By Izzy Harris
Luke Johnson-Davies, a fourth-year Maths and Computer Science student at St John’s College, recently became the champion of Series 82 of Countdown. Following his victory, Profile spoke with Luke about his experience on the show, countdown expertise and his future plans.
Countdown is a long-running feature on Channel 4, first aired in November 1982. Luke explained that the show first captured his interest in 2013, saying: “My dad just put it on and I remember seeing a really good contestant and was really inspired. I already liked crosswords and word games so from there on out I started playing. My dad had a website where I could play a bit and I later found a server where all the best players played”.
This Countdown server was key to Luke’s practice and growing interest in the game, he clearly separates the playing of Countdown from the TV show after years of playing before applying. He explained: “I’d only ever been playing because I enjoyed it but, people really pushed me to apply. I always put it off because I thought that I wanted to get a bit better first and I was not that interested in going on the show. In the end, I thought – I am just going to apply, my interest in this game isn’t going to last forever and I might as well do it now while I’m still interested.”
He went on to describe his experience on TV, “the process went quickly when I was on the show, I’d already practiced for a few years and was already quite a good player. I went on and did my best, I was fairly relaxed when I was on the show. I think some really good players go on and they crumble but that didn’t happen to me thankfully.” Luke first applied in May 2019, auditioned a few months later and then filmed in two slots that were 13 months apart.
Luke explained how the gap between filming impacted him saying “One could imagine that I would have practiced a lot between the filming slots but, I didn’t actually play a whole lot. I was busy with Uni work and was trying to focus on other things.”
He went on to suggest that this may have been beneficial to him: “I generally play better when I have taken a break and then I come back. If you fixate too much on practising, then you burn out a bit. It helped me focus on other things in life which was beneficial. I would go away and get on with my life and then they would ask me to go back and film, I’d just say ok and go off to Manchester and film for a few days”
Luke also stated that the experience of filming the show was both fun and surreal. “It makes you realise that not all is as it seems when you watch the show. They film five episodes a day but you have to change outfits and they are all filmed three months in advance. At the beginning of every episode, Nick Hewer gives an anecdote about a day which is three months later. When we filmed the finals it was October but we were pretending it was Christmas, I accidentally wore a Halloween t-shirt, forgetting that it was Christmas momentarily.”
Manchester entered Tier 3 before Luke’s second filming slot, this meant that he was given a formal letter from the Countdown team to explain his reasons for travelling into the city. Luke described how Covid-19 impacted the filming as contestants and dictionary corner guests all had to be spread out in the studio, that there were many hygiene measures and that contestants couldn’t “hang about” for long after filming.
Another impact that Covid-19 had on Countdown was that there was only one new series of this year, and the longest ever. This meant that Luke had to overcome 183 contestants and eight octochamps in order to become the champion. This was no mean feat, and Luke explained his tactics saying: “I was hiding that I quite like the six small numbers strategy, I only used that in the final. In all my other games I used one large which is quite a normal easy strategy.” He then divulged that for the word round, in order to play within the rules of the game, you have to choose four consonants. He explained that he would always choose those first, followed by three vowels and then would be thinking about words already as he chose his final letters.
This tactic worked well in the final. “The final word I got that secured my win was quite nice, a useless word that no one ever uses, ‘maegbote’ some Anglo Saxon toll. I specifically picked a last vowel trying to get an ‘E’ so that I could get that word. Before you even pick the nine letters you are thinking, you get more than the 30 seconds of the round to find words because you can already start planning. After my first eight letters I was thinking that is almost ‘maegbote’ if I get another ‘E’ then I’ll have an obscure word that my opponent might not know, and I went for it and it happened. ‘E’ is the most common vowel, so it wasn’t a ridiculous thing to try!”
As Luke is a student of mathematics, I was surprised that he seemed to favour the words round, but said that “Generally, people who do maths actually don’t like the numbers round very much because they see that it is just arithmetic, it is quite basic and doesn’t have any deeper maxim going on. In the letter rounds it’s the whole English language up to nine letter words, then in the numbers round you are just doing a fairly arbitrary calculation not learning a language.” However, he did go on to state that although his vocabulary has improved because of the game he doesn’t often use many of his Countdown words in conversation “I sometimes think why am I learning these words? Half of the words’ definitions in my mind are: scores eight points on Countdown.”
The prize for winning Countdown is the Richard Whitely memorial cup and a full set of Oxford dictionaries. “I don’t actually have the cup, but they inscribed my name on it. They inscribe all of the series winners names, I held it for a few moments which wasn’t shown in the final. I do have the dictionaries now, they were delivered about a week ago. I also won a laptop, it used to only be the dictionaries but they added it as an extra incentive – maybe they were having trouble getting applicants!”
Although Luke was evidently very pleased to have won the show, his passion is clearly for the online Countdown community. He revealed that “These days I don’t actually watch the show, I find it a little dull. If you want to practice the game you can play one within ten minutes but the show lasts for 40 and they fill it with a lot of talking which I’m not too interested in. I generally only watch these days if there is someone really good on.” He does cite his inspiration for playing the game as coming from the show, stating that watching Giles Hutchings the winner of series 68 made him see the competitive side of Countdown.
Hutchings is also notably an Apterite, this means that he is part of the online Countdown community that Luke plays with. This group is sustained by the Apterous website set up by series 59 contestant Charlie Reams, before this website was set up people would play the game over MSN messenger. Apterous is key to how Luke became a champion in the game although, he did say that as well as online practice he learnt lists of commonly occurring words. Luke also explained that there are unofficial events run by the community that he will continue to attend, even if the Championship of Champions will be the last time he features on Countdown on television.
Luke explained how being on Countdown has had very little impact on his time in Durham, saying that a few people noticed that he was on TV when he posted about it on social media but, he supposed “I don’t think its something you can bring up very much saying ‘I like word games’. A few people have tried to play scrabble with me and it then became apparent that I knew some weird words.”
He went on to state “I think it’s the kind of show where you go on, you become a celebrity for a few moments (among a very specific community of people who watch Countdown), and then you just disappear into obscurity again. In my case, because I won a series maybe among elite fans I will retain some Countdown fame.” He also had an experience of being recognised from the show in the line to Klute!
Luke explained that Countdown is not his only interest and that he also enjoys gymnastics, badminton and plays snooker and pool for the University including in BUCCs tournaments last year. Luke describes his hobbies as being on a ‘turntable’ and he takes them all very seriously. In the past, he was interested in speedcubing – where participants attempt to solve a Rubiks cube as quickly as possible; he even took part in an official speedcubing competition.
After graduation, Luke wants to travel and is unsure of which career path he will follow. When asked about whether Countdown and his expertise with words and numbers would factor into his career, he said: “It’s a big hobby of mine, I have a vague idea that I want to create a word game app but that’s little more than an idea right now. I don’t know if word games will feature in my future other than as a hobby.” He has many ideas for projects, including starting up a YouTube channel, but beyond that, he has few plans.
Luke’s final advice for being a champion and octochamp on Countdown is as follows: “To be a champion these days the standard is pretty high so you need a few years of experience. I think it helps to have good pattern recognition, that’s something that a lot of the top players have that helps them. But I think that anyone can get good at anagrams. So it just takes a bit of time and passion for it.”
Luke’s winning final episode of Countdown, where according to Susie Dent he played the game with great “elegance”, is still available on All 4 for a limited time.
Image: Channel 4