Kirk Bevins first appeared on Countdown back in 2004, but failed to win as much as a teapot, as he came up against Richard Pay, who was on his way to becoming an octochamp. Because he was just seventeen at the time, and because he had improved his game substantially in the intervening period, Kirk was allowed to return to the Leeds studios at the beginning of 2009 for another go. And, as they say, the rest is history... His preliminary run produced seven century scores, including a record-breaking debut score of 127, the legendary 'perfect game' with a total of 126, and a fantastic highest score of 130. This was enough to make him the number one seed, with an eight-game total of 925, surpassing the record held by Julian Fell since 2002 by a point. When he returned for the finals, the 'Kirkulator' (as he is known to his friends) knocked out number eight seed Julie Russell before going on to meet number four seed Neil Zussman, in what was to prove to be a classic Countdown encounter. The scores were tied for much of the game, and it took an outstanding conundrum spot from Kirk to seal his place in the grand final. The shocked look on his face said it all - but had he left enough energy in reserve for his game against number three seed Jimmy Gough? Seemingly, yes, as he soon pulled out a substantial lead over the young man from Eastbourne and was leading by 29 points by the start of Part Three. Kirk didn't manage to get the last numbers game spot-on, leaving Jeff to take the honours (or as Mr Stelling himself put it, "as they say, even the blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut."), and the conundrum was probably the hardest one ever, and left both players perplexed, but he still managed to score his eighth century in 10 matches and seal his place in the Countdown Hall of Fame. This, then, is the young man from York's story in his own words...
I first went on Countdown back in February 2004. Aged just 17 and full of nerves I faced Richard Pay. I lost and he went on to become an octochamp but was beaten in the semi-final by the series champion Stewart Holden. After my loss on the show I took Countdown more seriously. I thought I could get good at the game by practising and so I used all methods available to me at the time – various online games, the handheld game and I found a Countdown forum. I heard that they were holding some real life tournaments called COLIN and COBRIS where twice a year Countdown fans would meet up and have a tournament. I took part in most of these over the coming years playing against the top players every year. I still haven't won one of these but I've come so close and beating series champions with obscure words like VANESSID and TOWAIS is a nice feeling. What hit me though was another nice word I had, HAVELIS, which I thought would be a winner against Paul Howe but he hit me with the lovely 8, SHRIEVAL. I thought if I had any chance of winning these tournaments then I'd have to be utterly relentless, hitting maximums and memorising obscurities like SHRIEVAL.
Then, in the middle of 2008, along came Apterous. Apterous is a website designed by Series 59 finalist Charlie Reams where you can play the game of Countdown all day if you want, either against the computer or against human opponents. The beauty of Apterous is that it uses the same dictionary as the show and Dictionary Corner tell you all words of maximum length you miss to help you memorise them. A few hundred games later and SATORI, SCOTIA and AXONEME become the norm. It was around this time I kept detailed statistics against the contestants on the show, recording my scores against both champion and challenger and writing the words down in a book. With the help of a friend, Simon Myers, he created a spreadsheet to put this data in which gave me loads of statistics such as every possible octochamp run, highest octochamp total, average number of maximums per game etc.
Towards the end of 2008 I found out some very exciting news – I was allowed another shot on the actual show. I tried to keep this relatively quiet and this is where my practice regime hit full blast. I practised every day without fail, sometimes for many hours a day, memorising obscure words and writing them down to aid with the memory. I memorised more stems (such as INERTIAL + N = TRIENNIAL, INERTIAL + R = TRILINEAR etc) and used a program called Anahack (thanks Charlie) to practise spotting high probability 8 letter words that are deemed obscure, such as TOREADOR, DETRITUS and SERICITE. I also need to thank Simon at this point for his hard work in training me up, testing me regularly on words I'd miss often. It got to November 2008 and I wasn't sure when I wanted to go on the show – I didn't want to go on and lose my first game again. I had to make sure I was getting 14 or 15 maximums every game before I applied. Charlie persuaded me to apply now as that was a stupid mindset and he convinced me I was good enough to win 8, and possibly a series. I duly applied and got a phone call in December to ask me to come to some recordings at the end of January 2009 to film a potential run of 8. I was so excited – I now had a fixed date to work towards. In this interim period, I played a lot of 10 second rounds on Apterous as I found this not only gave you more rounds to practise with, it also trains you to spot words quickly giving you the other 20 seconds when you're on the show to look for something longer and more obscure. In December was the Champion of Champions competition which was to be filmed in the new studios with Rachel Riley and Jeff Stelling. One of the recording days fell on a Saturday so I took this opportunity and went to the studios to familiarise myself with the new set up.
