How a toy bought in Limerick inspired a London-Irish boy to become a quiz genius
Trevor Montague on the joy of general knowledge
Trevor Montague, author of the best-selling A to Z of Almost Everything
Ireland has always been revered for its tradition of cerebral pursuits, being home to some of the world’s most insightful and brilliant writers and poets, not least my namesake John Montague.
Like the great poet I too was born overseas, in London, while my mother was working as a nurse in Guy’s Hospital, but I was brought up on the family farm in Clare.
A life in quiz has been good to me
One of my earliest memories is my mother and father driving the horse and cart the few short miles into Limerick to buy me a birthday present. I chose a game called Magic Robot.
The game was essentially the forerunner of Trivial Pursuit and consisted of placing a little robot figurine on a central magnetised mirrored circle, the robot pointing to the correct answer to a previously pointed-to question.
Of course in those young formative years I had no general knowledge at all but I did have the capacity to remember all the answers and soon realised this impressed people.
The Magic Robot to me was akin to Finn Mac Cumhaill’s partaking of the Salmon of Knowledge. Like the legendary salmon I too was hooked!
A life in quiz has been good to me.
I began in the mid-1980s when I saw an advert in the Sun newspaper for a telephone quiz called Snookered. “Win £300 per day, Win Again and Again” the advert said.
My only experience of pub quiz machines was in a game also called Snookered in which you scored one point for a red and up to seven points for the black; as in the table sport it was possible to score a maximum 147 with 36 consecutive correct answers.
How serendipitous was it when I first phoned this quiz to instantly recognise the questions?
At this time I owned a solitary quiz reference, Pears Family Quiz Book by Giles Brandreth.
This book had some impossible questions and answers such as the weight of the Earth being 6,588 million million million tons with a surface area of 197 million square miles.
My dear late partner June had asked me questions from this book repeatedly over the years so eventually I knew every answer.
How serendipitous was it when I first phoned this quiz to instantly recognise the questions?
The Glasgow-based firm had used the Gyles Brandreth book for their database so I was in like Flynn so to speak. I phoned up quite late in the evening and simply beat whatever the highest break was to that point. A few days later the first cheque arrived – and they kept coming!
Occasionally one question would stump me “When was the maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth I”. Although I knew the correct answer, the wrong answer was input into the database. I actually phoned the company to tell them they had input a wrong answer and to their credit they re-input the correct answer but unfortunately also retained the wrong one so it was always a 50-50 when this question came up as to success or failure and at 50p per minute on a premium phone line when scores of over a thousand became more frequent it could be both costly and time-consuming to have to start again!
My first television quiz was the 1987 series of The Krypton Factor, hosted by a truly great Irishman and gentleman, Gordon Burns – the second cousin of musician Ed Sheeran, as any quiz player worth his salt will tell you (we call this an old chestnut within quizzing circles).
Although I won my heat I was ultimately let down by my general knowledge when I buzzed in on the tie-break question
Interestingly, I entered this competition not for my profound depth of general knowledge but rather because I was a sub two-minute 800m runner so fancied the assault course and even more than that could memorise packs of playing cards so really fancied the mental agility round.
When I met the other contestants I was staggered that many of them were in quiz leagues as I had no idea organised quiz leagues existed at this time.
Although I won my heat I was ultimately let down by my general knowledge when I buzzed in on the tie-break question “Recently taking Australian citizenship which Czech tennis player….” and answered Ivan Lendl when the correct answer was Hana Mandlikova – doh!
Within weeks of the series airing I had walked into my local pub to hear across the microphone “Johnny and the…..” to which I shouted out “Hurricanes” much to the dismay of the disgruntled players who were in the middle of a league match. “He’s ruined it now, we’ll have to have a spare question” said the landlord “and anyway I think the correct answer is the pirates so not sure they have the correct answer on the sheet”!
I then decided to bone up on my general knowledge and join a local league.
At this time I began supplementing my income as an accountant with Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals by playing pub quiz machines – rather successfully.
