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A Plano ISD Sixth Grader Almost Won the Scripps National Spelling Bee Last Night

It was Faizan Zaki's third appearance at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but his first time in the finals.
Plano sixth-grader Faizan Zaki, seen here celebrating after spelling a word correctly on Wednesday, came in second in the Scripps National Spelling Bee Thursday after a spell-off. Craig Hudson / Scripps National Spelling Bee

My love of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is well documented. My love of watching the Mavericks beat the Timberwolves to go to the NBA Finals is also documented, although slightly less so because of scarcity. I watched both the Bee and the Western Conference Finals last night, one on my laptop, one on the TV.

While last night’s Dallas-Minnesota matchup in Minneapolis was thrilling, last night’s spelling bee finals in Oxon Hill, Maryland, were pretty exciting, too. North Texas had one man left in the hunt for the pretty ceramic trophy: Plano ISD sixth-grader Faizan Zaki. Sponsored by the Dallas Sports Commission, the 12-year-old plowed through spelling words like it was his full-time job. (And having been a spelling bee kid, I can tell you it almost is a full-time job.) It’s his third appearance at the national Bee, having tied for 370th in 2019 and 21st last year.

Zaki made it through 14 rounds over three days, spelling words like hellebore, samisen, selvagee, and avahi. He defined words like splenetic, braggadocio, yawp, and liminal. At the end of regular play, he tied with St. Petersburg, Florida, seventh-grader Bruhat Soma. 

Plano sixth-grader Faizan Zaki, right, faced off against eventual champion Bruhat Soma in a spell-off. Craig Hudson / Scripps National Spelling Bee

Bee organizers try to avoid ending a bee with a tie. In 2014, 2015, and 2016, the bees ended in ties. At the end of the 2019 competition, Bee officials realized they needed to do something about these crazy-smart kids. That year, they had an eight-way tie because organizers ran out of words. They added vocabulary questions and lightning rounds to help avoid a tie.

To win a spell-off, a contestant must spell as many words as possible in 90 seconds. The kid with the most correctly spelled words wins the whole thing. That means that the usual ways of discerning the spelling of an unfamiliar word—asking for its etymology, all definitions, and it to be used in a sentence—won’t work. It’s your brain and the word, and you’re flying without a net.

Soma and Zaki’s spell-off was only the second in Bee history. The first was in 2022 when San Antonio’s Harini Logan spelled 22 words. Last night, at the end of 180 seconds (90 apiece), Soma spelled 29 words correctly. Zaki spelled 20.

When the tally was announced, Zaki and Soma hugged as confetti began to fall. On social media, the Bee praised Zaki for his “infectious enthusiasm.”

Something tells me Zaki will be back next year.


Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.