January 26th soon came round and I travelled to Leeds with Simon Myers and met Charlie Reams in the hotel bar. We had some drinks (to help me sleep mainly) and practised Countdown and had a chat with a bloke who had just recorded and lost to an octochamp (who we found out the next day was Neil Zussman). Bedtime ensued and I slept like a log. I woke up feeling refreshed and excited but not sure who I was to play – at least I knew it couldn't have been someone with many wins under their belt as Neil had just finished his run of 8 a couple of games previously. In the waiting room in the studios I met the current champion, Ann Abel. She said she was a standby and had won two wins with a nine-letter word although she said she couldn't remember what it was (turned out she remembered later on – CREAMIEST). This made me happy as I was to play someone with a seemingly poor memory. Anyway, we were led through to the green room and all the usual TV stuff was adhered to (e.g. ironing shirts, clothes check, make-up etc.) and then it was straight out to the studio to play the game for real.
I felt no nerves sitting in the challenger's chair and was quite happily dancing along to the intro music – albeit sitting down. The game got underway and I went into a 7-0 lead with TOWNEES. I threw in a couple of obscure words such as VENDACE and PROSOMA along the way to try to scare my opponent and any potential future opponents. STUNSAIL, a nine-letter word SOLARISED and a sub-second conundrum followed meaning I had won with the scoreline 127-54. I had broken the highest challenger score! I knew this record was 124 held by Jonathan Coles and I knew I had to get a 9 in round 13 for it to be possible and out popped SOLARISED. What luck.
In game 2 I wasn't quite as sharp and I got beaten on my first round – a numbers round and Fiona Shaw mouthed "I beat a maths teacher" which got me stick at school. It was in this game that my strategy of offering the obscure word over the normal word in any given selection nearly didn't pay off – I had HEDARIM disallowed. Luckily by the end of the next round, Susie had found it nested under HEDER as it was the plural of that word. Phew. After she initially disallowed HEDARIM I got nervous and even after this show I was still nervous about my tactic of offering the obscure word. I finished the game 97-67 and this was to be my only sub-century score in my heats and it was also my lowest score, including the finals.
Game 3 is one of my favourites as I was playing a lad I had met on Facebook the week before on a Countdown group. I didn't know it at the time but I had achieved a perfect game, scoring 126 out of a possible 126. Highlights for me in this game include getting ALIBIED (as I'd learnt it the week before from Apterous), spotting ECOTAGE and my second nine DOGMATISE and also knowing the definition of my choice of word in round 13, NAIANT.
Game 4 is another classic where I played a quiz show veteran. If someone goes on many quiz shows that means, in theory, they probably haven't spent hours dedicating their life to Countdown study so although this knowledge of him appearing on 8 quiz shows initially fazed me, I relaxed quite quickly. I opened up the game with an 18-0 lead thanks to my third nine, PREDATION. The next round was a horrid set and I was beaten for the second time with the word BEHOVE which I'd never heard of. I then answered this with a lovely word DALASIS which I pronounced incorrectly as I didn't realise it was the plural of DALASI. After the break I nailed two more nine-letter words, REEDLINGS and UNCREATES, the latter I knew thanks to Paul Howe getting it on Apterous. Come the second break I was sat on 102 points – another record. Nobody had broken the 100 barrier by the second break before. I knew 146 was the highest score for a show on Countdown and I knew I could equal this with three 8s then 20 points from the numbers and the conundrum. This turned out to be impossible as I maxed the next 3 rounds with AIRDATES, OPACITY and WOOFER. I was sat on 123 points with 2 rounds to go. I knew if I got 20 points I'd have the second highest score ever. With Peter sat on 45 I thought he'd do the honourable thing and choose 1 large but he didn't – he chose 4 large. It was a tricky one and I got 1 away (Peter was 3 away) so scored 7 points. I needed this conundrum to still have the second highest score ever after the legend Julian Fell. I couldn't unscramble NUNGIRDLE (LUNDERING?) but Peter did in 17 seconds and offered UNDERLING to lose 130-55. This was to be my highest score and also the last time I was beaten in any round in the heats.
Games 5, 6 and 7 produced nothing spectacular apart from interesting words such as ETHMOID, OLEFINIC, LEUCOMA, TOWAI, TELEOST, HARELIPS, PEYOTE and PARGET and my quickest conundrum spot to date – spotting LAMINATED out of LATINDAME in about half a second.
