” he says. “And I am a deeply competitive person. I love being able to compete at a high level.”
Csukai joined the St Andrews team after two unsuccessful application attempts in his first and third years, crediting his eventual triumph over the team’s roughly 2% acceptance rate partly to his familiarity with the show’s recurring style of trivia questions. “It’s about getting to know the style of the way they ask those questions,” he says.
He explains that certain individuals, like Locke and Hobbs, are recurring figures in philosophy-based questions. Trivia on Shakespeare often asks for the name of a specific play after providing a sampling of lines; when asked to name a Dickens book, a few of characters from it are generally provided. It is helpful to memorize certain nuggets of scientific knowledge, he adds, like the etymologies of the elements in the periodic table or the ‘Mohs hardness scale’.
Csukai attributes the St Andrews team’s overall success to how they complemented each other’s individual strengths and filled in gaps of knowledge where necessary. Csukai, for instance, was tasked with becoming the group authority on art history, relying on the trivia website ‘Sporcle’ to familiarize himself with major works and periods. His studying paid off, helping him successfully identify a piece of stolen artwork – Johannes Vermeer’s ‘The Concert’, which was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and remains missing – in the first round.
Outcomes in matches, Csukai says, often come down to the nature of the questions drawn, noting that the physics and mathematics heavy trivia in the second match played poorly to the strengths of a team that included two historians. Still – Csukai thinks the better team won in both rounds, even if the losing team may have won with a different set of questions.
“I didn’t spend too long mourning our loss,” he adds. “The Royal Holloway team was just such a lovely group of people.”
For those considering joining University Challenge, Csukai advises that they study trends across past questions and bolster their general trivia knowledge with websites like Sporcle.
“The other piece of advice would just be – have fun with it,” he adds.
It is harder to prepare for the stress induced by competing in shows that will air on millions of TV screens. Csukai recalls that anxiety momentarily “impaired” his thinking in the second match, leading him to answer a question about a two-word term with a single word response.
“I went for a sip of water and I could just feel my hands shaking in the middle of the match,” he says. “I think you’ve just got to focus on the question – and just hope that the next one is going to be something that is your area.”
Despite the stress and hefty time commitment that competing on University Challenge entails, Csukai says that the experience is well worth the time and effort – even if matches ultimately come down to a last-minute guess.
“It’s definitely something I’m very proud of having done,” he says. “If you do get an opportunity to go on, absolutely do it. It’s so fun.”
His final piece of advice: “Don’t look at Twitter afterward.”
And to the viewers who accused his colourful outfit of distracting from the show’s sophistication or seriousness: “that was the whole point of it,” he says.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew