Which is more important: to win or to play by the rules? This broad question was put up for debate at New York Mills' 28th Annual Great American Think-Off.

Dan Tschida of Minneapolis, who argued that it's more important to play by the rules, received first place after debating with AJ Gil of Atlanta, in the final round.

"Winning is a temporary thing that gives you gratification in the short term, but playing by the rules results in long-term success because it’s something you can rely upon," Tschida said. "Even those who lose will have a place when there are rules to protect their rights."

Tschida, who grew up in Minnesota, has always been drawn to broad philosophical debates. His mother was an English teacher, and his father was an FBI agent, so they would have philosophical family conversations at dinner. Now, his wife is a judge, so they still have similar conversations.

“That’s part of the reason I chose to teach high school. I love the big expanse of ideas, and (the Great American Think-Off) fits into that mold really well," he said.

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This civil debate was held on the evening of Saturday, June 12, at New York Mills Secondary's auditorium. After the debate, the New York Mills Cultural Center hosted a reception.

The Think-Off is split into three different rounds: the first and second have two finalists with the same argument present their essays. The two winning finalists from the first rounds then debate in the third and final round to determine the winner. The winner, Tschida, was chosen through an audience vote.

While Tschida practiced law for about ten years, his time as a teacher, which started in the early 2000s, is what introduced him to the Great American Think-Off. About 10 years ago, he came across one of the Think-Off's questions: "which is more important, safety or freedom?" In his classes, he asked his students to consider this question from a government standpoint.

"I love this type of (broad) philosophy in particular," Tschida said. "I like the big ideas and often think of these things when I’m just going through life in general."

Dan Tschida presents his stance that it's more important to play by the rules than to win at the Great American Think-Off at New York Mills Secondary's auditorium on Saturday, June 12. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)
Dan Tschida presents his stance that it's more important to play by the rules than to win at the Great American Think-Off at New York Mills Secondary's auditorium on Saturday, June 12. (Elizabeth Vierkant/Focus)

While he was aware of the Think-Off, this was the first time he participated in it.

“(The Think-Off debate topic) is an issue I think is important, and so I decided this is the year I’m going to write," he continued. "And so then I did.”

While he sometimes wrote as a lawyer, the Think-Off essay was the first opinion piece he produced. This was one of many reasons being selected as one of the four finalists was both shocking and exciting for him.

After he wrote the essay, which was fun, he didn't think about it much afterward. Tschida said he and his wife were watching television when he found out he'd been selected for the debate.

"It’s interesting because I talk in front of high school kids all the time, but it’s much different when you’re the focal point in front of a crowd," he said. "I actually had some nerves going into it.”

Outside of teaching and spending time with his family, Tschida also enjoys reading. With the broad conversations available with the Think-Off's questions, he said he can touch on topics of literature, history and government, which are all topics he finds interesting.

"I love this type of philosophy in particular," he said.

When Tschida traveled to New York Mills for the Think-Off, this was his first time in the lakes area. In the end, he appreciated everything about the trip from the other contestants to the residents to the area itself. He said it was wonderful, and he enjoyed it all.

The finalists who debated in Saturday's Think-Off are:

  • AJ Gil of Atlanta is a writer and graduate of the University of Florida and the Villanova University School of Law. He writes about politics, sports and comedy and spends his remaining time trying to entertain his wife and cat. He argued it's more important to win.

AJ Gil (submitted)
AJ Gil (submitted)

  • Bill Sutherland of Eden Prairie works in the engineering consulting business, including the founding of MinnTech Engineering Consulting Engineers in 1984. He graduated from the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering and holds a degree in electrical engineering. Bill earned his professional engineer license for Minnesota in 1978. He is enjoying his (almost) retirement by spending time with his family and in the outdoors at their retreat in Grand Marais. He argued it's more important to play by the rules.

Bill Sutherland (submitted)
Bill Sutherland (submitted)

  • Angela Stehr of St. Paul is an administrative assistant at the Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics at the University of Minnesota. She holds an M.A. in classics from the University of Cincinnati and an M.A. in museum studies from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. She likes women’s hockey, Goldie Gopher, going to concerts, knitting, reading and gardening. Her garden has a continuously increasing focus on pollinators, and she has taken to nurturing caterpillars from eggs to butterflies in the summer. She argued it's more important to win.

Angie Stehr (submitted)
Angie Stehr (submitted)