In a finish unlike any other in the 94-year history of the event, the Scripps National Spelling Bee finished with eight spellers being named co-champions on Thursday night after the remaining finalists all spelled yet another word correctly in the 20th round of the final.
That meant that Rishik Gandhasri, Erin Howard, Abhijay Kodali, Shruthika Padhy, Rohan Raja, Christopher Serrao, Sohum Sukhatankar, and Saketh Sundar would all share the honor of winning the bee.
Spellers Rip Through Word List
Organizers made the decision based on the length of the competition, and the fact that they were simply running out of words that they felt would be challenging to the remaining competitors, all of whom had shown it would take an extraordinary word to challenge them.
The rules of the Scripps National Spelling Bee dictated that no more than three spellers would be allowed to share the title. But by the end of the 17th round of words, it was clear that it might not be feasible to cut the field down to that number.
“Champion spellers, we are now in uncharted territory,” pronouncer Jacques Bailly told the remaining contestants at that point. “We do have plenty of words remaining on our list. But we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super-spellers in the history of this competition.”
Sure enough, the final eight contestants showed no difficulty getting through the final three rounds. Each had the opportunity to celebrate after successfully spelling one final word in the 20th round, after which they posed together for group pictures.
The rules of the event had also called for the first and second place prizes to be split amongst all tied participants if a single winner couldn’t be chosen. However, when organizers realized a large tie was possible, those plans were changed: all winners were given the full $50,000 for first place, along with their own Scripps Cup.
Some Say Eight-Way Tie Was Avoidable
The winners all said they were satisfied with the result, and that they had rooted for each other to correctly spell their final words once they realized they could all share the championship.
“Spellers improve. It’s natural, and the rate at which people are improving is amazing,” Sohun told ESPN. “Everyone learns, everyone gets so much better.”
However, there were certainly ways in which the tie could have been broken. After a string of three years with co-champions from 2014-2016, a written tiebreaker test on spelling and vocabulary was administered, with the results to be used if no single winner could be determined on stage. But that tiebreaker wasn’t necessary over the past two years, and organizers scrapped it for 2019 because it was seen as placing too much of a burden on the spellers.
Others in the spelling bee industry felt that the organizers had simply failed to choose a word set that would properly challenge the elite spellers in the final rounds.
“This would never happen at my bee,” Rahul Walia, founder of the South Asian Spelling Bee, told ESPN. “They need to use harder words. The words are available.”
The result meant that a prop bet on the possibility of co-champions paid off for many bettors. At BetOnline, that wager was offering +250 odds heading into Thursday’s final.