Mikhail Moon, a graduate of St Petersburg University and the possessor of a Crystal Owl, was one of this year’s most outstanding players on the What? Where? When? game show. In the first qualifying game of the winter series, he received a Crystal Atom as the best player in Andrei Kozlov’s team. During the final game of the season, host Boris Kryuk presented Mikhail with another award – the prize for the most memorable answer of the year. This was the perfect occasion to recall the interview that Mr Moon gave to the St Petersburg University magazine, in the course of which he explained how to concentrate when you need to come up with the right answer, which players should be on the dream team and what you need to know if you want to play What? Where? When?
Mikhail Moon graduated from St Petersburg University in 1996 with a degree in mathematics. He had started playing What? Where? When? in 1992, and five years later he became a member of the Elite Club. In 2002, he received a Crystal Owl, and in 2020 he was awarded a Crystal Atom as the best player in Andrei Kozlov’s team and also the prize for the most memorable answer of the year.
Do What? Where? When? and football have much in common? Can these two processes be compared?
Yes, they have a whole lot in common. Except that there’s nothing faster than human thought, so everything happens much faster at the game table than on the field. The most we can play is eleven rounds in a game, which means eleven minutes, and a football game lasts for at least 90 minutes, so for us the action is more intense. As a matter of fact, all cooperative games have much in common. And if you go on to antagonistic games, to those in which you have a rival, and separate out the class of cooperative games (because, after all, you can play with your opponent and one-on-one), then all cooperative antagonistic games will have more similarities than differences. In a cooperative game, success depends on the extent to which a team, by joining forces, is more than simply the sum of its participants or their individual criteria. And it seems to me that what all cooperative games are about is learning how to act effectively and trying to achieve more than if everyone acted alone.
Do the players in What? Where? When? have separate functions?
We don’t have a clearly developed theory of team building, at least not to the same degree as in football. There are a number of compulsory tasks that need to be performed when we take a question, and there are people who are better at dealing with them than others. One of the functions traditionally considered to be that of the captain is to choose the right version of the answer. It is better if someone does this authoritatively.
A team also has to answer the question that they have been asked, and no other. There are times when a team, having fully understood the gist of a question, gives an answer to a completely different one. And so there is such a function as ‘the question man’, whose job it is to make sure that people don’t forget what it is that they’re being asked.
There are also frontline players. Their job is to say the first thing that comes into their mind when a relatively simple question is asked, and it is often the right answer. But if all the members of a team are frontline players, then that team will never be able to handle a trick question, when you have to brush aside the first thought and dig deeper. In a good team, there are players who have nothing at all to do with hatching the first versions – for which there are the likes of Aleksandr Druz’, Maksim Potashev or Ilya Novikov – and they immediately start thinking ahead. But this doesn’t mean that the ‘frontline players’ answer only the easiest questions. It’s like in football: an attacker’s objective is to score goals. It’s impossible to say who is better, Kerzhakov the attacker or Anyukov the defender – they play different positions. Potashev and Novikov are very versatile players: they can field both easy and difficult questions.
So what is your function in the team?
Everybody thinks I’m intuitive. The thing is, we all look at the questions differently. Some logically, and others even aesthetically. I have my own tactics for working with a question. I assume that the person who wrote the question wrote it for some reason, and another person, the one who selected the question, put it on the table for some reason. I try to tap into the logic of the asker of the question and the logic of the editor. This is a rather uncommon approach, and most players use different ones. So, there are all kinds of functions, and the best team will be the one that combines them so that they don’t cancel each other out.
In the TV version, to what extent is the element of entertainment important? On the face of it, some people are just sitting at a table, thinking and talking, and nothing special is happening. But it’s very interesting to watch. When the teams are being chosen, do they take into consideration how interesting it will be to watch these people?
The founder of the game, Vladimir Voroshilov, used to say that he wasn’t interested in the game of questions and answers. What he was interested in was how a person would show their strength in an extreme situation and in a short period of time. In other words, the questions are needed only to create such an extreme situation. And it’s impossible to fool anybody on live TV, it’s impossible to play some kind of role. Live TV is such an ideal lens, through which each of us is seen for who we really are. That’s why people are chosen who will be interesting under such conditions, who will be able to open up and to create a special atmosphere. At the same time, there is a game here, in both a mathematical and, to some extent, a theatrical sense. We are chosen for how we behave in these circumstances.
