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Beyond the Spelling Bee and Jeopardy!

Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008 | In late spring 2005, I had just finished my junior year in college and was in Washington, D.C. as an intern for Copley News Service. The bureau every year sent the intern to cover the Scripps National Spelling Bee, tracking all of the kids from Copley papers in San Diego, Ohio and Illinois.

Before the bee, I phoned a 13-year-old spelling champ from Poway to report about his preparation for the contest. After the first couple of conversations I had with him, his parents and his English teacher/coach, I bragged to a few fellow journalism interns that “my kid,” the San Diego contestant, was going to win.

They scoffed, reducing my bombast to a little friendly trash talk. Something, though, about the way Anurag Kashyap described for me the way he’d forged friendships with his fellow national bee contestants the year earlier, and how the group of them had kept each other sharp via a phonetic instant-messaging system they invented — they called themselves “Speller Nation” — led me to expect his success.

While the other four contestants I was covering were ousted in the first of the two days, Kashyap kept spelling words correctly. Ultimately, after 19 rounds, Kashyap from Poway spelled “appoggiatura” correctly, beating 272 other top spellers to become the national champion. I’d spent a week getting to know about him, how he studies, who his parents were, how his English teacher had helped him — and all of a sudden he was a hot item.

Because he won, I won as an aspiring reporter: I got to write his story and it ran on the front page of The San Diego Union-Tribune the next day.

Since then, I’ve kept in touch with Kashyap. I found him on Facebook and asked him to share an update on his life. That sparked him hosting Café San Diego about a year ago.

And he doesn’t stop winning. A few weeks ago, Kashyap was revealed to be the winner of Jeopardy!’s teen tournament, with a prize of $75,000.

He’s a 17-year-old senior in high school now, headed for college next year to study microbiology. I decided to check back in with Kashyap now that I’m no longer an intern and he’s no longer a middle-schooler. I met him at his family’s home in Poway and took a little delight in spotting my byline on the newspaper front page that’s framed in his living room. And Kashyap schooled me — sharing his mindset for learning, and his philosophy on life and happiness.

In D.C., you were 13, and now you’re 17 — a short time in terms of your whole life but a pretty long time now. What’s different?

Nothing really. I may have gotten wiser, smarter, more experience with the world. But overall I’m just the same person.

Talking about Jeopardy!. How long did you actually have to keep your win a secret? When did you go and shoot the show?

We aired it in the first week of October. So I had to keep it a secret for about a month.

Who did you tell?

My parents were there to watch. So they knew, Trebek obviously knew, and the other contestants knew.

But none of your friends. What was that like — were you getting just tons of text messages and calls?

Yeah, at school they were just barraging me with questions but I just had to say, you know, I can’t tell you.

It’s an indication, that win, that you have a vast general knowledge. How does that help you right now?

Well, it helps me a lot in understanding what the world is like. Lots of people wonder: what is the point of gaining knowledge? What does knowing stuff about, like, politics in Africa have anything to do with what our lives are about?

But, I mean, really, it gets you a better understanding of humanity and what human civilization is like, and what a human is like. I think especially when I’ve been reading lots of books lately, fiction, there’s so many things you can pick up on. So many allusions. So many references that authors put in that you would just not get if you don’t have a wide knowledge of what humans have done.

Do you have an example? What have you been reading lately?

So right now, we’re reading “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger. And at the very beginning there’s a reference that said — the character Zooey — Zooey had a vocabulary that matched Mary Baker Eddy, but only if he chose to do so. The idea being that Mary Baker Eddy was the founder of the Christian Science movement. So J.D. Salinger says, because how we speak is the gateway to our thoughts, the fact that he has a vocabulary comparable to Mary Baker Eddy means that he can understand Christianity and science, you know? He has the blend; he has that balance. And you can have somebody explain that to you, but there’s just a lot more you can pick up about the world if you just learn more about it.

Is that something that you’ve always wanted to do, or is it something that you’ve had to work at, to have that desire?

