Test to break spell­ing bee ties

Results re­vealed only if nec­es­sary to set up drama

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY BEN NUCKOLS

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 prime-time 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 the Gay­lord Na­tional Re­sort and Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Na­tional Har­bor, Mary­land. 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 will 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 eighth 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,” Mr. 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 pre­de­ter­mined 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 also were given the dis­cre­tion to ad­just the dif­fi­culty of those words on the fly. Those rules re­main in place.


Vanya Shivashankar (left) and Gokul Venkat­acha­lam shared the Scripps Na­tional Spell­ing Bee ti­tle in 2015. To avoid a tie, the top spell­ers this year will sit for a writ­ten tiebreaker test be­fore be­gin­ning to spell words in the prime-time fi­nale. The results will be re­vealed only if two or three spell­ers get through the fi­nal rounds un­scathed.

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