Jason Golfinos ’17, second from right, with the Darwin College team and University Challenge host Jeremy Paxman
Courtesy Jason Golfinos

In the first 10 minutes of his debut on the BBC quiz show University Challenge, Jason Golfinos ’17 was on a roll, zipping through correct responses to questions about gemstones, Latin phrases, astronomy, and the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. But it was his perfect run on a string of three bonus questions about video games that caught the attention of host Jeremy Paxman.

Golfinos, a master’s student at Cambridge’s Darwin College, gave the answers without hesitation — BioShock, Portal 2, The Last of Us — and Paxman asked incredulously, “What do you spend your time doing?” Golfinos smiled and shrugged.

Afterward, The Times of London quipped that Golfinos was among the frontrunners in the new season’s “unofficial player charisma contest,” citing comments from admirers on Twitter who dubbed him a “quiz ninja” and compared him to Google in human form.

Golfinos, who led his Darwin team to a 260-90 victory over the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in a show that aired Aug. 13, had heard about University Challenge from Sam Moore ’19, a British teammate on Princeton’s Quiz Bowl team, and the Oxford students he’d met at tournaments in the U.S. But he didn’t fully understand the venerable show’s reach until after appearing on it.

“In the U.K., it’s an institution,” Golfinos said. “Especially with Twitter, apparently it’s developed a particularly large following. And I’ve never felt more justified in not having a Twitter myself.”

Golfinos, a master’s candidate in Cambridge’s Asian and Middle Eastern studies department, was busy completing his dissertation on political theory in the Islamic world when the episode aired. Passing through campus, he started hearing congratulations from other students, some of whom he’d never met, which he said was both flattering and a bit bizarre.

While the fame was new, his aptitude for trivia was well established. At Princeton, Golfinos competed for and helped run the University’s Quiz Bowl team. He also led Wilson College to victory in an inter-college competition as a sophomore (Jeopardy! College Tournament champ Terry O’Shea ’16 hosted the final, which aired on the campus TV channel).

Golfinos said that his master’s studies kept him from doing much preparation for University Challenge. He practiced with friends on the Cambridge Quiz Bowl team, where nearly everyone “is either on the same season [of University Challenge] with me, is trying to get on, or has been on.” But for the most part, he said, “I was just sort of coasting on what I accumulated through Quiz Bowl at Princeton and in high school.”

The 2018-19 series of University Challenge includes 28 teams from colleges around the U.K. and runs through April. When Golfinos spoke with PAW, he was at home in New York City, in a break between turning in his dissertation and taking oral exams. He said he’s preparing for his next move (law school, perhaps), working as a tutor, and, after completing a senior thesis and a master’s dissertation in the span of two years, “giving my brain a bit of a rest.”