In a sense it’s something I had to work at, because there’s a natural curiosity for things, but —

You know, when I was a kid, I’d read books on dinosaurs and pirates and ghosts and other cool stuff like that. But then when you grow up and you’re starting to study about stuff like art and the sciences, you really have to — if you’re not naturally into that thing — you really have to try to understand how impressive that feat is. And that’s why teachers or professors — the first day of any college course is always to tell you the big picture, the impact of what this means. If you’re taking a course in architecture, you know, “Imagine what it was like if you had to design the Coliseum.” And then if you put yourself in the picture as the designer of the Coliseum, that’s a pretty big thing. And then you’re sparking an interest. So it’s definitely a mind frame. Something that you have to put yourself into.

I think I read that you’re planning to use your money for college, from Jeopardy! and from the spelling bee? Is there something that you’re planning to buy right now?

For my birthday — it was just recently — I bought myself a small video game. For Xbox. It was like $20; it was really cheap. Madden. So that was fun. And I might buy myself a really good camera for Christmas. I’ve gotten into photography but I’ve never ever taken a photo.

So you’ve developed an appreciation for it but it’s not something that you’ve been doing yourself.

Exactly.

Do you see any parallels between photography and the way you look at everything else?

I guess it would just be finding a perspective that suits you and that you find is beautiful. And so, you know, just like a picture of a box. A photo of a box can be beautiful if you put yourself in the mind frame that it is beautiful. And so in the same way, learning about physics to some may be a bore, if you put yourself in the mind frame that this is explaining how everything in the world works, what goes on in nature, then it becomes interesting.

Do you have religious beliefs at all?

I’m a Hindu, yeah.

Do you see a tie-in to that?

I see myself as more of a — even though I’m a Hindu nominally, I like to pick and choose parts of different religions that I think are really great. Salinger’s a big inspiration for that, too, as I’ve been reading “Franny and Zooey.” Because he says it’s not just good to take Western traditions, and just go for that, because there’s lots of stuff in the East that’s really good to learn. But you don’t want to go all East because there’s lots of stuff in the West and in the Bible that you can learn a lot from. I don’t think any one religion is superior to any other. I think that if you just find the parts that make sense to you — if you combine it all, live by those values, then you’ll be set.

What’s the hardest question that they asked you in Jeopardy! — either one that you answered or one you passed on?

Hardest question they asked would probably be anything I didn’t get. (laughs) And then the hardest question I did get — I don’t know. It’s all a blur.

You’ve completed all of your education in public school, right? I think that’s surprising to some people — people who’ve lost faith in public schooling and who’ve put their kids in private school or something. What’s been your experience with public school and did you and your parents ever talk about you going to private school? Did you ever want to go to private school?

No. I never wanted to be in private school. I think our family would’ve had a tough time affording private school, a really good one that’s like 30-grand a year; that’s like college tuition for high school. But really, I mean, public school — if you really put your mind to it, I don’t see what a public school can’t give you that a private school can.

Private school, obviously — less students, more attention from the teacher. But if the student is willing. Ramanujan was an Indian mathematician who didn’t have a teacher and he derived all of calculus by himself. He didn’t have a teacher. And he didn’t have a book. Calculus was invented 300 years before he existed. But he never heard of it, and he invented it by himself. I mean, it just depends what you can do with your resources, you know?

We were talking earlier — you won the Bee as a middle-schooler, and you went to high school, and when you wrote for us in our Cafe you said you were desperate not to be the “spelling guy” or “anything guy.” And then you were mentioning Quiz Bowl and debate and some of the other activities you’ve done (at Rancho Bernardo High School). Has that kept you from being typecast as the “spelling guy”?

I’ve sort of been typecast as the “Quiz Bowl guy,” because along with another student, we’re sort of like the head honchos of it. But they know that just because it’s one of my biggest hobbies, one of the biggest things I like to do, that I’m more than that. So even if, tongue in cheek, they call me the “Quiz Bowl guy” they know I’m more than that.

