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Interview with World Champion Mark Bytheway

In 2008, Mark Bytheway won the coveted World Quiz Championship. Mark has been kind enough to answer some questions we've asked him. Interview conducted by Tore Dahl.

How have you been after becoming world champion, have your life changed?

Not at all really, in Britain quizzing is a very strange “sport” or “game” everyone seems to play but the majority of people don’t “take it seriously”. Even snooker, darts or poker is regarded as a “serious” pursuit whereas quizzing is “just for fun”. This is evidenced by the turnout at the national events that Quizzing organise, at the very best the numbers are only close to the 80 mark.

Has there been any media interest in your win?

Minor, and probably for the reasons stated above. There was recently a TV programme to find the next Egghead and Pat Gibson, who was invited on to the show, was always being told to show why he could be the next Egghead, despite his obvious pedigree. It’s not about ability for a lot of the time; it’s about “entertainment”. Consequently the British media tends to concentrate on winners of reality TV or in quiz terms people that have won large amounts of money.

Could you tell us about how your competition went? Did you have a good feeling throughout? Any near misses you felt you should have answered correctly?

The competition went well, obviously, for me. But as is usual looking back there were around 15 that I should have got which I missed. I know this is often the way with other players but two or three stick in my mind as bad misses putting the Macarena instead of the Lambada , Waza-ari instead of Koka, and Avicenna instead of Averroes

When we first asked you for an interview, you expressed that a little luck was involved, could you tell us about what you meant? We of course know that if all 8 categories counted, the Belgian Ronny Swiggers would come out on top, but the rules are the rules, and clearly you deserve the title, but were there any other lucky instances that benefited you do you think?

Well obviously there is that, and I definitely feel for Ronny there - I’ve been on the other side of the rule of dropping a category a number of times. The problem, often in the past, with my scores is that they have been very flat with little to choose between them, I rarely have a clue going in to a competition which subject will be my lowest. I think generally when saying that that I meant a couple of things; firstly, the victory was so close that obviously a different question here or there could very easily have changed the result; and secondly, about three or four of the questions which came up were things that we were discussing on the journey to the venue the Kosovan flag, Alain Bernard, Asashoryu, Chet Baker and maybe a few others – certainly this helped with the recall of those particular answers.

How do you rate this victory vs other victories?

There may have been quizzes with larger fields, there may have been quizzes with more pressure (eg TV and radio) and there certainly have been quizzes with more monetary gain; but purely on the basis of the number and difficulty of questions, the strength of the opposition and the prestige within the community as a whole, there can be no greater win (for me) than the World Championships.

The top three in the WQC is new compared with previous years, do know anything about the two who came second and third, Ronny and Tero?

I know more about the Belgian players as a whole than other countries, mainly because of our annual Leuven trip where we participate in the Clockwork Quiz, a fantastic event, full of fiendishly difficult and extremely interesting questions and also a great opportunity to meet the Belgian players and exchange a few (thousand) questions over a few (dozen) beers. So Ronny is well known to me but Tero is more of an enigma, although I know him by sight we’ve never chatted at any length. Either way I have great respect for their abilities and the time must be approaching when a non-English (accepting Pat as honorary English) player will be World Champion.

What are your experience and thoughts about the different quizzes and quizzing styles in different countries?

I like quizzes in most of their forms. As a youngster buzzing was probably my favourite, and may still be, but there is not much of that in the UK and of course it doesn’t give everyone a chance to shine and show what they know. On the whole I think the fairest and best method to test knowledge is that used in the World’s purely because it gives time for recall, and encompasses a large number of questions across a variety of subjects. My least favourite is probably a quiz whereby the questions are read out and if you fail to miss a salient word you could easily get the question wrong, at least if they are written down it is there for you to notice and not down to the quality of your hearing or the clarity and projection of the person talking. Also on this tack, whilst I like the idea of meeting different people, getting up and dodging projector cables to get to another seat is not my idea of a quiz, I’d personally prefer to do the quiz and then meet those different people later in the bar. And I’m always happy to try new things, in Lesigny Lina’s presentation of Protmusis definitely held my attention.

We notice that back in 2005, you were between number 30 and 40 in the world. It seems likely that you have been working to better yourself, but could you tell us a little about what you have done to achive this? Have you worked more in some categories than in others?

Back in 2005 and earlier years I made the naïve assumption that one just turned up at a quiz and answered what one knew, and didn’t stoop to actually “revising”, unfortunately an archaic English take on the “Corinthian Spirit”. However it soon became apparent that to actually compete with the likes of Kevin and Pat and Nico and…that some effort would be necessary. It’s both a gift and a curse that most things are interesting to me in some way, so on the one hand I’m always reading about a variety of different subjects but consequently this means that my scores are very flat. In the last couple of years I have seen that to win the quiz, with the rules as they are, one or two very high scores are needed. To this end I have put more effort into history and films, both of which I did quite well in at the 2008 World’s, attempting to deliberately score higher on those at the expense of the other subjects.

Could you tell us a little about your background? What kind of education do you have, what business are you in?

