In many ways, it was a typical suburban late-season Saturday morning tournament. Parents, some wielding video cameras, nervously eyeing the competitors. Coaches, arms crossed, pacing the sidelines. Youths, tension knitted into their faces, doing their best. There were trophies for the winners, medals for the runners-up and, for everybody else, conciliatory hugs from parents.

Only this was math, not soccer or Little League, and the playing field was a windowless room at George Mason University where 100 children spent yesterday morning battling for the right to be declared a champion of a mathematics game called "24 Challenge."

It is a deceptively simple game. A group of players is shown a card printed with four numbers. The first contestant to use all of the numbers once -- adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing them -- to come up with the number 24 keeps the card and the points on the card. The one with the most points after the entire deck of cards has been used wins.

It is a game of reflexes as well as brain power.


Sun-Young Chung, a sixth-grader and one of three competitors from White Oaks Elementary School in Fairfax County, stabbed three fingers down on the brightly colored card, with the numbers 7, 3, 3 and 5. She snatched it a split second before another child could, and then the numbers tumbled from her lips. She had 15 seconds to make her calculations and arrive at 24.

"Five times three is 15." She didn't have much time, and the words blurred together. "Fifteen minus seven is eight. Eight times three is 24."

The proctor slid the card over to her and placed another down among the four children hunched over the table, their fingers ready to pounce when they had the answer.

All around the quiet room, children from grades four through eight battled to touch the card first and then blurt out the calculation.

The game, developed in 1988 by the Pennsylvania company Suntex International Inc., is used to teach math concepts, problem-solving skills and logical thinking to fourth- through eighth-graders. In the last 11 years, the company says, 5 million students have played the game nationwide.

"It is a very simple concept that is not always easy," said Nan Ronis, director of the 24 Challenge program. The local competition drew participants who had won contests in schools in the District and Prince George's, Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

As the game went into the semifinals and then the finals yesterday, it got tougher. Children had to juggle as many as 12 numbers in their heads as they strove to add, subtract, multiply and divide them to come up with 24.

In the end, three Fairfax County boys carried the day. Haroon Chaudhary, a fourth-grader at Hutchison Elementary School in Herndon, took home the trophy for the fourth- and fifth-grade division. Tom Mildorf, a sixth-grader at Hollin Meadows Elementary School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, took his division, and Joo Kim, a seventh-grader at Holmes Middle School, triumphed in the seventh- and eighth-grade division.

"I'm shaking," said a smiling Joo Kim after he was handed his trophy. His grandmother, On Kim, cried, and his mother, Susan Saade, snapped pictures. Saade, who owns a defense contractor firm, said she gave all the credit to her mother, who cares for Joo Kim and his younger sister while she and her husband work.

Caroline Mildorf, Tom's mother, beamed as her son approached her, clutching his trophy and a hockey stick signed by the Washington Capitals, a sponsor of the event along with toy retailer Zany Brainy. Her son, Mildorf said, had vomited that morning, and they had sat outside the event room for a half-hour before Tom figured out he was well enough to play.

"I thought we would just come in and get a shirt," she said. "We didn't think he'd get past that -- and he won."

Mildorf offered to carry Tom's new stick or trophy for him, but her grinning son shook his head.

"I don't want to let go of either," he said.

CAPTION: In "24 Challenge," contestants have to use a set of four numbers printed on a card to come up with the number 24.

CAPTION: Christopher Vaccarello seeks a way to add, subtract, multiply and divide the numbers in front of him to get 24.