With this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee canceled because of 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.
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.
“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.”