Thirteen-year-old Tuvya Bergson-Michelson called his third-place finish Wednesday at the National Geographic Bee -- and $10,000 scholarship -- "bittersweet."

On the one hand, the San Carlos seventh-grader is nearly top in the nation, among 4 million fourth- through eighth-graders who competed in the bee. On the other, finishing among the top three disqualifies him from participating next year. "I don't get to have fun doing the competition again," said Tuvya, who attends The Nueva School in Hillsborough.

And fun, for Tuvya, is what it's all about. Oh sure, he said, "there's that jolt of nerves right at the start," but then he gets into the competition. "I've managed to do so well because I'm able to let go of the nervousness."

It's the third top-10 win for Tuvya, who tied for eighth in 2011 -- when he was in fourth grade, the youngest contestant at the finals in Washington, D.C. -- and placed seventh last year.

His interest in places and features of the world blossomed when his great-grandmother gave him a globe when he was 4. He was fascinated.

One tough day in kindergarten, he was sent to a quiet corner with a map and small blocks. Tuvya used them to chart U.S. immigration patterns by nationality and density.

"Geography has been play and fun for him all these years," his mother, Tasha Bergson-Michelson said. Tuvya likes the quizzing, the challenge, the time pressure, logic and possibility of deducing the answer. "He's been fun for us; we've been very fortunate."

What he doesn't like is memorizing facts. Instead, he reads, plays online games, looks at maps and talks about international politics with his parents, a school librarian and a marketing specialist for a nonprofit. "The biggest part is loving geography," Tuvya said. "It's just such a fascinating topic. You see the world so many different ways; it's more than just capitals. It's economics, history, culture, biology, all kinds of things."

And there's a bit of serendipity in competition. At the finals this week, there was a precarious moment when Tuvya faced elimination. But he lucked out with two questions: in what ancient capital did sushi originate? (Answer: Kyoto). And: What's the thin slice of fish on top of some sushi called? (Answer: sashimi).

"People from the East Coast asking me, 'How did you know about sashimi?'" Tuvya said. Being from California, he thought, "How do you not?"

This year's Geography Bee winner was Akhil Rekulapelli, 13, of Dulles, Va., and second-place finisher was Ameya Mujumdar, 11, of Tampa, Fla. The winning question: The discovery of a major shale oil deposit in the Vaca Muerta formation in 2010 has led to an expansion of oil drilling in the Neuquén province in what country? (Answer: Argentina).

Though Tuvya can't compete next year, he'll still keep playing geography games with his 10-year-old brother, who "really knows his stuff," their mother said. The pair helped start a diplomacy club at their school.

It sounds like another star geographer in the making.

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.

Finals
The finals will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Thursday on National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD