Top spellers prepare to crown national champion, from home

NEW YORK -- Like dozens of other veteran spellers in their final year of eligibility, Anson Cook had big plans for this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 13-year-old eighth-grader from Potomac, Maryland, was a two-time participant in the bee, and last year he finished in a tie for 41st. His objective was to make it into the top 12 or so who participate in the prime-time, ESPN-televised finals.

“My goal for 2020 was to make it to the finals of Scripps. After the cancellation, I was like, ‘What do I do now?’ And now I've achieved that goal,” Anson said.

He reached his goal by becoming one of the 16 finalists in the SpellPundit National Online Spelling Bee, a new event created by two teenage ex-spellers to fill the void left by the cancellation and give eighth-graders one last chance to compete. The National Spelling Bee has always been limited to kids in middle and elementary school, and Scripps has said it will not extend eligibility to allow ninth-graders to participate next year.

The SpellPundit bee, with spellers competing from their homes over Zoom, concludes Thursday night, the same time the Scripps winner would have been decided. The champion receives $2,500, a pittance compared to the National Spelling Bee’s first prize of $50,000, but worth a middle schooler’s time and effort all the same.

Most of the spellers who would have been favorites at the national bee quickly signed up, including the top three still-eligible finishers from last year. The bee pronouncers and judges are all recent ex-spellers, including Naysa Modi, the 2018 Scripps runner-up, and Sohum Sukhantankar, one of last year's eight champions.

Yes, eight: Last year's Scripps bee ended in an eight-way tie when organizers ran out of words difficult enough to challenge the best spellers. SpellPundit co-founder Shourav Dasari pledged that would not happen with his bee, and so far the words have been plenty tough. In a semifinal round on Wednesday night, six out of seven competitors spelled their words incorrectly, forcing a tiebreaker among the six who missed to fill three spots in the finals.

Scott Remer, a private spelling coach and author of the book “Words of Wisdom: Keys to Success in the Scripps National Spelling Bee,” said he was impressed with the SpellPundit word list because it has been consistently tough enough to knock out some, but not all, spellers in a round.

“Every year as I tutor kids I'm constantly finding new words, not just new words but new words that are difficult, have interesting definitions, are an appropriate length — words that are perfect spelling bee words,” said Remer said. “I don't think the problem is that those sorts of spelling bee words don't exist.”

The semifinal rounds of the SpellPundit bee ran relatively smoothly on Tuesday and Wednesday, aside from the occasional audio glitch. And the organizers were accountable for their shortcomings — when they failed to give one of two languages of origin to Atman Balakrishnan, he appealed and was granted a new word. He misspelled that word, too.

Because there is no way to guarantee spellers aren’t cheating, the bee is operating on an honor system. Spellers are instructed to be alone in a room with only a laptop or desktop computer and to keep their hands in view of the camera while spelling. That requirement led to some odd body language, with many spellers adopting a pose of surrender with hands up and palms forward.

Anson said spellers are accustomed to being ill at ease.

“It is uncomfortable,” he said, “but I don't think it's any more uncomfortable than standing on a stage in National Harbor with hundreds of people in the audience.”

Some eighth-graders, their parents and other supporters are not giving up on the dream of competing in the real National Spelling Bee, which is held at the National Harbor complex just outside Washington. They have tried to pressure Scripps to extend their eligibility or host an alternative bee with an online petition, an op-ed published in The Guardian and television appearances.

Scripps has been noting the achievements of eighth-graders by posting their accomplishments on the bee website and heralding them on social media and YouTube. The gestures hardly filled the void of Bee Week, an immersive, exhilarating experience for spellers and their families that many describe as a highlight of their young lives.

Kimmie Collins, an ex-speller who had planned to volunteer at the bee this year, summed up the feelings of loss in a letter to spellers she posted on social media.

“I couldn't wait to meet you all, to be amazed at how brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous you are,” Collins wrote. “For the last four years, I've been yearning to feel that same electricity as the Maryland Ballroom during the Championship Finals because nothing can compare to the camaraderie felt on that night.”