A keen knowledge of geography and some good fortune helped Neel Lakhanpal take first place Friday at the Maryland leg of the 23rd annual National Geographic Bee.
"Some questions were hard, and I had to think a lot," said the 13-year-old seventh-grade student at Severn School in Severna Park. "It takes a little bit of luck. Some of the questions that others got I would not have known the answer."
Economics had a part, too, in the final question. Neither Neel nor Adam Rusak, a seventh-grader at Lakelands Park Middle School in Gaithersburg, had missed a single question as they entered the championship round. They had just cleared the final round that eliminated the other eight finalists.
They were given 15 seconds to write their answers. They both knew Iceland experienced a volcanic eruption last spring and that the Andes Mountains are still rising. But Adam wrote that India lost its ranking as the world's second-largest economy to China last year, when Neel answered correctly with Japan.
"I'll be back next year," said Adam with a broad smile.
Neel won $100 and an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, where he will represent Maryland in the national competition next month.
The Maryland contest, open to students in fifth through eighth grade, drew 100 competitors from across the state to the Catonsville campus of Baltimore County Community College. After a long morning of "three strikes and you're out," the final 10 — all boys — took their seats in the front of the auditorium. This time, two missed answers would end their runs.
"You can't think about anything else," said Mukund K. Patnaik, an eighth-grader at Takoma Park Middle School, who competed last year and made it to the finals Friday. "Just geography."
They scanned maps to identify sites. They were tested on their knowledge of mountains, rivers, fault lines, even tunnels. They had to locate U.S. monuments and parks and know some Native American lore.
"You just have to concentrate," said Julian G. Niewiaroski, a seventh-grader at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, who finished sixth. "In a lot of questions, they give you hints."
WBAL weatherman Tom Tasselmyer fired question after question — 102 in all — and applauded the contestants' vast knowledge. About 90 minutes into the finals, he expressed concern that if the contestants did not start making mistakes, he might not make the 5 p.m. news show.
Then he had to break a three-way tie for third place, which took another three rounds of questions. Alex Chrvala, a fifth-grader at Rodgers Forge Elementary in Baltimore County and the youngest finalist, secured third and a $50 prize.
Mike Chrvala said his son, who has showed an appreciation for geography since he learned to read, would likely use his winnings to buy more maps.
"I have eight atlases and two world maps," Alex said. "One of them is not up to date because it's from the '30s."
The day was a nail-biter for his father, who is a social studies teacher in Carroll County. One of his students competed and lost to his son. Then, Alex had to spar with 20 others in a tie-breaker for the 10th spot in the final round.
"That last question was about fjords in a country where there are blind parrots," said Alex. "That was the key that told me New Zealand not Norway."
He, too, plans to try again next year.
As for Neel, "I am going home to study more and hope for more luck."
If he wins the national title, he will receive a $25,000 college scholarship, a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society and another all-expenses paid trip — to the Galapagos Islands.