(Reuters) - The field of competitors in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee has nearly doubled in recent years, thanks to a program that gives young prodigies an alternative route into an event that has captivated many spell-check-dependent Americans.
The bee, which begins on Tuesday in an auditorium outside Washington and ends on Thursday with a live telecast on ESPN, will test the spelling mettle of a record 565 young people, age 7 to 15. It is the second year in a row that the field has topped 500.
That compares with 291 spellers in 2017 and 280 in 2016, when the competition was mostly limited to the champions of regional tournaments.
While a handful of regions have traditionally sent more than one participant to the national contest, the new RSVBee program opens a door for dozens of others. It allows students who were not outright champions - those who won a school spelling bee, those who were a former national finalist and others - to apply. Bee organizers make the final decision.
It is a question of fairness, said Valerie Miller, a spokeswomen for the bee, which started in 1925.
“You might have just one speller who wins that region and advances, but there are many spellers who are good enough to compete at nationals,” said Miller. “There are just too many kids in that region.”
But there is a catch: RSVBee spellers have to pay their own way to Washington, including a $1,500 participation fee, which also covers two tickets to a kickoff event and two tickets to an awards banquet. In exchange, they get a shot at winning the grand prize of $50,000 this year.
Competitors who win regional competitions usually get a free ride, courtesy of a sponsor, often a newspaper, service club or community foundation, that covers the costs. But if local tournaments have no regional sponsor, the RSVBee program gives them a chance to go to Washington too.
Regardless of their route to the event, past champions have said the national contest triggered their competitive instinct, often stoked by losses in previous bees. Successful participants must spend countless hours memorizing esoteric words like “marocain,” which the 2017 champion spelled correctly to take top prize of $40,000 that year. (Marocain is a type of dress fabric of ribbed crepe.)
The same instinct has pushed many former bee participants through Ivy League universities and top medical schools, and into successful professional careers.
For proof of RSVBee’s potential, look no further than last year’s champion - Karthik Nemmani, who made it to the 2018 nationals through the program.
Nemmani, then 14, of McKinney, Texas, won first prize in May 2018 by beating the same speller who defeated him at his countywide bee just months earlier. That setback would normally have disqualified him for the national bee, but RSVBee gave him another shot, as long as he was able to pay for his trip.
In the event, he correctly spelled the word “koinonia,” meaning “a body of religious believers,” and claimed the national crown.
Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Susan Thomas