What Barry O’Brien taught me about being a quizmaster

“Is that Barry O’Brien?”

My friend and I were waiting in a boarding queue at the Kolkata airport, when he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a man sitting comfortably with a newspaper in one hand and a cup of some hot beverage in the other.

I had a good look at him and, of course, it was the inimitable Barry O’Brien, quizmaster extraordinaire.

“You want to go say hi?” my friend asked.

“Ah…won’t we be disturbing him? He’s reading the paper. He’s busy.”

“Busy?” he said rolling his eyes. “Since when did reading the newspaper become equivalent to busy? That’s what people do in leisure, in case you haven’t noticed.

“Well, he isn’t just anyone, right? He is a quizmaster. And so reading the newspaper is work, isn’t it? The guy is working. Let’s just leave him be.”

“Oye, Minakhi,” he said looking closely at me. “Are you shy? It’s not about him being busy, is it? You’re the one with chicken feet here.”

Was I shy? Oh yeah. Barry was like a hero to me. I couldn’t just walk up to him and say hi.

“Come on, Minakhi,” my friend tugged my arm. “It’s only Barry. Not Derek.”

That pinched.

Barry might have been the lesser known of the O’Brien brothers, but when it came to being a quizmaster, I always liked Barry more than Derek.

Agreed, Derek’s Bournvita Quiz Contest was my first real exposure to the world of quizzing and much of my interest in quizzing was rooted in those weekly half-hour episodes I watched on TV. But it was sitting live in a Barry O’Brien quiz that made me understand the visceral joy of “cracking” a question.

So, as far as I was concerned, Barry was the bigger deal to me.

“I am going to get an autograph,” my friend said pulling a book out of his bag. “You can stay and keep our place in the queue if you want.”

I craned my neck over my friend’s head to check what was happening at the boarding gate. The airline personnel had already come, but the gate still remained as shut as ever.

“Wait up” I called after him. I pulled out a book of my own and walked towards my childhood hero.

I still had no idea what I was going to tell him. With every step I took, my heart-rate stepped up too. I was sure I was going to blank out.

I shouldn’t have worried so much, though. My friend was a natural at things like these. He just sauntered right up to Barry and started chatting with him.

He told him how big a fan he was, how he had always loved his quizzes even though he had never qualified to the finals. Barry, for his part, was all smiles and nods and an occasional laugh.

“And oh, here’s my friend, Minakhi. He actually has won some quiz you did in Bhubaneshwar a long time ago.”

“Hi…,” I waved. “I actually came second…it was…”

“We were wondering, Barry” my friend cut in, “if you would autograph our books. Would mean a lot to us. Big fans both of us.”

“Sure, sure,” the quizmaster said. “What do you guys do?”

“Minakhi is studying at IIT Guwahati. I study here in Presidency College, but I am going for a short trip to the North-East with him.”

“Students! You guys still quizzing?”

“Minakhi here does. I am not much of a quizzer. I am the spectator kind.”

Barry was looking at me now. At first I didn’t realise what is it he was waiting for. Was I supposed to tell him about the campus quizzes I went to? And how I sucked at them?

“I can’t sign your book if you don’t give it to me. Minakshi, is it?”

“Minakhi, sir… No ess…That’s how the Odia people pronounce it…”

He laughed out at that.

“So, you better spell it out for me then. I don’t want to write your name wrong.”

I spelled it for him.

“College quizzes are so different from the format I do in schools, isn’t it? Are you enjoying the new style?”

“I guess…I like that there are more clues…”

“Definitely! I used to do those for a while, but now I concentrate on schools.”

“Oh…”

As he handed my book back to me, he frowned a bit.

“Come on, spit it out. You have a question bursting within you.”

I didn’t realise it at that time, but my friend swore later that I had gone red in the face when Barry said that.

“I want to be a quizmaster too. Someday. I read a lot of books and I am keeping notes, but I don’t think I make good quizzes. I don’t know what questions to ask and how to frame them.”

“Hmm…that’s pretty easy actually,” he said rather nonchalantly. “Do you have friends with whom you talk about new things you discover in books or TV or the internet?”

“Yeah…there’s a motley group in my hostel. We meet every week for a quick quiz session. We usually end up chatting a lot afterwards.”

“Wow, you don’t need my help at all, buddy. You already have all the ingredients for your solution.”

“I… am not sure how you mean…”

“It’s simple, okay? Make only those questions about which you would want to have a long discussion later. Simple.”

Was it really so simple? I didn’t think so.

“Hmm…but sir, how do I even get to those questions? How do I find the right ones?”

“Okay, tell me this. How do your conversations with your friends go?”

“Uhn…Like every conversation, I guess. Someone says something new, then we talk about the things around it, by which time someone makes a random connection somewhere and the topic goes to that. And so on till we are tired of each other.”

Barry let out a whistle.

“That’s more articulate than I expected, buddy. Haha…”

“That’s…umm…that’s just how it is.”

“So yeah, the point is now for you to have the same conversation with yourself.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, you randomly hit upon an aha moment while reading, right? Read more about that. Keep reading till you hit a point where you connect it to something else. And then something else. Like the conversation. And just like that you will have made several questions along the way.”

“But sir, I already do that. And still I suck.”

“In that case, Minakhi,” Barry said getting up from his chair, “you should enjoy yourself when you’re at it. That makes all the difference in the world.”

He waved us goodbye and headed off to his boarding gate.

“Have fun, hunh? Makes sense, I guess.”


I am writing this story today at the Chennai Airport, waiting to board a flight to Ahmedabad. As it happens, I am hosting a quiz at IIMA tomorrow, with my quizzing partner from the time I was a student there.

I am definitely enjoying it. ☺

If you love quizzing to, do share this article with the people you quiz with.

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