So here we were – game 8. I was chuffed to be in with a chance of becoming an octochamp. I was playing 17 year old Rosie Owens. I knew I was sat on 811 points after 7 games and I needed 113 in this game to equal Julian Fell's record of 924 over 8 games. My target was of course to get 114 or more. The game started and the selections weren't too friendly but words like ESTOILE, OLEATE and URACIL helped me to a 36-13 lead at the first break. COPITAS and a few more words and a numbers game later and I was sat on 73-23 at the second break. I worked out I needed an average of three 7s then the 20 points for the record. I was aware I had played extremely safe throughout my run – not risking words which it turned out were OK on nearly every occasion and so I thought if I was to miss out on the record by 1 or 2 points I'd be kicking myself. After the break, I managed DEMINE out of a tricky selection which meant I needed an 8 and a 7 in the next two rounds to put me back on track. Luckily out popped GRANULES and RAREBIT and I was on 94 with two rounds to play. Would Rosie go 4 large and try to stop me or would she be nice and choose 1 large? She chose 1 large, for which I was extremely grateful as my nerves had now returned. The selection was really hard and somehow I managed to find a solution as 89x8. The score was now 104-31 and my hand literally shrivelled. It was as if I had pins and needles in it – I couldn't move it. I had to place my whole hand over the buzzer for the conundrum rather than just my fingers as I couldn't move them! It was a weird sensation. Anyway, GELDFLING was revealed and in 1 second I thought I had it – FLEDGLING – so I buzzed immediately and said the word, excitedly. Jeff confirmed it was correct and I sat back in my chair, extremely happy to have realised my efforts had paid off – I had got 925 and I was the new record holder. I was in my element and it was nice to sit having dinner having people come up to me and Charlie asking for our autographs. I knew I had to back this up come the finals though and there would be immense expectation and a lot of pressure on me to win.
After my run I found it hard to practise with the same dedication I had done beforehand but I was still playing on Apterous every day. If I wanted to be series champion though, it would mean I'd need to continue practising. A young lad called Jimmy Gough was practising a lot on Apterous and was about to film and Neil Zussman was also subscribed to Apterous and was practising ready for the finals. It turned out Jimmy won 8 shows too and was the number 3 seed (the same points total as Cate Henderson, the number 2 seed, but Jimmy only solved 2 out of 8 conundrums so he was seeded number 3) whereas Neil was the number 5 seed.
It was now April 21st 2009 and I was back in Leeds to film for the finals. There were 6 octochamps in Series 60 and the table was quite odd with myself being #1 seed with 925, the next 4 octochamps all being in the 700s and then the #6 seed, James Doohan, with 692 points. The #7 seed only had 4 wins and the #8 seed had 3 wins so it was quite an odd series to play in. I was playing a lady called Julie Russell (the number 8 seed) in the first quarter final. I was quite confident whereas Julie said she was feeling very nervous. I went 8-0 up with PARERGON beating Dictionary Corner although I had no idea what it meant. The game was then tied until I broke further ahead with MEDIANT and kicked myself for missing DEMENTIA. Then Julie just never let go and we tied on all the remaining rounds. By the end of round 12 I was 15 ahead and I was hoping for an easy numbers. She chose 2 large and the target was easy and I had been let off. The conundrum was academic but GONNALOAN was shown and within 1 or 2 seconds I managed to spot NONAGONAL. I offered the word but there was a long pause without Jeff confirming it. I thought I had made a mistake but it turned out that the music hadn't played at the same time the hand of the clock was moving. This had happened during a letters round in this game actually with the clock starting and the music kicking in after about 8 seconds – it was rather off-putting. This letters round had to be filmed again, with me and Julie pretending to think for 30 seconds and indeed the conundrum round had to be redone and I was asked to buzz on 1-2 seconds as before. Apparently I was slower the second time around by a bit and that's what you saw on TV but I felt it would be unfair to buzz even quicker the second time! I had won 115-90 and Julie had put up a massive fight. I hoped my semi would be a little easier... but that turned out not to be the case.
