Who will win? We handicap the spellers

Updated: May 31, 2006, 6:38 PM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

The National Spelling Bee has gone prime time, and we all know what that means: Sports books are now taking bets on particular letters in the championship word and whether the winner will be wearing glasses. Folks, this is not a joke anymore.

With that in mind, here are my top eight picks in this year's competition, all of whom survived Wednesday's early rounds.

1. Samir Sudhir Patel, Colleyville, Texas: This kid is amazing. It's his fourth appearance in the event and, to put it simply, he has the best credentials. As a 9-year-old in 2004, he finished third; and last year, he tied for second. He's also the most entertaining speller I've ever seen. He'll say things like "I know that one," or "Thanks, mom!" His nerves of steel should get him through the pressure of being on in prime time. Here are a few additional bits of research to support Patel's bid: (1) Boys have taken the last six spelling bees after the girls won from 1996-1999; (2) Five of the past seven champions have been of Indian descent; (3) Texas has had more winning spellers (nine) than any other state. Spelling Bee officials clearly acknowledged Patel's marketability on Wednesday afternoon by halting Round 4 just before his turn came up, meaning he can lead the ESPN broadcast on Thursday.

2. Bonny Jain, Moline, Ill.: Jain might be the most brilliant child in America today. Last week, he won the National Geographic Geography Bee by identifying the mountain range that stretches across Wales from the Irish Sea to the Bristol Channel (the Cambrian Mountains). This is his third year in the National Spelling Bee, and we're confident that he's upset enough at his 28th place finish last year to make a run this time around.

Prime-time pressure
Think it's easy to stand up in front of millions of prime-time viewers and spell 'c-a-t'? Well, maybe. But how 'bout 'e-u-o-n-y-m'? Check out ESPN.com's look at this year's competition.

Darren Rovell: Spelling under the lights
SportsNation: Your own Spelling Bee
Former Spelling Bee Champ Helps Crown New Champs ESPN Motion
3. Katherine Close, Asbury Park, N.J.: Katherine is one of two competitors who is making a fifth appearance in the National Spelling Bee. Like Patel, she has shown steady improvement as the years roll by. She tied for 16th place in 2003, eighth place in 2004 and seventh place last year.

4. Nidharshan Subra Anandasivam, Harligen, Texas: He's a four-time participant and his bio says it all: "In his spare time, he may be found solving complicated trigonometry problems." I really believe he's a much more mature speller than he was two years ago when he was eliminated on the word "parvitude."

5. Rajiv Tarigopula, St. Louis: I became a Tarigopula fan last year, when he knocked down the likes of "mucedinaceous," "infundibular," and "zouave" on his way to placing fourth.

6. John Louis Tandy Tamplin, Louisville, Ky.: Tamplin is the other five-time participant. For anyone interested in wagering on the glasses proposition, please note that Tamplin no longer wears them. Only three out of the past seven champions have worn glasses.

7. Saryn Hooks, Winston Salem, N.C.: Even the best make mistakes. That's why we'll forgive Saryn for tripping up on "etouffee" in the 10th round last year. But spelling "ichthyophagi" and "ergatogyne" has to count for something, right? For those betting on a braces prop bet, she had them last year, but we have no idea if everything has been straightened out since then.

8. Andy Wade, Charleston, W.Va.: Many might have forgotten Wade because he hasn't made it to the National Spelling Bee for the past two years. But as a fourth grader, he placed 10th in this competition. If he gets the right words, he's my wild card to win.

Darren Rovell, a senior writer for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.Rovell@espn3.com.

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