The 92nd Scripps National Spelling Bee

The “Octochamps” of the 92nd Scripps National Spelling Bee pose with their trophy Photo: D3S_6985 by ScrippsBee © | CC BY-NC 2.0

What happens when a competition miscalculates its contestants’ intelligence? In this infographic, Kate Sammer illustrates how an eight-way tie turned the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s world upside down.

Kate Sammer and Savannah Beck

All competitions are founded on the assumption that participants will mess up – yellow cards, own goals, and false starts can determine the outcome of a game. The fewer mistakes a participant makes, the higher the reward. And oftentimes, the most perfect player wins the match. In the event that there is more than one perfect player, there is usually a contingency plan: an overtime round or a tie-breaker. But what if none of the competitors buckles under pressure?

Some competitions are more stringent than others, cultivating participants that rarely make mistakes. Spelling bees, for instance, are particularly unforgiving. You spell “Weimaraner” as “Whymeraner,” and you’re not just at a disadvantage against your opponents – you are out. Perfectionism is the standard in the world of competitive orthography, and anything less is unacceptable. So naturally, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the Wimbledon of spelling, is the most cutthroat championship of them all.

“They beat the dictionary. That was their opponent. Not the other spellers. They deserve to win.”

Matt Barrie, ESPN Sportscaster at the 92nd Scripps National Spelling Bee

Every year, hundreds of young spelling enthusiasts make the pilgrimage to the Scripps tournament in National Harbor, Maryland to put their skills to the test. Contestants compete in a series of rigorous rounds over the course of several days in hopes of qualifying for the finals, which are broadcast live in primetime on ESPN. Then, the ten to sixteen remaining finalists spell away under the spotlight until a lone winner has been crowned – or the list of words is exhausted.

In 2019, sixteen orthographers made it to the final round, including seven second-time finalists and two third-timers. After three relentless hours, the judges were forced to declare an unprecedented eight-way tie between Rishik Gandhasri (13), Erin Howard (14), Saketh Sundar (13), Shruthika Padhy (13), Sohum Sukhatankar (13), Abhijay Kodali (12), Christopher Serrao (13), and Rohan Raja (13). Some have argued that the eight-way win was only possible because the word selection wasn’t challenging enough. I’d like to hear those people spell “auslaut,” “erysipelas,” “bougainvillea,” “aiguillette,” “pendeloque,” “palama,” “cernuous,” and “odylic.” The words weren’t too easy – the kids were just too dang smart.

So, the tournament that relies on human fallibility made a pretty big mistake of its own by severely underestimating its contestants. In the end, each “Octochamp” took home $50,000 in prize money – a sum normally reserved for a single first place winner. Well done, kids.

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