At school I had mainly a science background, obtaining A levels in Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics and Psychology. At college I obtained my degree in the exciting world of Accounting and Finance and have worked in the equally exhilarating world of IT for over 20 since, starting as a programmer and “progressing” to be an IT Service Manager.

When did you attend your first serious quiz? How long did it take before you established yourself among the top quizzers?

My first serious quiz was probably in the mid 1990’s when I played in the Oxford Quiz League, which was a very difficult league full of highly qualified academics, and very strong teams. This though was only once a week, a number of younger players have probably played in a lot more quizzes than me, and I haven’t played in a weekly quiz league since the Oxford League finished over 5 years ago. I think breaking in to the top ten in 2006 was a big step for me and probably showed that I had embraced the idea of actually working for a big tournament. However I think because of the amount of really good players that we have, both in the UK and the World, you need to be beating someone like Kevin or Pat before people actually take notice of you, so to that end probably only this year.

Category scores in the World Championships reveals that albeit you are of course very strong in every category, you seem to be exceptionally strong in History. Is this a coincidence, or is this a favourite category of yours? We notice that you bumped your score from a somewhat mediocre 15 in the 2006 WQC to 27 in 2007 and 29 (!) this year. Have you been working on history especially, or do you do an equal amount of work in every category?

This has always been a real interest but I always seemed to let myself down for some reason, of late a lot of my efforts have gone in to historical work and my other perennial favourite films (obviously taking more of a look towards Europe and World than hitherto).

Are there any categories you dislike, or aren't particularly interested in? In other words, do you have any weak spots?

I am cursed with the propensity to like almost every subject – a feature of English/British quizzing has always been that although we play in teams we strive to be generalists, indeed many of the quiz formats are based on four individuals playing as a team – e.g. Quiz League of London. To this end whenever a weak spot is discovered work usually goes in to fill the gap, this can lead to a series of very flat scores which given the current rule of dropping the lowest subject is really not helpful.

Do you read and remember facts mostly because you find learning about it interesting, or are there many subjects you read and learn about only because it might turn up on a quiz?

In my earlier days my work would be concentrated only on what I found interesting, but obviously there are occasions where a serious quiz player must look at subjects which one may feel have no intrinsic or inherent value. The most obvious example of this would be in English pub quizzes where it is essential to know about current soaps such as “Eastenders” or “Coronation Street”.

Do you sometimes make up rules or mnemonics to help memorizing names and lists?

Generally no, but occasionally for obvious lists like birthstones or Chinese Years I usually construct some idiosyncratic mnemonic.

Do you learn new things mostly by reading books and newspapers or is the Internet your favourite source of wisdom?

All sources are valid, but for ease of use the internet has revolutionised quizzing. Unfortunately that does sometimes lead to lazy setting where one internet source is thought to be sufficient to verify a question. I would personally say that experiencing something is the best way to “learn” it. Travel, playing, watching films etc… all fall in this category and are for me a more satisfying way that purely learning for learning’s sake.

The Quiz Leagues in the UK seem to be on a very high level. Are you a participant regularly in these events, and if so, how does your team do on average?

Unfortunately there are no quiz leagues close to us, pub quizzing has killed off many leagues and pub quizzing is a different type of animal; generally very oriented towards a low common denominator of pop music, soaps, TV, and celebrity news. Another flaw with pub quizzes is the aforementioned general dislike of “serious” quizzers. This has meant that on a number of occasions landlords have asked us not to play in their quiz, so as not to embarrass other teams, something I am certain would not happen in many other countries. I do however take part in a bi-weekly Sports Quiz League that is extremely challenging and arcane and has certainly helped me in this particular area.

Do you think you'll ever get fed up with quizzes, or will we still see you at the European championships in the year 2030?

I enjoy quizzes as a test of knowledge and as an intellectual exercise; they are also an excellent way of travelling to new places and meeting new friends. Hopefully I’ll still be at the Euro’s in 2030, watching a new generation of players trying to beat Kevin.

Have you ever competed on quiz shows on television? If so, how did you do?

I have appeared as a team on a few TV shows most of which we won or were runners up, but generally TV is more for individual players in the UK and often the researchers are looking for what makes good television not what makes a good quiz. I have never played as an individual on a TV quiz but have played on the radio a few times in Brain of Britain, Brain of Brains and Top Brain, in these instances I was lucky enough to win the competitions.

I remember teaming up with you and Kevin Ashman on an icebreaker-quiz in the EQC in France, and being thoroughly impressed with your fast responses to questions regarding pop and rock music. Is this a pet subject of yours, or are you just genuinely interested in music? Do you keep up with artists in other genres, like hip-hop?

I remember the ice-breaker quiz, the English format, obviously something very familiar to us – as I recall we did have quite a few beers that night! Pop is something inherent to that format, as a man who has been to many pubs and pub quizzes I have always benefited from my love of music. When I was growing up I probably has more of an affinity with punk and heavy metal; but I generally like all styles (except the current R&B) from classical to punk to rap and so on.

What about your interest in other popular culture, like tv and movies. Any particular favourites?