A friend of mine had tipped me off that the chips in these machines were the same all over the UK and it might be worth me investing a few pounds to learn the database.
It was the dawn of the age of the new £20 jackpot machines and I struck lucky from the start when June and I flew out to Ibiza and while killing some time at the airport played in total nine landside quiz machines and six airside, winning in excess of £100.
My pub machine wins were not always greeted with a smile and after the first few bans I decided to change my tack
Within weeks of this first dipping of the toe I had mastered Crosswords, Give Us a Clue, Treble Top, A Question of Sport, Concentration, Quiz Vaders, Inquisitor, Turnover, Every Second Counts, in fact every machine labelled “Skill With Prizes”.
I honed my skills during night visits to my local Gatwick Airport, where I was able to scribble down questions I did not know the answer to, safe from prying eyes. In the summer months I occasionally topped the magic £1,000 profit.
My pub machine wins were not always greeted with a smile and after the first few bans I decided to change my tack. I purchased 100 shares in each of the Big Six breweries and now entered the pub, bought my pint (which usually fed the nearest pot plant as I was teetotal) and then either bought the staff a drink or placed £20 behind the bar for the staff after my win. This was a fairly small price to pay when I was sometimes emptying the tubes to the tune of between £70 and £80 depending on the machine. On the rare occasion I was now banned I would produce my share certificate and invariably receive a letter of apology from the brewery inviting me back unreservedly.
Human nature being what it is, once I started to appear on television quiz shows and have some success I was taken more seriously at work and those who thought perhaps I was but a chatty, friendly, mediocre accountant now treated me with discernibly more respect which made me happy and sad at the same time.
In 1997 I appeared on, and won, 32 television quiz shows, including the grand finals of Fifteen-to-One and Today’s the Day
All through the early 1990s I appeared on quiz shows although in 1995 my attempt to win the Mastermind and Brain of Britain titles were thwarted by my soon-to-be close friend, future Egghead Kevin Ashman.
All those who appear on Mastermind have the opportunity to join a very select club who have all witnessed the excitement and dread of sitting in that famous black chair. I embraced the club fully and struck up friendships, and learnt from many of the top knowledge experts. I particularly looked forward to our annual gatherings and in particular playing with and against Kev Ashman who was undoubtedly the best player I had ever seen. Together Kev and I won team gold at the first Mind Sports Olympiad and we also played together in a select Mastermind team against the University Challenge winners of that year which did not end well for the youngsters due to their inexperience, our team winning 255-10!
In 1997 I appeared on, and won, 32 television quiz shows, including the grand finals of Fifteen-to-One and Today’s the Day (by the magic of television both finals being broadcast on C4 and the BBC on the same day and same time which confused viewers as to how I could be in two places at once!).
Later that year I helped the BBC nab Magnus Magnusson during the Michael Aspel era of This Is Your Life; the premise being a book launch at the Icelandic embassy in London.
At the embassy I met the publisher of I’ve Started So I’ll Finish, Alan Samson, who was a Masterminder himself, top of the pile in the publishing world, and also a fan of mine apparently. Alan signed me up there and then to put together a compendium of knowledge which four years later became the first edition of the A to Z of almost Everything.
I have a lot to thank Alan for as he not only took a chance on me but brought a bit of sparkle into my life and more importantly to my beloved June who was always so proud to see my books in shops and libraries.
The day after one of my quiz successes in 1997 I was phoned by Jeremy Beadle who congratulated me on usurping him as Britain’s leading prankster according to a list in The Sun (I had appeared on Fifteen-to-One in disguise in 1992 as a joke) and when I told him of my forthcoming book he asked me to stay at his home in Hadley Wood to make use of his library for my research. I took Jeremy up on his offer and we became firm friends.
Jeremy introduced me to many of the top reference book writers, some he had co-written books with, and subsequently when my sports book was mooted introduced me to top sporting personalities and officials.
Whilst chewing the fat with Jeremy one day I asked the great man who he most admires in life as he literally knew everyone in showbusiness – his answer astonished me. “People like you and Kevin” came the reply.
