There are spellers who pore over a new stack of photocopied dictionary pages every day. Some let tape recordings of spellings wash over them all night while they sleep. But the winning study technique that led 13-year-old Anurag Kashyap to the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship yesterday was a little more modern.
"I got quizzed by my friends online, we instant-messaged over and over again," said Anurag, of San Diego. After a year of online quizzing by a network of spelling bee friends from all over the country, Anurag won in the 19th round with a fast and confident spelling of the word appoggiatura.
All three of this year's finalists were in the finals last year. The impish Samir Sudhir Patel, 11, who giggled and wiggled onstage and blurted "Thanks, Mom!" or blew his parents a kiss after correct spellings, was participating in his third national bee. He said he'd take a couple of weeks off before he began studying for next year's.
After Anurag hefted the gleaming trophy overhead and told reporters that his parents are from India, an onlooker shook the proud father's hand and told him, "Did you notice all three finalists were Indian?" Anurag's father, Chandra D. Roy, smiled and nodded.
Organizers said they would not comment about nationalities, but spellers of Indian descent have become a force in the bee.
Anurag had a fan base of about a dozen other spellers -- from South Carolina, Indiana and California -- who spelled online with him for months.
"I always knew Anurag was very good," said George Hornedo, 14, of Indianapolis, who had studied online with Anurag since meeting him last year. "There are other spellers who look good on paper, but Anurag's really got it."
Anurag sobbed a bit after winning, then described the feeling as "ecstaticness" (not a word, according to Webster's New World).
The last four rounds of the bee were a dramatic battle among Anurag, 13-year-old Aliya Robin Deri, from Pleasanton, Calif., and Samir, from Fort Worth.
Aliya was deliberate about winnowing out spellings by working the etymology of the words, asking about Russian origin, Latin phrases and French roots. Her mother, Chandan Deri, couldn't stand the pressure and hid behind columns, a potted plant or doors each time her daughter was up.
The spellers train for months, sometimes years, vying for the top award of $22,000, a $5,000 scholarship, encyclopedias and a $1,000 U.S. savings bond. The spellers' support staff -- parents or teachers -- wait in the wings, laden with snacks, drinks of water and hugs or high-fives. Spellers' profiles are posted online with up-to-the-minute stats, and every move in the final round is broadcast by ESPN.
The official program highlighted spelling bee histories and hobbies including glockenspiel, tuba, en pointe ballet, Lego robotics and the care and feeding of nine pet pigeons.
It announced that the spellers included quiz bowl champions, chess club presidents and taekwondo black belts. There was also an organ player, a Valentine's Day queen, a unicyclist, a juggler, a stiltwalker and someone who created her own language, Islorien, which has more than 900 words and is spoken by her friends and family.
The spellers -- from many nationalities and ranging in age from 9 to 14 -- competed for two days at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Washington, throwing down words from gnotobiotic to nemathelminth and even sphygmomanometer. And those were in the early rounds.
Once eliminated, some met with a gaggle of reporters.
"I did have a poker face in rounds 4 and 5," said Jonathan C. Horton, a 12-year-old from Gilbert, Ariz., who was knocked out in the seventh round by fustian. "Then I got rattled in the sixth round."
After analyzing their losses, most went back to root for their favorites.
"Even gamblers should never bet on a spelling bee, because it can all turn in a moment," Jonathan said. But he was putting his money on Marshall Kelly Winchester, 13, an eighth-grader from North Carolina.
They watched in awe as Marshall smiled when rathskeller was lobbed his way. "Marshall loves German words," one of the onlookers said. They groaned when serang knocked him out in the 11th round.
When Samir quickly spelled cholecyst in the 10th round, one of the other spellers listened in wonder. "Samir is just crazy-good," she said.
There was commentary: "Of course the language of origin didn't help -- it was Japanese, and the words don't transliterate," spat Matthew Betley, 13, an eighth-grader from Lowell, Mass. "It was one letter I got wrong. It was that dreaded schwa sound."
When the giant letter "S" fell from the stage's background, teenage boys howled with delight. "Welcome to the Cripps spelling bee!" one said.
Except for Anurag, who, over the howling of the audience, coolly spelled exsiccosis.
Aliya Robin Deri of California made it to the top three yesterday.