If I had known when posting my application form that involving myself in Countdown would change so much of my life, I'm not sure I would have had the bottle to do it. As it happened, the catalyst was a special episode broadcast between two 'starlets' - Austin Shin and Beth Sutton - around that time. I realised that I could beat my peers (albeit from the comfort of bed, with a lax dictionary), and that was a good enough indicator that I should act upon what I had said to my granddad a few months before: "I might apply to go on this in a little while". So I did post the application form, and the next Saturday I had notification of my audition.
That was the week when I finished noting down scores in my little A6 notebook. The early games in it are pretty ridiculous. I started taking notes during Series 52, and I managed to beat most of the contestants (exceptions being along of the lines of John Hunt, John Gray, Steven Moir, Mark Tournoff) with the help of a fair deal of cheating. I was only cheating myself, obviously, when I allowed words like 'aryens' (bastardization of Aryans???), 'reloans' (twice in one game!), 'unplaster' and 'palsey', but I'm sure it felt good at the time.
The audition came around quickly: late summer in a small hotel suite with no windows (the sort of place I feel like I might die in one day) along with six other nerds and a Countdown researcher - Marie Wale I think. It was a fun day, going up to King's Cross and back - missing double History to pursue my dream of national stardom. The audition was up-and-down. I started with a six that I can't remember, missing 'emphatic' for eight. Only one person in the room got it, and it was Jane Hoskyn, who would go on to post the highest losing score of the series against Chris Hunt. Life went on, and a few rounds later me and a few others were declaring 'policeman' for nine. The form continued: I beat the room with 'unroped', and nailed the three numbers games at the end.
I really had no idea how I did. I was confident that I had beaten everyone else in the room but had been reassured that this didn't mean anything, as is logical. I got a bit of an adrenaline rush from this, so when I got home I had a shower and went into school to catch the second half of double History. No idea why I did that.
Anyway, on that journey home I decided I would search the Internet for Countdown. The Hammersmith and City Line leg of the journey was a happy one. I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it before - merging my two favourite things: the Internet and Countdown. The search proved fruitful, and I ended up a member of the now extinct Yahoo! Group, 'gevincountdown'.
Eventually I made my way over to c4countdown, and immersed myself in past and future Countdown legends like Kirk Bevins and Conor Travers. It turns out that Conor auditioned on the same day as me, in the same place! He would later go on to achieve notability of some form, despite being hideously ugly.
I loved the community's atmosphere, got everyone's MSN address and never looked back. The part played by the c4countdown community in my Countdown experience was paramount. On a simple level, we played plenty of games over the Internet so I got lots of practice and learnt new words (the first games I remember playing were against Conor. We played each other, in short versions of the game, and in six letters rounds I didn't manage to score a point). I was given a source of motivation when I heard about the greats - Julian Fell, Harvey Freeman, Scott Mearns - I wanted to be one of these, and to achieve notoriety amongst people who shared my own passion. And even more than that, I got help from Soo Reams who wrote a few programs for me to practise with in return for sexual favours.
It was discussion with these people that led me to learn the methodology laid out by Jerry Humphreys on picking "four from the top" in the numbers game. The basic theory is that you can use particular rules and techniques for the four large numbers which your opponent will likely not know so as to press home the numerical advantage. The methods are ridiculously daunting for a newcomer like I was, but I persevered with my ultimate ambition of becoming the next Julian Fell, and I set up a practise spreadsheet with random small numbers and target. I would go into the library of a school morning, print out a hundred problems on ten or so pages, then do them before registration. After school I would go and print another wad and do them at home. Soo Reams doesn't believe me, but I reckon I managed to do about 10,000 problems in total over a five or six month period, and it would go on to pay off in one of my heats; more of which later.
Anyway, recordings. I got my recording date and it was late January, but I was the very last game in a block of recording - if I won I would have to return in March. So I went up to Leeds on my own (it's my own adventure, p**s off Mum), and spent some of the most boring nights of my life there. Seriously, aspiring contestants, take something to do. Take money and buy some porn from the hotel TV, because if you don't you might end up spending three nights showering for entertainment. Yes, some of the most boring nights of my life, and some of the cleanest.
