When, in the 1950s, it was revealed that there had been widespread cheating on US television quiz shows, an outraged President Eisenhower declared it “a terrible thing to do to the American people” and the whole affair ended in a Congressional hearing and an amendment to the Communications Act.
There has been no word, as yet, from President Obama on the news that America’s most esteemed university, Harvard, has been stripped of four national quiz championships awards after one team member was found to have cheated. One thing is certain, though, Americans take their quiz wins seriously.
So seriously that one member of the Harvard “A” Team, Andy Watkins, accessed a website which gave the first 40 characters of the questions to be asked in the National Academic Quiz Tournament (NAQT) on the three successive years he took part.
Watkins, who graduated in 2011, had partial access to the questions which run the entire pub-quiz, general-knowledge gamut, as he was involved in setting the quizzes for high-school level students. It all sounds like the film Starter for 10, which hinges on skulduggery on University Challenge, although without the good-looking love interest.
In Britain a quiz league has never really gained traction. We have Jeremy Paxman’s unerring eye and a full television studio surrounding contestants instead, and no one has yet been accused of deception (though teams have been disqualified for having members who have recently graduated).
Cheating usually takes place much closer to home over here. Mainly down the pub. With its febrile mix of lager, smartphones and football trivia ( “who played in goal for West Bromwich Albion in the 1962….”) that’s often where the accusation: “you big cheaters” is thrown.
The writer Marcus Berkmann, question master at perhaps the country’s most respected pub quiz (held at the Prince of Wales in Highgate), doesn’t encounter cheaters often, he says. “It is very much frowned upon at our quiz. At other pub quizzes you hear about people Googling away merrily or sneaking off to the toilet. But there would be an element of lost reputation if a regular was caught at the Prince of Wales,” he says.
One suspects what is true of the Prince of Wales may not be so much so at some other less reputable quizzes, which, in my experience, can sometimes resemble a general knowledge boxing match, with nearly as much shouting.
Either way perhaps one ought not to judge cheaters such as Watkins too harshly. Have we not all, perhaps in younger days, given in to that craven urge to sneak a look at the upcoming Trivial Pursuit cards or palm a handy Scrabble tile? President Eisenhower would doubtlessly disapprove, but I know I have.