Published May 20, 2009
WASHINGTON – The nation's top geography whiz breezed through questions about mountain ranges, rivers and world capitals Wednesday, but he was stumped when National Geographic Bee host Alex Trebek asked him to name one of his weaknesses.
"Um ..." said Eric Yang, 13, pausing. The Texas teen had just revealed to the "Jeopardy!" host how he crafts his own chess strategies and plays the piano.
"That's OK," Trebek replied. "You remind me of a former president, but we won't get into that."
Some in the audience at National Geographic's headquarters in Washington gasped. Others laughed. But the joke was on Trebek by the end of the hour as Eric took home the top prize of a $25,000 college scholarship, beating out nine other boys in the finals without missing a single answer.
Eric wasn't stumped on the third question of a tiebreaker round: Timis County shares its name with a tributary of the Danube and is located in the western part of which European country? Eric had it right — Romania. His opponent, 14-year-old Arjun Kandaswamy, of Beaverton, Ore., wrote down "Hungary."
"I just made an educated guess," Eric said.
The 13-year-old from The Colony, Texas, has been studying maps since he was young. He was born in Singapore and moved to Texas at age 2.
"I just wanted to figure out why did they build those roads and how did these places get here?" he said.
His mother, Aileen Yang, said Eric reads everything from history books to cookbooks to learn about other places and cultures.
"I think the curiosity is a major part of him," Aileen Yang said. "We came from Singapore, so we always say education is very important."
The bee aired Wednesday on National Geographic Channel and will be shown later on public television stations.
In earlier rounds, one student from every U.S. state and territory competed, along with a student from a military family. According to a survey of the 55 students, President Barack Obama tops the list of people they admire (besides their parents), followed by grandparents and teachers.
Some participants are aspiring politicians, including runner-up Arjun, who takes home a $15,000 scholarship.
"I figured if I get bored with law, maybe I'll go into politics — senator, representative, congressman, something like that," he said.
The snowboarder and mountain biker also said he wants to break the stereotype that "geography nerds" only "study all day." Rather, Arjun said, many of the bee competitors play sports and have other talents.
Third-place finisher Shantan Krovvidi, 13, of Raleigh, N.C., who has a black belt in tae kwon do, gets a $10,000 scholarship.
The other finalists were Nicholas Farnsworth, 14, of Flagstaff, Ariz.; Siva Gangavarapu, 11, of Naperville, Ill.; Kenji Golimlim, 11, of Flat Rock, Mich.; Vansh Jain, 10, of Minocqua, Wis.; Zaroug Jaleel, 14, of Lexington, Mass.; Shiva Kangeyan, 12, of Miami; and Kennen Sparks, 14, of Farmington, Utah.