When I went to the studio I heard about Tanmay Dixit, a very young boy who won a couple of games the day before. He got plenty of press attention for it, as well. There were a lot of people in the YTV reception and they seemed a bit bemused that I was there on my own. Anyway, some nice people ushered us all through to the green room (now red) and briefed us on all the mandatory Health and Safety stuff. After this I hung up my shirts in the dressing room and the wardrobe lady came and disallowed a mental Hawaiian shirt that I took as an afterthought. I later wore it in the "hot seat", a now defunct feature that only really exists to intimidate the next day's contestant. A few hours later, I was there muttering some stupid words to Whiteley in my first ten seconds of fame. After that it was time for food in the cafeteria, which as it happens is really nice; nicer than my school one at least. I ate alone; most of the other contestants were 40+ and I was a mere fifteen. They didn't care about the Power Rangers and I didn't care about weak bladders, so we shared no common ground.
Soon enough though it was time for me to change shirts and get the show on the road. At this point I was not just shaking with nerves, but convulsing. Once I stepped into the studio though, it was like everyone who worked for YTV was there solely to calm me down. I was ushered into my seat alongside a nice guy called Steve Smith, and we were miked up. Whiteley and Vorderman came in and warmed up the crowd, while Susie Dent (the star of the show in my eyes) made her customary understated entrance to the studio. A few more angst-ridden minutes later and the theme music was running, applause, and then we were on. I can't remember what happened until the first round, where I got the eight 'watering', but Steve missed it. I blanked in round two, missing 'cattle', but won round three with 'triplane' and round four with 'toxins', though missing 'oxidants'. I ended up the first half in the lead 32-16, and all the nerves were as good as gone. In fact, I relaxed, and didn't play particularly well at all for the rest of the game. Still, I ended up winning by twenty points despite fluffing the easiest conundrum ever, failing to transpose one letter of the scramble 'tinclemen'.
And that was it, I was Countdown champion. I don't remember feeling particularly elated at all, but that could have been because I had another crap night (three more showers) and a six-hour journey the next day to look forward to. A week later, I attended the very first congregation of the online Countdown community - an event named COLIN (COuntdown in LINcoln) organised and hosted by Ben Wilson. It was here where I met the people I aspired to be: Tom Hargreaves, Stewart Holden, Chris Wills, Kirk Bevins. I ended up playing averagely and coming about twelfth, but I got a teapot for finishing highest of people who had not yet appeared on the show (I was a marginal member of this group).
The second batch of recordings rolled around pretty soon and I made the familiar journey up to Leeds. I got there the night before and had a customarily high number of showers and a Pot Noodle. Next morning I went up to the studios - the same routine as before, and before I knew it I was sitting in the champion's chair next to Nicholas Owen and Susie Dent, ready to face Peter Wallis. I had another strong start, winning the first round with 'enactor' and, despite a couple of slip-ups, managed to pull away with 'astroids' and 'fairest'. I was unassailable by the conundrum, but I got 'radiation' in four seconds anyway.
Next up was a quiet Scottish chap called William Moore, and despite not seeing 'loricas' in round one, he managed to get a lead through 'enables' and 'juniors' in rounds two and three. This would be the only time I was trailing in the heats, and I managed to stay focused and hit straight back with a nine, 'tampering'. It was a great feeling, which was equalled a round later when I managed to go up to 9,100 and back down to 364 in a four large numbers game. A few rounds later I was celebrating again with 'redacting', which William didn't get. I got a bit carried away and tried 'entrailed' in round twelve, but it was disallowed by Susie (it's valid in Scrabble, and is also in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary of English - pfft). Still, I had won quite comfortably even before I managed to unshuffle the conundrum, 'colliding', in one second.
My favourite opponent of the heats was Ola Odutola, a broadband support worker or something, who I still play Scrabble with from time to time. He was probably one of the better opponents as well, though the 102-46 scoreline didn't reflect his quality. At the end of the first half I was winning 39-7, with a little help from the aforementioned defining Countdown moment for me. In round five I picked the trademark four from the top, and two small numbers - they were 25, 50, 75, 100, 1 and 10. The target was 813. Quite quickly I managed 811 by ( 75 + ( 100 + 50 / 25 ) ) x 10 + 1, and as an afterthought I tried one of Jerry's techniques, and the least useful: the rule of 937.5. The rule itself is simple enough: ( 75 x 25 ) / ( 100 / 50 ) = 937.5; its application in this case was rather more difficult. Nevertheless I saw it, declared 813 (I could tell Carol didn't have it) and did (Carol's comments paraphrased in brackets):
75 - 10 = 65. ( " Yeeees... " ) 65 x 25 = 1625. ("Hahaha... what next?") 1625 + 1 = 1626. ("What!!!") 1626 x 50 = 81,300. ("LOLOL" - she was in hysterics by this point) 81,300 / 100 = 813.
