Envelope, please! Spelling bee will use test to break ties

WASHINGTON — The Scripps National Spelling Bee is adding a new wrinkle this year in an attempt to stop a streak of ties for the championship.

This year, the top spellers will sit for a written tiebreaker test before they begin spelling words in the primetime finale. The results will be revealed only if two or three spellers get through the final rounds unscathed. The speller with the highest score would then be declared the champion. Only if the top spellers get exactly the same score will the competition end in a tie.

The bee has ended in a tie three years running. Last year's was the most improbable. The bee made the final rounds more than twice as long, with harder words, and two spellers still ended up hoisting the winner's trophy.

This year the top 10 or so spellers who make it to the final evening will have the written test added to their busy schedules. It will be taken in a small room away from the cameras, with 12 spelling words and 12 vocabulary words. The test will be similar to one that spellers must ace to get into the top 50 — except more difficult. Spellers' results will be sealed in envelopes that are opened only if necessary, setting up a potentially dramatic new end to the competition.

The new rules were shared with spellers and announced Tuesday by Scripps. Bee organizers made the change after considering feedback from spellers, sponsors, fans and ESPN, which televises the competition from its longtime venue at a convention center outside Washington. This year's bee will be May 30-June 1.

"There is certainly a point of view that the level of competition has risen to a place where we are likely to see more co-championships unless we further raise the bar," Paige Kimble, the bee's executive director, told The Associated Press on Monday, ahead of the announcement.

Tejas Muthusamy, who'll be competing in the bee for the fourth and final time this year, told AP he likes the idea of the tiebreaker test, but he's not sure others will.

"I actually perform better on tests than on stage. For me specifically, the rule change is really good," Tejas said. "If I end up tied with someone else, I'll still have a good chance of winning."

Before 1998, the bee had no formal rules for how to declare co-champions, and the only previous tie was in 1962. It wasn't until 2014 that it happened again, but no changes were made following that result.

In 2015, though, Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam — veteran spellers and pre-bee favorites — shared the title after plowing through the final words with ease. They are two of the many Indian-American kids who've come to dominate the bee over the past two decades.

With their mastery of Greek and Latin roots, top spellers — who can compete through 8th grade — have forced the bee to dig deeper into the dictionary every year.

Mirle Shivashankar, the father of Vanya and her older sister, also a bee champion, said he doesn't like the idea of the winner being determined behind closed doors.

"If that ever were to happen, that might not be the best scenario," Shivashankar said. "But I'm hoping, and I'm confident that the bee is going to be able to get a sole winner this year without having to use the tiebreaker."

Last year, the bee stopped using a pre-determined list of 25 "championship words" and instead declared that the top three spellers would have to endure 25 "championship rounds," meaning up to 75 words could be used. Bee judges were also given the discretion to adjust the difficulty of those words on the fly. Those rules remain in place.