The semi-final was against maths student Neil Zussman. He told me when he went into the studio that he had never beaten me online which I didn't need to know as if he were to beat me now, when it mattered, then it would frustrate me even more. The game turned out to be a classic and is the game I remember most vividly. I was more nervous in this game as I knew Neil had been practising hard on Apterous and I really wanted to win and be in the final. ROTARIES and WAITER were my offerings in the first two rounds, equalling the lengths of Neil's words so the scores were 14-14. I pulled ahead with my spot of SUBSPACE in the next round and I held this 8 point lead until round 7. I found it much harder to play in the finals and I was struggling to find words which I wouldn't struggle with back home. In round 8 I had LITOTES for 7 and Neil declared "8... I think". His word was POLITEST and I knew it was in and congratulated him. He said he doubted it as I didn't declare 8! This was the fourth time I was beaten on a round in my stint on Countdown and it turned out it was the last. Dictionary Corner had TOILETS in that round and combined with DUNNIES (toilets) in the previous round it was only natural for Jeff to ask in round 9 if Dictionary Corner had found any other toilet related word. "Yes", they replied, "ANORECTAL for 9." I laughed thinking that was the quickest made up 9 ever but it turned out it is indeed valid! A great spot by Dictionary Corner. The scores were 67-67 at the second break and I knew this one was going to be tight. With no disrespect to my other opponents, I'd never been pushed like this before. Neil declared a risky 7 and as I only had a 6 I had to risk a 9, JAMBORIES. Turns out it's spelt JAMBOREES and this was to be my only disallowed word on my run on Countdown. MENUDO and TENON later and the scores stood at 78-78 after round 13. I got nervous again. Neil mentioned to me that it would be a crucial conundrum now whatever happened, which I hadn't noticed. I'd always hoped my word power would help me avoid crucials and it had stood me in good stead so far but this was to be my first crucial conundrum on TV. Neil chose 2 large and an easy target was produced so the scores were 88-88 with the conundrum to play. I remember talking to myself inside saying "come on – just concentrate – just get this". I remember Jeff bigging up the occasion and I remember the lights dimming as it was a crucial conundrum. The screen in front of me was much clearer now with less reflections and I just stared at the board, waiting for it to revolve. AMSPECIAL was revealed and instantly I saw ECLAMPSIA. I pressed my buzzer, Jeff confirmed I was right, and I had won. Just. 98-88. Neil was devastated. I was speechless. I felt tears start to well up in my eyes as I had resigned myself to defeat and couldn't believe I was still in the competition. This was the best game of Countdown I had played in and I will never forget those closing moments and the feelings.
The next semi was played straight afterwards and it was a good job as I returned to the audience and I couldn't concentrate. My hands were still shaking and I was still in shock I had scraped through. Neil returned to the audience too and he was given a round of applause but he still looked devastated. I can only imagine what tension there was in the audience watching it as I'm sure they could see the tension on our faces on screen.
Jimmy Gough won this second semi-final and so the final was to be played next: Kirk Bevins vs Jimmy Gough. This was to be the last show filmed in the YTV studios so it was a momentous programme for another reason. This was to be my last Countdown episode for a long while so I tried to get some obscure words in when I could and I managed that with NEPETAS and NOUNAL before the first break. I was leading 38-32 but that was still too tight for me. Luckily for me, Jimmy didn't continue to push me hard and I beat him with CORONER and WAPITI and 824 and I was now leading 74-45 by the second break. All I needed to do was keep my focus in the final third and I was there – Series 60 champion. I felt ultra-relaxed after the semi and I think it showed. I offered METATES in the next letters round and beat Jimmy with SERVICE in round 13 to go 95-59. The title was mine. What I didn't realise was, at this point, I was on 13 maximums out of 13. I was on for the second ever max game and it was going to come in a final. I didn't know this of course and I went for 4 large as I'd always chosen 1 large throughout my run and wanted to finish my run with a clever 4 large solution I had learnt in practice. Turns out I couldn't use my tricks and I didn't get it spot on and the max game was off. The final conundrum was revealed and the scramble was ROVINGERA, in tribute to this being the last show in Leeds. I saw OVERGRAIN but knew this was nonsense and couldn't find the solution and neither could Jimmy. The answer was revealed as GRANIVORE and I was none the wiser – I'd never heard of it. I had won 102-59 and with it I had won Jeff and Rachel's first series and took home the Richard Whiteley Memorial Trophy as well as the complete set of the OED: 20 volumes of gold embossed and leather-bound dictionaries.
The presentation was made on camera and it was a great pleasure to hold the trophy, even if I wasn't sure whether I should hold it above my head for long or keep it low down. Jimmy was more than happy to be in the final and take home his £1000 and he was a good sport. Jimmy is one of the first people to be trained solely through Apterous practice and he managed to get to a series final which is a great achievement.
After recording had finished we went to the free bar and had quite a bit to drink and took some photos. I then went with the Countdown team to have a Thai meal somewhere in Leeds, complete with trophy, and it was a pleasure to sit on the same table as Rachel, Susie, Jeff etc. I left Leeds gone midnight, still drunk, and had to catch a train back to York knowing full well I had to wake up early in the morning and go to school and teach. It was hard coming back down to reality and it was hard keeping quiet about my success but I managed it – somehow.
My time on Countdown was awesome and a great experience and I'd like to thank the Countdown team for their hospitality and their general wonderfulness and I'd also like to thank Simon Myers for his time and effort in testing me and particularly Charlie Reams for creating Apterous as that gave me the platform I needed to practise hard and ultimately become series champion.Kirk Bevins