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Interview with the 2012 World Quizzing Champion, Jesse Honey

Today we’re talking with this year’s World Champion, the eminent Jesse Honey:

-Jesse Honey, many congratulations on your most impressive win in the Quiz World Championships 2012! How does it feel?

Thanks. It feels strange. I certainly was not expecting to win, and it is in the nature of quizzing that you need some luck. I may not have won on a different set of questions- the questions very much suited me, and by a lot of strange coincidences, I had looked at some of the more obscure facts that came up just a few weeks earlier. If another World Championships were run tomorrow, I would not be surprised at all to be beaten by someone like Steve Perry or Tero Kalliolevo….

-On Facebook, your first postings after you’ve won, indicated that you didn’t wholly expect this, can you say something about that?

Yes- before winning the Worlds, out of the possible ‘medal positions’ in the big championships (British, European, World) I had only won only one bronze (in the British Championships 2010) and no silvers or golds at all. I was expecting a few silvers first at least!

-Tell us about yourself, how old are you, where are you from and now live? In what field did you receive your education and what do you do for a living?

I’m 35 years old, I was born in Bath but moved to London with my family aged 16. I absolutely love London and can’t really imagining living anywhere else in the world. I specialised in languages at school and did Japanese and Linguistics at university, later doing a Masters in Town Planning when I changed career later.

-Have your life changed in any way, since you became World Champion?

Yes- a lot more people have congratulated me, and my work colleagues got a cake for me, which was very nice of them! But other than that, as we know, quizzing doesn’t get much recognition, so I’m not famous for it and my life has stayed more or less the same.

-Obviously, you were well known on the international quiz circuit long before you won the WQC, being on the national team and very merited; but did you do anything different before this championship, to improve your game?

I didn’t do anything differently ahead of the WQC- I stuck to my normal schedule of learning facts and as I said above, I was just very lucky because a lot of new things I had learnt recently came up.

-When did you start quizzing? And when did you start to take it seriously?

I had been quizzing on an off from the age of eight (I won a cub Scout quiz in 1985!) but only took it up seriously after a chance meeting with fellow quizzer David Stainer in a pub in London, and he mentioned the Quiz League of London (QLL), which I joined that autumn. I owe the QLL a great debt for starting to improve my knowledge, and the British Quiz Association for taking it to the next level.

-Have you participated in any quiz shows on television or radio? If so, how did it go?

Yes, I was on Blockbusters in the mid 1990s, University Challenge in 1998 and Mastermind in 2010. I won both Blockbusters and Mastermind but unfortunately we were defeated in the semi-finals of University Challenge by a slightly controversial team of experienced quizzers who nowadays probably would not be permitted on the show.

-It is perhaps difficult for you to participate in such shows, since you are working for ITV?

Yes, but I think my days of appearing on quiz shows are over anyway, as my reputation might now prevent me being considered! The screening of contestants is much more rigorous than it used to be.

-As every serious British quizzer I’ve spoken to, I expect you also participate in one or more of the quiz leagues in England? Which team and league do you belong to, and can you tell us a little about how that competition works? As I understand it, the leagues mostly have matches round-robin style between teams in each division?

Yes, the QLL (see QLL) organises matches between teams of four in pubs in central London. There are eight rounds of eight questions each. If you answer your own question correctly, you get two points, and if an unanswered question is passed to you from the rest of your team or the opposition, and you answer it correctly, you get one point. (no conferring is allowed). A good team should be able to score around fifty points or more per game.

-What about the British Championships, how have you done in them the past few years?

I have had mixed fortunes in the British Championships. I tend to find the questions very challenging compared with other quizzes. A few years of gradual improvement, culminating in the 2010 bronze medal, were undone in 2011 when I missed out on many questions, simply through never having heard of them, and compounded the problem with some poor guesswork. Eventually I finished only 18th, so I am currently 18th in Britain but first in the World! I am very much looking forward to the 2012 BQC in a fortnight, where I hope to redeem myself.

-Do you also attend regular pub quizzes? Any particular pub quizzes in England you can recommend?

