With Scripps National Spelling Bee canceled, ex-spellers launch their own bee

With this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee canceled because the coronavirus pandemic, an online spelling bee launched by two Texas teenagers is offering a consolation prize of sorts, with competitors nationwide including many of the kids who were considered favorites for the Scripps title.

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The SpellPundit Online National Spelling Bee will be contested the same week as the Scripps bee was scheduled this year, concluding on May 28, with a similar format of a written spelling and vocabulary test followed by oral spelling. The champion will receive $2,500 — far short of Scripps' $50,000, but clearly worth a middle-schooler's time and effort.

More than 200 spellers have already registered, including the majority of still-eligible spellers from last year's top 50 at Scripps. And the creators are confident that, unlike Scripps last year, they'll end up with a single champion.

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"Obviously I don't think we're going to replace Scripps. We're not going to get on ESPN any time soon," said 17-year-old Shourav Dasari of The Woodlands, Texas, who founded SpellPundit with his 19-year-old sister, Shobha.

The Dasaris, both ex-spellers, decided to host a bee when it became apparent that Scripps would likely postpone or cancel. Scripps considered reworking its bee into an online event but on Tuesday announced its conclusion that going virtual would be too difficult logistically and would not be true to the spirit of its live, in-person competition.

SpellPundit is counting on the honor system to make sure spellers don't get outside help from other people or devices during the competitions. Webcams will continuously record the spellers' movements, and they'll be disqualified if they appear to seek some unfair advantage.

Shourav Dasari also thinks they can improve the bee by producing one clear winner. Last year's Scripps bee ended in an unprecedented eight-way tie, and most of the so-called "octo-champs" were subscribers to SpellPundit, which offered a money-back guarantee if Scripps used a word that wasn't in its study guides.

"Especially late in the championship rounds last year, a lot of the words were really easy," Shourav said. "They had been repeated in bees before, and they're on lists that basically every speller at that level has studied 20 to 30 times."

The ability of the Dasaris, their students and other top spellers and their personal coaches to crack Scripps' word lists led to complaints that the bee was broken. Scripps bee organizers said they were amazed by the depth of talent in last year's competition. The bee had to use its most difficult words just to narrow 50 finalists down to 16 — 13 of whom had used SpellPundit to prepare.

Shourav, a high school junior, and Shobha, who’s finishing her freshman year at Stanford, are devising their competition's word list themselves.

"There's a couple thousand words in the dictionary that every speller doesn't know. If you have a year to find a couple thousand words, as a bee organizer you should be able to do that," Shourav said. "We want to make it a very efficient bee and show that you can reduce it down to one (winner), because there's basically an inexhaustible list of words you have in the dictionary."

The SpellPundit bee offers at least some form of nationwide competition, especially for the eighth-graders who will miss out on their final chance at a national title with Scripps, which has restricted its bee to elementary and middle-schoolers since it began in 1925.

Some parents of eighth-graders are imploring Scripps to find a way for their kids to compete after devoting years of their lives to spelling. A change.org petition started by coach Sylvie Lamontagne calls for Scripps to make ninth-graders eligible for next year's bee. Others have suggested a smaller, invitation-only event for this year's top eighth-graders.

"I don't think there really is anything that can substitute for the feeling of actually competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee," said 14-year-old Navneeth Murali of Edison, New Jersey, who was among the favorites for this year's title.

Navneeth plans to compete in the SpellPundit bee to see if he can add to a trophy collection that includes the North South Foundation bee, the South Asian Spelling Bee and the North America Spelling Champion Challenge.

Shourav is sympathetic to the eighth-graders' plight. He looked like the most impressive speller at Scripps in 2017 before bowing out in fourth place.

"Not knowing what you would have done is worse than actually participating and coming up short. I also think that they should probably get another year of eligibility," Shourav said. "It's kind of like the Olympics — even though it got rescheduled for 2021, everyone who qualified for this year's event should be able to go."

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