Watch the University Challenge on Monday

by Frederic Friedel
12/18/2015 – It is one of the oldest quiz shows, pitting teams of students from two British colleges against each other, with questions that are anything but trivial or easy. There is no prize money involved – the participants compete solely for the honour of representing their alma mater. Why do we tell you all this? Because for the first time in over a thousand shows a chess grandmaster is involved.

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The undisputed veteran of quiz shows in the UK is University Challenge, which premièred in 1962. It aired 913 episodes on ITV from 1962 to 1987, after which there was a hiatus for seven years. It was revived in 1994 by the BBC and has been going strong ever since, becoming something of a British institution. Eschewing the lure of financial gain, the participants compete solely for the honour of representing their alma mater. It’s a popular show and regularly attracts more than three million viewers.

The current presenter is Jeremy Paxman, a famous broadcaster noted for taking
a tough line with evasive politicians. Here’s an example of his interview style.

The main series involves teams of current students, but there are sometimes extra shows and for the past few years a Christmas series involving alumni has proved popular. On December 21st, a team from Oriel College, Oxford, will join the fray, facing Trinity College, Cambridge. Rumour has it that the Trinity team includes a Fields Medal winner (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize), so the opposition will be tough!

The teams are chosen by the organisers of University Challenge. The Oriel team includes Jon Bentley, who was the producer of the famous BBC series Top Gear and helped launch the TV career of Jeremy Clarkson; Peter Harness, a scriptwriter who has written some episodes of Doctor Who; and Camilla Wright, who runs the scurrilous Popbitch website.

However, one team member is of particular interest (to us): Dr John Nunn, grandmaster and prolific author who has written authoritative monographs on openings, endings and compositions, as well as annotated games collections and autobiographical volumes. In 1970 John was, at the age of 15, Oxford’s youngest undergraduate since Cardinal Wolsey in 1520. He went on to gain his doctorate in 1978 with a thesis in Algebraic Topology and remained at Oxford University as a mathematics lecturer until 1981, when he became a professional chess player.

In a 2010 interview, Magnus Carlsen, explaining why he thought extreme intelligence could actually prove to be a hindrance to one’s chess career, cited as an example Nunn’s never having captured the World Chess Championship title: “He has so incredibly much in his head. Simply too much. His enormous powers of understanding and his constant thirst for knowledge distracted him from chess.”

John is also a special friend of our company. He helped immensely in the early stages, writing a number of editions of ChessBase Magazine and even helping to package our programs. He was also instrumental in helping Frederic Friedel set up the first Internet portal for ChessBase back in the mid-1990s. Here’s an example of one of their first pages.

Chess players are no strangers to quiz shows, indeed in 2005 a chess team participated in University Challenge: The Professionals. That team (Hartson, Pein, Jacobs, Cox), however, contained no GMs and was beaten in the first round by a team from London’s Victoria and Albert museum. GMs have successfully participated in other quiz shows; for example, who can forget GM James Plaskett winning a quarter of a million Pounds on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

The Oriel vs Trinity match will be broadcast on the UK’s BBC2 channel at 2000 (British time, GMT) on Monday, 21st December. For those who cannot receive BBC transmissions directly, there are options for viewing on the Internet using the BBCs iPlayer or the direct link to the programme where it will become available shortly after broadcasting. The only problem is that for legal reasons, the BBC checks your IP address to see if you are in the UK, and will not play the content if you are not.

There are various ways around geographical restrictions of this sort, but the availability and legality of these methods varies from country to country. However, at least one of these should work wherever you are. One is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) which creates an encrypted channel between your computer and the VPN server. Another is to use FimlOn, a service which as far as we can tell is legal and tolerated. Finally it will always be possible to see, with some delay, the University Challenge on YouTube. But a warning: you can spend hours watching these HD videos of the quiz show. You will be stunned at the incredibly high level of question that are posed and the way the often fairly young contestants get the right answers – no comparison to this all-time classic.

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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