Rachel Riley smiles as she pronounces that intelligence is still, as she says, “in”.
“You see things dumbed down a lot, all over the place, but people still want to prove they’ve got a brain. There’s a counter-culture. Quiz culture is punk.”
Every Thursday, Riley, 32, grabs her phone and faces off against rows of challengers, seeing if she can answer the same questions they did in less time, getting fewer wrong.
“I just love quizzes,” says Riley. “Everyone used to pile in around the pub quiz machine at the Oriel bar in Oxford.” Riley studied maths there and now lives in London with Pasha Kovalev, who she met on Strictly Come Dancing in 2014. What was her special quiz subject? “There was a Carol Vorderman Sudoku game I was very good at.”
The question is, why are quizzes so “in”? Who Wants to be a Millionaire returned to great acclaim with Jeremy Clarkson earlier this year, HQ Trivia dominates phones twice daily around the country, while pub quizzes are thriving, with at least 100,000 people estimated to take part each week, according to The Economist.
Unlike HQ Trivia, FleetWit doesn’t have to be played live, because once you’ve posted your round the person you’ve challenged takes on the same question in their own time — in the app they’re called “races” — but you can challenge Riley to categories including general trivia, movies, literature, history, sport, puzzles, food, drink, Disney...
“I’m not good at Harry Potter trivia,” she admits — so we spend the next minute in silence, staring at our phones, “racing”. A great interview technique, this. “Name of Draco Malfoy’s son? No idea. What animal aren’t you allowed to bring to Hogwarts? Lucky guess time, isn’t it?”
It’s not exactly HQ Trivia — there’s no live feed of Riley, and it’s a one-on-one game. “It’s less social, more about bragging rights,” she says. “You can shout to the world — I won the biggest round, or I beat Rachel Riley.” Aspirational.
You also have to put money on the app to play. Any money Riley wins goes to the Angus Lawson Memorial Trust, a charitable trust for marginalised children. “So it’s win-win,” says Riley. “You beat me, you get money. You lose, that money goes to charity.”
Isn’t the gambling aspect controversial? What if children get carried away? “There’s an 18+ age limit,” say Riley. “And you have to top up with credit, you can’t just take it off an account.”
Couldn’t people still get hooked?
“That’s one for the psychologists. If you’re a compulsive gambler it could be dangerous but there are easier ways to get your hit. With this, you answer five questions with four choices, and you’re against a real person. So I think it’s a different kind of hit.”
Riley has done her homework — she’s had to, after 10 years on Countdown. “In the early days I revised feverishly. I had puzzle books, and I worked my way through hundreds. But it’s like riding a bike, it now happens by conditioning. When I’m doing the numbers game it doesn’t matter how tired I am or how worn out I am, when the music is on my brain is totally focused”.
Who would she like to challenge on the app? “Jeff Stelling”. (Riley was formerly a presenter on Stelling’s Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports.)
“I like it when the boys come on to try and tackle me at football. I’m a huge Manchester United fan and Jeff beat me once on a numbers round for Countdown, and has never let me live it down.”
Does she have any quiz tips? “The trick with most stuff, weirdly, is to do as little thinking as possible”, she says. “Speed is of the essence. There’s a round on the app which is all about spotting words spelt incorrectly. You don’t even need to read the question.”
Which doesn’t sound like great advice. But then again, she isn’t desperate to lose.
There’s no such thing as friendly competition.