The following year I joined the Quiz League of London which was a veritable Who’s Who of the quiz world and I formed a team with some Mastermind pals and we managed to beat Kev Ashman’s team to win the league in our second year after gaining promotion from Division 2 in our first.
The other hotbed of quizzing talent was the Merseyside League and I formed the notion that instead of having this north/south divide we should all band together as a quizzing fraternity so, reflecting on this, and remembering Jeremy’s words of adoration for quiz players, I founded the British Quiz Association in 1998.
The association fostered the talents of many a great player, including Galway man Pat Gibson, Egghead, Millionaire winner and multiple world quiz champion.
I hosted the first International match (England v Belgium) at a London hotel in 2003, with the BQA supplying half the questions and my Belgium equivalent Steve Deceuster the other half. Despite our very strong team, including Kevin and Pat, we were soundly trounced – a situation both Kev and Pat soon rectified by dominating the world championships since then.
Before their sad and early demise I was lucky enough to co-host quiz nights with the BBC Mastermind host Magnus Magnusson as well as Jeremy.
Magnus was universally known to be an intellectual with great gravitas and presence by dint of the great history and archeology series he presented and I was honoured that he contributed both the Norse Mythology section and the foreword for the A to Z, accepting no consideration for either. Magnus also had great humour and charm and at my first-round heat of Mastermind at Salisbury Cathedral before proceedings commenced he told all the contenders “and remember, it’s only a bloody game!”
Ironically, Jeremy, who was known as a master of light comedy, also had a very serious astute brain and actually placed 30th in the 2002 British Championship in which Kev and I competed for the medals; Kev ultimately winning gold and me, the bronze.
Magnus and Jeremy were more than just colleagues to me, they were friends; Magnus once appealing to the BBC on my behalf when I was banned for the aforementioned prank and having the ban lifted after I made a public apology on the Esther Rantzen Show.
Jeremy was also a colossus of a man, much loved by the public and a great supporter of charities, raising millions for all sorts of diverse causes but dedicated to Eddie O’Gorman’s Children With Cancer.
Jeremy would invite me on to his radio shows frequently and plug my books, putting me in touch with all the top people for my research. He also insisted on bringing in my book when he was “imprisoned” in Ant and Dec’s Banged Up With Beadle in 2002.
In 2003 the demands of my books led me to give up competitive quizzing but by way of a swan song the Guardian newspaper contacted me, wishing to form an elite group of quiz players to hit the pub quizzes of London over the course of a week. Old friends Chris Hughes (the train driver who won Mastermind), Daphne Fowler (the loveable granny with teeth who had won most everything in the world of quiz), Gavin Fuller (the youngest ever Mastermind champion) and Dave Edwards (Mastermind, Brain of Britain and Millionaire winner) joined me and we were more than a match for anything that came our way that week. Sam Wollaston and Merope Mills ferried us around from the hotel to the pubs and their journalistic skills coupled with our success proved a huge hit with the readers.
Shortly after this the BBC contacted me to offer me a place on a new panel show called Eggheads which I sadly declined due to work commitments and although Chris and Daphne were signed up they were joined by Kevin, CJ and Judith Keppel.
When I subsequently brought the Eggheads to a charity quiz I was hosting I introduced CJ thus: “When I turned down the gig on Eggheads the BBC searched for another top quiz player who was also a member of Mensa and a bit of eye candy – unfortunately they could not find one so settled for CJ, ladies and gentlemen”. It was only a joke!
And that is the greatest joy of quizzing for me – to read on our Mastermind website that I have done more to raise the profile of quizzing than any other living person, or to hear Egghead Barry Simmons thank me for being instrumental in changing his life via raising the profile of Quiz via the BQA makes the journey so satisfying. In reality of course I am just a very ordinary nondescript Anglo-Irishman with no discernible talent who has had extraordinary good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. I had no idea when receiving that Magic Robot the effect it would have on my life.
Further details of all the questions can be found within The A to Z of Almost Everything (eighth edition), available from all good retail outlets.