Which questions are the most difficult?
Nobody is interested in trivia questions like, ‘What is the length of Canada’s coastline?’ No expert would accept such a question, and no viewer would be interested in seeing how it would be discussed. Questions are interesting when they give you an opportunity to guess the answer. It’s a useful function in a team to know how to turn a question on its head. Actually, questions are often simple and clear, and the asker of a question is trying to hide, to mask its simplicity. And if somebody can take it upon themselves to unmask the question, it’s a very useful function. Sometimes, after that there is nothing to think about. I, for one, like best the sort of questions that ask you to continue a quotation, so, in order to answer them, you have to think like somebody else. And it’s harder to play questions when there’s some strange object on the table and you have to figure out how to use it. I’m not interested in that.
Are there any professional secrets for how to concentrate and recall what you know right when you need to, given the level of stress? It sometimes happens that you go out of an exam, and BAM! it hits you: ‘Hey, I know that!’
The French have this expression ‘the spirit of the staircase’. It’s when, in the middle of a conversation, you can’t find the right words and arguments, but then, after it’s over, all of a sudden you think of good arguments and responses. This epiphany often comes to you on the staircase, on the steps that lead to the way out, hence the name. Sometimes the right answer comes to you in the 65th second, when, for example, the host finally asks a leading question, but it’s already too late.
Here’s a classic example: it’s the final round, and the score is 5-5. Elizaveta Ovdeenko is playing a superblitz and has already answered two questions correctly… To answer the third, she has to finish a phrase of Agatha Christie, an author whose biography and works Elizaveta knows very well: ‘Broken dishes bring happiness, but only…’
The first version that comes to mind is ‘to a crockery salesman’. Now, in a superblitz, you’re one-on-one with your first version, and there’s nobody you can discuss it with, so if you already have a version, it’s practically impossible to think up another one. Anyway, after her answer the host asks: ‘And what was Agatha Christie’s husband’s profession?’ At this point, it comes to Elizaveta in a flash: he was an archaeologist. And here, on live television, the whole country sees her strong and genuine emotions. It’s probably for this reason, for the sake of catharsis, that we need such a TV show.
I try to take a rational approach to life, so before a game I do simple things, which from a biochemical point of view will definitely help my brain to function: I try to go for a walk to saturate my brain with oxygen, and I eat some chocolate. It’s hard to say how much this has an effect on the outcome, but, in any case, it won’t do any harm.
How do you choose who is going to play a superblitz? Is it the one with the most luck on that day? Who does it best?
Nobody is any luckier than anybody else. In this respect, I’m a materialist. A superblitz is always three simple questions, which most people can answer correctly under normal circumstances. The thing is you’ve got to do it here and now, in this situation, and the captain gauges which of the players can do it better than the others. But there’s one more fine point – if this happens when the score is 2-1, for example, and there is still time to bounce back, then, in case of failure (and 90 percent of superblitzes are unsuccessful), they have to consider which of the players it won’t throw off stride.
The experience you’ve gained from What? Where? When?” – does it help in your work, or does it get in the way?
It cuts both ways. On the one hand, I’m used to thinking through problems very quickly. I get involved in something and start working straight away. But, on the downside, if I’m told, ‘Look, tomorrow we have some negotiations. Think about the what and the how,’ I can’t do it ahead of time, only here and now.
How have you learned everything that you know? Do you read a dictionary or encyclopaedia before bed? Or maybe thick literary journals?
Vladimir Voroshilov already answered this question. He said that a question should be such that to answer it correctly all you need to know is what you were taught in school. So, you simply have to do well in school and have a broad perspective, to be observant and try to see things that aren’t obvious. And for an expert to read an encyclopaedia at bedtime is more likely to be harmful. In and of itself, knowledge is self-sufficient. It does not allow doubt, and if there’s no doubt, then there’s no guessing. Knowledge rules out guesses. After all, you start guessing when you say to yourself, ‘I don’t know’. A good What? Where? When? game, as with scholarly thinking, begins when you understand the limits of your own competencies.
Read the full-length version of this interview in the St Petersburg University magazine.