Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Bonus Question
Quizzing Grand Slams?

A curious property of TV quizzes is that there is often little correlation between effort and reward. Some shows offer huge prizes in return for particularly exceptional quizzing, while others reward only mild skill (or even plain old luck) with similarly enormous paychecks. The most peculiar extreme, however, features those shows that are the hardest by far to win, but offer virtually no prize whatsoever. Compare Mastermind, one of the toughest gigs in town, with Deal or No Deal, where contestants are asked (the same) yes or no question a few times. On the latter, and on a daily basis, players could win up to £250,000, on the former one contestant a year gets a fruit bowl.

Clearly then, people aren't applying for Mastermind for the money. Instead there's some intangible prestige associated with claiming this particular televisual title that keeps the contestants rolling up. Tell some hardcore quizzers you won a few quid off the Banker and they might feign mild interest, tell them you've won Mastermind and, well, you won't need to tell them because they'll have already tried to recruit you to their quiz league.

During a recent pub quiz someone suggested that Mastermind could be regarded as a 'quizzing Grand Slam'; one of those few tournaments where the title means more than any prize money that might come with it. (And while I'm well aware of how this sounds just a little bit silly in the cold light of day, it honestly made perfect sense after a few pints.) What followed was an inevitable debate over which other quiz shows could be considered Grand Slams, and whether we could pair them up with their real-life equivalents in tennis (other sports are available, but it was Wimbledon season). We decided that to qualify a show had to have no prize money, be currently televised (thus ruling out Fifteen to One, an otherwise obvious contender), and be 'bloody hard'. Your mileage may vary, but what follows is thus the entirely subjective view of a group of moderately squiffy quiz nerds.

"You should've chosen 'being a crybaby'
as your specialist subject!!!"

The British classic can only be matched by one show: Mastermind. While not the oldest on the list, it is arguably the 'daddy' of TV quizzes with the greatest recognition even among those strange members of society who don't obsess over trivia. Sure, Andy Murray won the US Open last year, but it was his subsequent victory at Wimbledon that got the most attention. Win Mastermind and chances are even your hairdresser will be impressed.

The Australian Open

The youngest of the tennis grand slams, we thought University Challenge, with its inherently youthful flavour, was the best match. Another unashamedly tough quiz, it's possibly the hardest to win given the relatively strict eligibility requirement of being a student. While the Open University has seen some 'back door' routes into this title in the past, their lack of presence in the competition in recent years suggests that even that path may be closed for the time being.

The US Open

While the oldest of the lot, the radio-only presence of Brain of Britain means it doesn't quite have the Wimbledon-esque significance of Mastermind in the public consciousness. Nevertheless, there's no denying the difficulty and importance of claiming this particular accolade in the quizzing world. I'll admit the US Open analogy is more process of elimination than perfect match, but if you really want a tenuous link then let's say Brain of Britain's somewhat idiosyncratic question structure reflects the US Open's position as the only grand slam with final set tiebreaks. Uncanny.

The French Open
Rafael Nadal's skills at missing vowels
are a closely-guarded secret

With the French Open's clay courts setting it apart from the other three tennis Grand Slams, we felt the lateral thinking element of Only Connect made it a fitting final entry to the list. While perhaps too young to be a cast-iron consideration just yet, there is sadly little competition for this fourth and final spot. Whether it can stand up to the test of time remains to be seen.

Final thoughts

I don't doubt that many would argue with the above but I can at least claim not to be the only person to consider these shows as a quizzing 'big four'. Former Mastermind champion (not to mention Brain of Britain and Only Connect runner up) Dave Clark identified appearing on these four shows as one of '30 quiz experiences to try before you die' (which is a good read if you haven't already seen it), and various googling can throw up other similarly 'qualified' individuals espousing the virtues of every member of the list.

In any case they all certainly tick the boxes of having no prize money and being bloody hard. Indeed, with regards to the latter no-one has managed to win all four. To date Ian Bayley has come the closest, winning Brain of Britain in 2010, Mastermind in 2011, and is one third of Only Connect's all-conquering Crossworders. He also carries the rare distinction of having appeared on University Challenge twice, for two different institutions, but despite this is unable to complete the set. Clearly, if you want to achieve this holy quaternity of quiz shows, you need to start young.


  1. I'm seriously jealous of the plethora of TV quizzes you Brits have. Here in the States, the only quiz worth your salt is Jeopardy!, and these shows make Jeopardy! look like child's play!

    Not only that--it's the factor of playing quizzes solely for the glory, not for the money. We don't have that either--if the show isn't giving away eleventy billion dollars by the end of it, it seems the general American public won't give it a first look.

    1. Yeah, it's something we (the British) take for granted I think - we've recently moved to Canada and still exclusively watch British quiz shows. The British in general seem to have a relatively unique relationship with quiz shows as well as quizzing in general; a look through those who top the World Quiz Rankings speaks wonders on that front.