Took her a while to check it, but it's right. Another one-second conundrum later I was on four wins, and in cruise control with back-to-back centuries.
That afternoon I extended my record to six wins, and four consecutive centuries. They had students in the audience, and a few of them seemed to like me from what I could gauge afterwards, though I think I was a bit of a twat. Perhaps it was because of my age. Everyone loves to see a youngster winning, as in the case of Tanmay Dixit and since, Conor Travers; I don't think it was as pronounced in my case though, because even though I'm only a year older than Conor, I'm three feet taller, not to mention eighteen times sexier. Speaking of which, come finals time, Whiteley mentioned that I had "had a lot of fan mail". For the curious, "a lot" consists of a fourteen-year-old bisexual girl and some other girl who I've spoken to once since. And not to mention, some bloke on the 365 bus who asked me, "How did you feel when Richard Whiteley died?" How do you think I felt, you bloody idiot? So yeah, who said Countdown isn't glamorous?
The next day I managed to get 114 points before retiring on a sub-century score of 94 against the charming Gary McEnaney, who pipped me to the conundrum 'centipede', which is tough, so well done to him. In spite of that, I was an octochamp and would be returning for the series finals as a high seed (eventually three). This was where the elation set in. In the shower that evening I thought, "I'm an octochamp" so I had a little dance (no music), and decided that I would bring a guest to the finals so I would have someone to dance with.
In school the week when my shows were aired I got a frank chat from the head teacher, Mr. Smith (who would later be a part of the cash-for-peerages scandal), which was nice. I also got my picture in the local paper (adjacent to another article, headlined 'GOAT ALIBI IN COURT') and even the Daily Express, who contacted me through the school - the article was full of fabrication, of course. To my delight they mentioned the above numbers game but claimed that I "sat back after three seconds and watched the clock tick by" which just isn't true. I guess worse lies could've been printed; I should be grateful they didn't dig up the details of my affair with Carol Vorderman.
For the finals I took Gary Male, a Series 51 semi-finalist and general good guy who now owns the c4countdown group. I fell asleep in the hotel room when I was supposed to be meeting him but he didn't mind, and we played lots of Scrabble. He won most of them. I think we saw a few other finalists in the hotel lobby that evening but I'm not too sure.
One place I definitely saw them was the green room the next morning. I was up third, and after a couple of close games it was me and Judith Young, the only female octochamp since like, ever. The game was pretty unspectacular - I went ahead with 'poxiest' and 'mikados' but was pegged back by 'fannies'. I extended my lead with 'encodes' and a numbers game where I got up to 5075. Missed 'searched' and the conundrum, but it didn't matter: I was through to the semi-final with a 90-74 win.
My opponent would be John Mayhew, a Scrabbler who had produced some good performances in his heats despite not being particularly well-received on the forum, or within my family ("he's cocksure", insisted my nanna). Still, I didn't mind him, but I didn't fancy my chances in a game of Countdown. I won the coin-toss for the advantage of two numbers games, and the next morning we were going at it. Five draws later it was the end of the first half and the score was 36-36; I was happy with this, because I had a potential 20 points to come with the numbers games. I didn't risk 'profaned' in round six which would've bagged me an eight point lead, so I decided to go for it in round nine with 'likable', which after some initial negativity Susie allowed. An impossible numbers game saw me extend my lead with seven more points. I was fourteen ahead with five rounds to play, and after that I can't really remember anything happening, but I know what did - I missed 'inshore' and 'theorems' and suddenly I was a point behind with two rounds to go.
At this point I guess everyone expected me to pick four from the top and get back into the lead, but I didn't. In practice I was susceptible to missing the odd easy four from the top game, and in the situation, the only way I would not be on a crucial conundrum was if I lost the round by ten. So I stuck with one from the top. I didn't consider that the conundrum might go unsolved, as it eventually did, after we drew the easy one from the top game.
