When Max Sugarman celebrated his 13th birthday last week, he made one wish: to bring a national geography-bee championship title back to...

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When Max Sugarman celebrated his 13th birthday last week, he made one wish: to bring a national geography-bee championship title back to Washington.

Sugarman — or “The Walking Atlas,” as friends in his seventh-grade class at Pine Lake Middle School in Sammamish call him — will represent the state today in the annual National Geographic competition in Washington, D.C.

With the state title already his, Sugarman said he just hopes all his hours of scouring maps will pay off.

“I’m trying not to get nervous,” he said. “I do want to win, but I think it’s going to be pretty tough.”

A geography bee is like a spelling bee, except with questions about places around the world. To move along in the competition, contestants must correctly answer a series of increasingly difficult questions.


Sugarman will advance to the National Geographic Bee finals tomorrow in Washington D.C. The finals can be seen at 7 a.m. on the National Geographic Channel. The finals will be shown again at 9 a.m. Saturday on PBS channels.

Sugarman will be one of 55 contestants from across the country who will compete today for 10 slots in tomorrow’s final round, which will be televised and moderated by Alex Trebek, host of the television game-show “Jeopardy!”

The winner will get a $25,000 scholarship. Second- and third-place winners will get $15,000 and $10,000 in scholarships.

Sugarman earned his ticket to the competition April 1, when he won the state competition at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. His victory came after the longest tie-breaker in the 17-year history of the bee. After surviving an hour of rapid-fire questions against another contestant, Sugarman triumphed when he named the sea where the Pribilof Islands are located. The answer: the Bering Sea.

Since then, his classmates haven’t stopped asking him for help with their social-studies assignments.

“Some people might be intimidated by having a geography whiz in their class,” said his humanities teacher, Alyssum Lafky. “But he is so humble, willing to share his talents, and doesn’t lord himself over anyone.”

Sugarman is also somewhat superstitious.

“I believe that in order to win, I must be wearing something with an otter on it,” said Sugarman, his brown eyes widening.

If his lucky otter shirt does its job and Sugarman is crowned champion, he would get to compete in an international competition in Budapest, Hungary.

He also would become the third recent winner of the national bee from the Eastside. The 2001 title went to an eighth-grader from Bellevue, Kyle Haddad-Fonda, and the 1997 winner was a Kirkland seventh-grader, Alex Kerchner.

Sugarman’s bedroom at his home in Issaquah is like a library, scattered with maps, books and globes. A giant, multicolored world map is painted on the wall above his twin bed.

A family trip to Asia when Sugarman was 2 sparked his interest in geography, said his father, Hart Sugarman, who works for the Holland America cruise line.

On the plane, the young Max flipped through the in-flight magazines, discovered the airline route maps, and used his finger to trace the routes he hoped to take someday.

Since then, it’s been “geography for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” his father said.

Max Sugarman spends his mornings reading his favorite and heaviest atlas, “Geographica’s World Reference,” over cereal. He also regularly watches the History Channel and plays mapping computer games. His passion has taken him to the state finals three times in the past four years.

Sugarman said he wants to get a doctorate and become a marine biologist.

“Maps are like a piece of artwork,” he said. “In school, no one has that passion like me.”

Teachers and administrators at his school have made it a point to recognize Sugarman’s exceptional ability. Last Friday, for example, Principal Roy Adler gave him a Pine Lake baseball cap to wear on the trip to the competition, along with some candy for the plane ride.

“We’re trying to encourage him and really make him feel like he’s already a winner,” Adler said.

“He’s got the weight of the whole state on his little shoulders.”

Lara Bain: 206-464-2112 or lbain@seattletimes.com