Apart from school and studying for the various things that you do, what else do you do?

I do Quiz Bowl, I do Science Olympiad — that’s a competition that’s specifically for all of the various sciences. I do a lot of community service. I’m the president of the California Scholarship Federation at Rancho Bernardo. And so that’s also just organizing, coordinating events where we help out in San Diego. So anything from marathons to festivals that schools host, pretty much anything we can find. I’m a peer counselor at my school, and so it’s a select group of kids — I think 70. And we help tutor kids in subjects they’re struggling in. …

Is that ever daunting, do you think, for the person that you’re tutoring, that you have these accomplishments under your belt?

I try not to let those accomplishments define me. Once I talk to someone, it’s gone. For all you know, you’re just talking to another kid. So, if people do feel that, then they should know that whenever you’re talking to someone who’s a really great man, you should always remember that inside, they’re just human, like anyone else.

You know when you learn about a new word or a new subject and then all of a sudden you see it everywhere? Has that happened to you with, I imagine, words like appoggiatura or concepts like the one you answered Final Jeopardy! with? Does that happen to you?

It does. I don’t really think that all of a sudden, once you’ve learned it, it’s become more prevalent. I think it’s always prevalent; you just missed it, because you never knew what it was in the first place. If you don’t know what something is, then if it comes your way you can’t recognize it. But once you know what it is, it’ll come your way at the same frequency, but you’ll finally see that it’s coming your way. You know what I’m saying?

Yeah. When you hosted our Caf/, you wondered how people should decide what to be and what to pour themselves into. And you were talking about applying for a job for the prestige or the money of a job versus an actual love or a feeling of vocation or something. How have you decided to answer that for yourself?

The sciences. I really like the sciences. Not just being a doctor. I’d really like to be on the cutting edge, doing the research. And it’s a risky proposition because not every scientist ends up becoming a professor or a Nobel Prize winner or anything like that. But you know, that doesn’t really matter to me. I just really like the sciences and I like what sciences can do for the world.

Anything in particular that you want to be on the cutting edge of?

Biological sciences, microbiology, but I don’t know what part of microbiology. Genetics or immunology or something like that.

Is that related to what your parents do?

My dad does organic chemistry, and definitely the work ethic he put in when he was in India to get his Ph.D. and to study, has carried on to me. Mom is a housewife but she has a master’s degree in botanical sciences. So both parents are scientists.

You also wrote about success and how you define success, and making sure that you’re not just achieving something that is successful in other people’s eyes but something that you actually wanted to begin with. And you mentioned that winning the Bee had been something like that for you. Was Jeopardy! one of those successes?

You know, Jeopardy! was something that I wanted to do at some time, whether it was as an adult, as a college student or as a teenager. I had nothing — no set-in-stone (goal) like “I have to be the winner of some sort of Jeopardy! tournament.” So, you know, even if I hadn’t I’d be just as happy; I’d be satisfied.

What other things have you identified as things that you’ll know success or have experienced success when …

When I’ve achieved happiness. (laughs) That’s really it. That’s the bottom line. You just work to achieve happiness. And those who don’t, suffer.

What does happiness look like for you?

Go to a good college, have good friends, have a life that’s balanced, which would mean — a lot of dabbling in education, a lot of dabbling in the fun side of life. So a balanced life gives you happiness.

You’ve done a lot of interviews. You know, when we met —

— a long time ago —

— yeah, a long time ago, you were the focus of a lot of media attention. Is there something that you’ve been wishing some newspaper reporter would ask instead of just asking you the same questions?

No, because I think most reporters have been asking good questions.

(laughs) Well, way to flatter the reporter.

(laughs) Good relevant questions, not dumb questions. Not questions that portray me as a one-dimensional education freak. Because oftentimes they do tend to focus on only one aspect.

What don’t you know?

I don’t know a lot of stuff. I don’t know a lot. If I knew everything, there’d be no point in my life.

— Interview by KELLY BENNETT
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