So I was out. I had a genuine feeling that the staff and crowd were going for me, and I had let them down. I was pretty angry with myself for losing my concentration in the third half, and squandering a great lead. I was a bit light-headed for a while after; I couldn't really believe I'd messed it up, but my spirits were lifted after the grand final (Mayhew went on to win: losing to the eventual winner is no consolation) when Damian promised I would be back for a Champion of Champions tournament.
Of course everything didn't run smoothly; the opposite. To everyone's surprise Richard Whiteley died during the airing of the finals. I can only reflect the sentiments of everyone else in saying how excellent a presenter Whiteley was, and what a privilege it was to work with the great man. He is missed.
When things were back to normal, though, with Des Lynam as the presenter, Damian fulfilled his promise and I was invited back to participate in what would prove to be the greatest exhibition of Countdown skill ever. I was due to play Jack Welsby, a semi-finalist in Series 52, a series of far higher quality than my own. This time Gary Male was participating, so the space of guest was free. I decided to take my two best friends, Katie and Liam, and we shared a double bed between the three of us all week. This was far more entertaining than showering, and indeed Scrabble with Gary. Sorry Gary.
The whole Champion of Champions experience was brilliant for me. From the moment I walked into the reception of YTV to the moment Paul Gallen solved 'pepperoni' to lift the cup I was having a brilliant time. Meeting the legends from before I started watching that I had heard so much about (Chris Cummins, John Davies), and those that I had admired from home (Mark Tournoff, Paul Gallen) was a really exciting experience, even without the added interest of some potential games of Countdown. The defining moment of CoC for me (and probably some others) was before recordings one morning when the bunch of us were sitting around the green room TV with nothing to watch but Pingu. I don't want to get sidetracked by its intricate plot, but this is basically what happened: Pingu gets pooped on by a pigeon, and he says "NOOT NOOT" because he is angry; then he gets pooped on by the same pigeon, so he says "NOOT NOOT" because he is angry; then some mental lobster tries killing the pigeon, but Pingu is all "NOOT" and saves the pigeon's life; then the pigeon poops on Pingu again, and Pingu says "NOOT NOOT". Perhaps it was the comic relief of a high level of tension that caused us all to laugh so hard, but I think it's probably just how funny the script was, and how funny it was that the crème de le crème of Countdown ability agreed.
So it was me and Jack Welsby squaring off in the first round of the Champion of Champions. I had a brilliant start, spotting 'seaboard' straight away and relaxing for 25 seconds before realising that there is no 'd' in the selection. So what do I do? Yeah, I offer a word with a 'd' in that is shorter than Jack's 'amoebas' anyway. Things went from bad to worse in round 9, after seven equal rounds, when I missed 'senarii', a word which I knew. Still, in round 10 I pulled myself back into it with a four from the top numbers game, missing the target but being closer than Jack. Carol showed the way, and I was beginning to regret not practising enough - it was the first time Carol had beaten me on a four from the top numbers game. In round eleven I missed 'tautened' and 'talented' - I kicked myself under the table and uttered some swear words under my breath, which Des heard and was much amused by.
The moment I regret most occurred in the following round. We both missed the relatively easy nine 'prospered', both opting for 'reposed'. But I had 'preposed' written down, bottling out at the last minute - turns out it is valid. The more I think about it now, the more I think I can remember having seen it somewhere, though that could be just a trick of the mind. Nevertheless it cost me, because I was unable to take advantage of my last numbers game (Carol beat me again, grrr), and despite seeing 'profanity' in a second, lost by five points.
And that was it for me and televised Countdown. I'm glad I lost to Jack, though, because I would've been furious to lose against someone who wasn't better than me, and I didn't play terribly in that game. Still, if you lose, it's not the winning that counts. Anyway, it's not over: I still play a lot of Countdown online and in unofficial tournaments.
If you haven't applied yet, then I would advise you to wait until you feel you are good enough to reach the finals before you do so. Ratings are up since Lynam took over, so Countdown is going nowhere: you have all the time in the world to become good at Countdown, so make the most of it, and you will ultimately make the most of your Countdown experience.Jon O'Neill
[This article has been amended in order to remove contentious material. The Countdown Page apologises for any offence or damage that has been caused as a result.]