I have stopped attending pub quizzes because there are unfortunately so many wrong answers in them. At my local pub quiz recently, the question master claimed that Palestine is a UN member state and that there is no such English county as Huntingdonshire…..! But also, having a young son (he is 20 months old) means that I spend most evenings in these days…

-What is your favourite subject, quiz-wise?

It has to be geography. I know that is a boring answer, as everyone says it, but really geography is what got me into quizzing in the first place. And particularly human geography- I am more interested in cities, roads, monuments, bridges and provinces than I am in glaciers, mountains or valleys.

-Any particular subjects you dislike?

A very happy side-effect of getting more and more into quizzing is that subjects I previously considered boring are getting more and more interesting. I used to find most aspects of sport and entertainment boring, but that’s certainly not true now. However, a few hardcore areas I still find it very hard to get excited about are opera, ballet, golf and tennis!

-How do you find international quizzing? Any type of competition you would like to see introduced?

I love international quizzing. I love the variety of questions that could cover the entire world, from Cuban cocktails one moment to Aboriginal languages the next, from Moroccan music to South American literature. I would find a World Pairs championship quite interesting- the World questions are so fun, it’s a shame there is just one paper of them per year. But I realise the logistics of a World Pairs tournament would be very difficult.

-Do you use any kind of mnemonics to help memorizing names and lists, like many quizzers do?

Occasionally, but the trouble with mnemonics is that if you try to remember too many of them you simply repeat the original problem of having too many things to learn. Also, a lot of the lists you might need to learn in their entirety (for example, geological periods) are too long for meaningful mnemonics. So I find their usefulness is limited.

-When you’re not reading quiz-related stuff, what kind of literature do you like?

I’m afraid I have to admit that everything I read is quiz-related! I do not really read any fiction. I never read much of it, even before I started quizzing seriously. I just find there is so much to know about things that have actually happened, that I don’t have time for fiction. I’m sure I’m missing out, but on the other hand reading a really good non-fiction book, ideally on a holiday with a swimming pool, is my idea of heaven.

-Any favourite movies, and music?

Again, my distaste for fiction extends to film. I rarely watch films, which explains why I’m poor on entertainment. Obviously, I like documentary films that tell the story of a real-life event, but even then my attention span tends not to cover more than about an hour of anything at once. There are some great BBC documentaries (e.g. on BBC4) that are an hour long, and that seems to be a good length to tell an interesting story.

By contrast, I absolutely love music, and can’t imagine life without it. I listen to everything from early classical composers like Thomas Tallis all the way through to dubstep and drum and bass. The only things I don’t really like are heavy metal, gangsta rap and most things on MTV. My favourite band of all time is Underworld, who wrote the music for the opening ceremony of the Olympics a few weeks ago.

-Can you recommend any quiz related literature that you’re particularly fond of?

Yes, I really enjoyed The Importance of Being Trivial by Mark Mason and Brian Men by Marcus Berkmann. But the best quiz-related literature I’ve ever read in my life is, of course, Wikipedia. I couldn’t have won the Worlds without hours spent on it.

-Now that you are World Champion, what is the next step for you? The EQC individually perhaps?

Yes, definitely. And also the BQC. I would very much like to win all three on multiple occasions, and then retire from competition to set questions for others. But I’ll have to continue working hard to do so!

-Finally, we, the Norwegian team, were lucky enough to edge ahead of you and the rest of the British team in the 2011 EQC semifinals, and although we were unable to win the competition, that was a high point in our international «career». Do you remember anything from the match?

I remember it like it was yesterday- and also losing to Belgium in the third-place playoff! The knowledge and performance of the Norway team was excellent- I particularly remember the ‘ship disguised as an island’ question- but the England team also made some poor choices and had some bad luck. We are looking forward to performing better in 2012….

-We of course know that with a different format, with the same 100 questions for each team, we would get trounced by your national team, but it seems a very audience friendly format, which also enables an underdog team on a good day to actually beat a better team. How do you feel about the format?

Yes, I think it is an excellent format, and would be great to transfer to TV, as it obviously resembles a game show. That is certainly true about the underdogs being able to win, as Belgium were defeated in a shock result in the other semi-final as well!

-Jesse, thank you very much for talking to us!