Meet the iQuizmaster: A Q&A with Simon O'Hagan


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The Independent Online

The Independent's in-house quiz expert is Simon O'Hagan, a man who knows more trivia than you've had hot dinners. Here he demonstrates his formidable quiz credentials ahead of the final of the iQuiz on 12 February.

First, who are you and what is it you do at the Indy?

I am a bike-riding, music-loving newspaper journalist who’s been around longer than I care to think. I worked for The Times before I worked for The Independent and i, where I’ve done a load of different jobs in the past 20 years or so and am now an Assistant Editor of the paper operating out of the Comment desk. My job involves commissioning and editing our columnists, and putting in and removing commas in roughly equal measure. I write stuff from time to time, and I’ve been setting the Quiz in the Saturday Magazine every week for the past five years.

What first stoked your interest in trivia?

I don’t really know. I guess I’ve got a bit of a butterfly brain and I’ve always enjoyed quizzes. A lot of journalists are like that, I find. I set my first quiz in a school magazine over 40 years ago.

What was your greatest ever win in a quiz?

I’ve been going to the Prince of Wales pub quiz in Highgate – generally reckoned to be one of the best pub quizzes in London – for over 10 years. My team has often 'podiumed' and twice we’ve won. A couple of years ago I was on the winning team at a rather glitzy quiz that was mainly TV people. Natasha Kaplinsky was one of my team-mates and I have a photograph that’s got both me and her in it. Apparently she often tells her friends about being in the same photograph as Simon O’Hagan.

Ever been on a quiz show on TV? If so, what was it like?

Nope. Still waiting for that call.

What are your favourite obscure facts?

Good grief. So many to choose from. That Isaac Newton invented the cat flap? That Delia Smith baked the cake that’s on the cover of the Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed? That Hazel Blears played a street urchin in A Taste of Honey? Though they’re all quite well known in quiz circles.

How many quizzes would you say you have organised?

I couldn’t put a figure on it. I co-set the quiz at the Prince of Wales about twice a year. I’ve done various others – mainly charity fund-raisers. I once went all the way from London to the Isle of Man to set a quiz for someone who won the bidding for it in the Independent Christmas Charity auction. Birmingham thus becomes the second-furthest place I’ll have been to present a quiz, and this might be the moment to mention that the iQuiz final will be a bit of a trip down memory lane for me. I was a student at Birmingham University for three years in the 1970s. Naturally at the iQuiz final I will be slipping Birmingham all the answers so the other 17 teams might as well not bother turning up.

What’s the question you’ve come up with that you’re most proud of?

There’s a themed round I do which usually goes down well. But I’m not going to say what it is because I’m going to use it at the iQuiz final. Here’s a question I like that I came up with. What’s the in-house journal of the Magic Circle called?*

Have smartphones and Google ruined quizzes? Is there anything we can do to stem the cheating tide?

You hear of quizzes where people have Googled answers under the table but I’ve never known it happen at any quiz I’ve attended or presided over. It sounds pious but cheating takes away your own pleasure, doesn’t it? Then again, when the stakes are high... At the iQuiz final, dire warnings will be made, and any transgressors will face summary justice. In fact we might decide that everyone will have to hand their phones in as they enter the arena.

How fiendish is the upcoming iQuiz?

It won’t be fiendish. It will I hope be nicely challenging – nothing’s more boring than a quiz that’s too easy – but I like to think that every question, however difficult it might seem on first hearing, contains the clues to the answer. I hate what I call “You either know it or you don’t” questions. It’s like that Magic Circle question. Were I to ask it at the iQuiz final it would be astonishing if anyone actually knew the answer, but some teams would undoubtedly work their way towards a correct guess, and those that didn’t, on hearing the answer, would I hope go, “Of course!”

Plus you’d be glad to have gained that bit of knowledge, which to me is part of what makes a good quiz question. So it’s about lateral thinking and when a team of four put their heads together, that’s when the fun starts and the answer begins to open up. Obviously I am reckoning on teams of undergraduates to have passed the odd exam in their lives – and certainly to have wasted an inordinate amount of their growing-up absorbing trivia. No, not wasted – spent time invaluably.

Are you looking forward to it?


Have you got any words of advice for the teams?

Don’t change an answer at the last minute. Keep your voices down. And no mutual recriminations when it’s all over. Stay friends.

Any clues as to what will be in the quiz – categories, unusual rounds etc?

An In the News round. The themed round I referred to above. Quite a bit of music and popular culture, and History in the loosest sense.

*Magic Circle in-house journal: The Magic Circular