HAYWARD — When it began Saturday morning, 37 Alameda County elementary school students buzzed with anticipation, hoping to be crowned the county's best speller.

When it was over, fifth-grader Karl Keck of Oakland's Chabot Elementary School was king bee in the 2009 Alameda County Elementary Spelling Bee Championship.

"I just read a lot," Karl said, explaining his winning strategy. "I don't read the dictionary, but I read a lot of other things."

Karl correctly spelled "exorbitant" to win the competition.

"On that word, reading helped me a lot because I saw it in a couple of books," he said. This was the third year that the Alameda County Office of Education has held the elementary school spelling bee — and the first year that an Oakland youngster placed among the top finishers.

Actually, the district has reason to boast this year because the top three spellers were from Oakland.

Sixth-grader Emily Deluna, who attends Oakland's Alliance Academy, took second place and will join Keck on May 16 at the California State Elementary Spelling Championship at Sonoma State University.

Third place went to Chloe Killebrew-Bruehl of Oakland's Peralta Elementary, and Dublin's Kaushik Kashi of Fallon Middle School placed fourth. Both are in the sixth grade.

The top four spellers received trophies.

Nearly 40 students from Castro Valley, Dublin, Emeryville, Livermore, New Haven, Oakland, Pleasanton and San Lorenzo school district gathered at Cal State East Bay in Hayward for Saturday's bee after advancing from their district competitions.

"These are really good spellers," Spell Master Anne Harris-Gebb said. "It's the 37 best spellers in the county in elementary schools."

The competition was divided into rounds until the final two competitors were left. When a student misspelled a word, he or she was eliminated. The difficulty of the words, which were secretly chosen before the bee, increased with each round.

In the early going, contestants spelled words like "hammer" and "cruise," but toward the end, they spelled words such as "septuagenarian" and "proselytize."

When just Karl and Emily remained standing, the rules changed a little. When one of them misspelled a word, he or she was not done yet. The next speller had to correctly spell the word the other person missed, then correctly spell a new word. If that person spelled the new word wrong, it started all over again with new words.

The pair went through 17 words before Karl won.