Too many to name them all – I must admit to liking films probably above all but my tastes are so eclectic “Pan’s Labyrinth” “Das Lieben der Anderen”, “Sophie Scholl” all stand out as recent classics but I also have a weakness for J-Horror and anime – on TV “The Wire” was a superb series but equally well “Death Note” and “Bones” are also favourites. A British “failing” is our affinity with the US, we do tend to see a lot more of their efforts than those of Europe.

What are your plans for future quizzing? Will you attend the EQC in Oslo?

I am already booked and looking forward to it, the last time I visited Norway was a trip to Bergen, which was lovely – cold with a funicular and lots of giant trolls – this time I am hoping to get to see some of the sights of the capital as well as enjoy some top quality quizzing.

What about your thoughts on international quiz competitions, would you be interested in participating in more events, if available? Like some sort of Quiz Olympics, and yearly Grand Prix events?

The more the merrier – as I have said we are often starved of good competition in the UK (not true for people who play in the QLL or Merseyside leagues, but certainly so for the more provincial of us) – one of the highlights of the Quizzing year for me is the Leuven Quiz – and anything that helps us get a better understanding of the culture of other countries is always to be welcomed, and I think quizzing does this very well.

Mark, thank you for giving us this interview! Best of wishes for the EQC, looking forward to seeing you in Oslo!

Tore – it’s been my pleasure I look forward to the quiz, with a bit of luck getting a chance to represent my country again and having a drink with a lot of old friends and hopefully making a few new ones – to this end I’ve been saving up my pennies for the last couple of months and am now convinced that I can nearly afford a beer.

Three world champions: Mark Bythway, Kevin Ashman and Pat Gibson

Follow up questions:

After Mark was confirmed to play for England A, we've asked him some additional questions:

We look forward to seeing you in Oslo, and notice that you've made the national team. Happy?

Very much so – with such a lot of competition it’s an honour to be selected – and I just hope I can help the other guys with a good performance. People like Dr Ian Aloysius Bayley, Barry Simmons, Mark Grant, William De’ath or David Stainer (who indeed played last year) are all excellent players and could slot in to the “A” team without any problem, as indeed could a number of other players.

Have you made any special preparations for the championships?

It’s very difficult to prepare for such a short individual quiz – I’ve put a little more effort in to trying to look at a few areas for the team competition, hopefully trying to fill in a few gaps where the team may be weak(er)

Have the team made any special preparations, are you training together, have you participated in any sort of match play or anything like that?

Well the boot camp has been up and running now for about 4 weeks now, every day the team are awoken at 04.00 and subjected to 1,000 fiendishly difficult questions before being allowed to eat or drink. The recent introduction of waterboarding is seen by some as rather severe, but if a things worth doing it’s worth doing well. Hypnotism and sleep learning are also new weapons in our armoury, other than that I wouldn’t like to give any secrets away.

How would you describe the balance of your team, with regard to the individual team members?

Well obviously it’s composed of 4 strong individual players, but each player has their own preferences and strengths and there is a good chance that someone in the team will at least have inkling as to the answer on most topics. With such a strong squad, there could always be alternative teams and I think both the B and C teams are also very strong.

Who will be your partner in the pairs competition? How will you rate this combination regarding your winning chances?

I will play with Kevin Ashman, in many ways an enviable position but of course it is more difficult to come up with answers that add to the “team” score when partnering such a strong player.

The single tournament is different from the format in the WQC, there are fewer questions of course, but there are also shorter rounds, perhaps less time to think; will this affect your play? Let me reformulate, is this format better or worse suited to you than the 240-question WQC tournament?

In the past the EQC hasn’t really suited my style of play, my hearing is not that great and I find that on a number of occasions I have completely got the wrong end of the question and answered what I thought I had heard, not that I would necessarily have got it right if I had heard correctly of course. The lack of time to let the brain mull over possible answers is something certainly that I will miss, often I change my mind three or four times during the course of, say, the WQC papers. Finally I have always thought that as a nation we are far more America centric than Euro centric – partly of course through language, partly through geography and partly through history. A quick glance at the scores by English players, on average, in the last round in Blackpool compared with the average scores in Belgium readily confirms this belief (top 10 Belgian finishers scored 6 on average, top 10 English scored 4, and the situation is more marked lower down)

How do you regard your chances of making the Final Table in the singles tournament (consisting of the 10 best players after the initial 100 question round)?

Probably about a 1 in 3 shot. In reality of course there are probably three or four “certainties” for the top table and then 20 people vying for the last 6 spaces. With so few questions a couple of lucky guesses and/or a few mistakes and the picture changes radically. I had, I believe, the 13th highest score going in to the last round in 2007, so a little improvement is certainly required

Do you think the high beer prices in Norway will put you so much off your game that you won't even be able to reach the final table?

This of course is the crux of the whole thing, not enough beer and the brain cells refuse to work and obviously with too much beer it might be difficult to actually see the final table, it’s a balancing act and one that is rarely achieved.

Thank you for answering our questions, Mark, and best of luck in the tournament (as if you needed luck!)

Thanks a lot – and if there’s one thing a quiz player always needs it’s luck. Just ask me really hard questions that I know the answers to and I’ll be a happy man.