WASHINGTON >> Kapil Nathan knows how unpredictable the National Geographic Bee can be.
In last year’s finals, Kapil and other competitors were surprised to get questions about U.S. geography. Kapil, an 11-year-old 6th-grader from Hoover, Alabama, who has encyclopedic recall of far-flung places, couldn’t name the largest port city in Georgia (Savannah) and was bounced.
Kapil is back in the bee this year, and he’s a lot more knowledgeable about places close to home. He’s even visited Savannah.
“We went to Savannah during Christmas. We went up the East Coast and all the way up to Montreal,” Kapil said. “I’ve learned a lot about the United States in the past year.”
Kapil will join 53 other state-level champions on Monday in Washington for the preliminary rounds of the bee. The finals will be held on Wednesday, with the winner receiving a $50,000 scholarship, a trip to Alaska and Glacier Bay National Park and a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society.
The finals, which will be taped for broadcast on National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD, have a game show-type format, with pre-taped segments, quirky scoring and questions that are sometimes subjective. The winner can be hard to predict, and unlike the National Spelling Bee — which will also be contested this week — repeat finalists have been rare.
But the kids are similar — dedicated and ambitious, aspiring surgeons and scientists — and they set other extracurricular activities aside in order to expand their knowledge of maps and borders, nations, cities, cultures and history. Also like the spelling bee, the winners in recent years have been predominantly Indian-American, and the competition has become a point of pride for that community.
Humorist, author and “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent Mo Rocca takes over as host of the finals this year. Alex Trebek was the host for 25 years before stepping down after the 2013 bee.
Kapil joins two others who were among last year’s 10 finalists and will take another crack at the title: 13-year-old Patrick Taylor of Iowa City, Iowa, and 13-year-old Nicholas Monahan of McCall, Idaho. And there are 14 other repeat state-level winners in the competition, including Mika Ishii, who won the Hawaii bee for the fourth time.
Kapil normally studies 2-3 hours a day, and he took the week before the bee off from school to focus on his preparation. Nicholas spent more time reviewing U.S. geography after he, too, was tripped up by those questions. Patrick took a more relaxed approach.
“I just like to look at maps or Google Earth for leisure,” said Patrick, who finished fifth last year. “I don’t really have a study plan.”
Patrick and Nicholas said they’ve stayed in touch with several of their fellow competitors from last year. Both said there are no real rivalries in the group, in part because there aren’t many kids who’ve mastered the subject like they have.
“We can talk about certain things that a lot of people really don’t understand very well,” Patrick said.
Nicholas said they often joke about names of cities or other places. “I don’t know many people that would get the jokes,” he said.
They also know they don’t know everything. The simplest reason for the bee’s unpredictability: Geography is simply too vast a subject.
“I think there’s a big element of luck in there,” Kapil said. “You have to know pretty much everything about every single country in the world, from your head to your toe.”