Playing by the Rules WINS!
Dan Tschida of Minneapolis, MN wins 28th Annual Great American Think-Off philosophical debate in New York Mills, MN

Tschida defeated AJ Gil of Atlanta, GA in the final round of debate on Saturday, June 12, 2021, successfully arguing his stance that playing by the rules is more important than winning.

To advance to the final round, Gil successfully argued his position that winning is more important against Angela Stehr of St. Paul, MN.

Before debating Gil, Tschida first argued his position against fellow “playing by the rules” proponent, Bill Sutherland of Eden Prairie, MN.

Each of the four finalists received a $500 cash prize and a weekend in New York Mills, MN for the Think-Off debate and related festivities.

2021 Great American Think-Off finalists: AJ Gil of Atlanta, GA – silver medalist; Angela Stehr of St. Paul, MN – bronze medalist; Bill Sutherland of Eden Prairie, MN – bronze medalist; Dan Tschida of Minneapolis, MN – gold medalist and America’s Greatest Thinker for 2021.

The 2021 Think-Off debate was another successful example of civil debate with all four finalists listening thoughtfully to each other’s arguments and sharing their perspectives with grace and good humor.

In the first round, Angie Stehr and AJ Gil each read their essays, and then answered two questions each to support their shared stance that winning is more important than playing by the rules.

Angie focused her argument on the fact that she does believe in rules even though she is arguing that winning is more important. She followed up by saying that the context is always important, as is the question of whether or not people we are willing to pay the consequences for breaking rules in order to win.


AJ assured the audience that he is not suggesting anarchy, and that over-arching principles should guide people’s behavior. He reiterated his stance that winning is more important with the argument that the rules are made by the winners.


In their closing arguments, Angie focused on the argument that winning sometimes means making a decision to break the rules and accept the consequences, while AJ asserted that the winners make the rules, so change happens by winning.  The audience voted, and AJ was selected to advance to the final round.


In the second round, Dan Tschida and Bill Sutherland each read their essays and gave their best arguments for their shared position that playing by the rules is more important than winning.

Dan argued that winning by cheating or limiting the rules only proves how necessary those rules are. He also focused on fundamental human values as an overarching set of rules to follow even when man-made rules need to be changed.


Bill shared examples of different sets of rules and pointed out that one person winning can be at the expense of another person’s rules. He argued that despite this complexity, he believes that it is possible to find a common ground where multiple sets of rules have value, and that redefining the concepts of winning and rules allows us to get past an end goal of winning where playing by the rules prevails as the more important value.

In their closing arguments, Dan asserted that legitimacy happens only when everyone plays by the rules, thus making rules more important, while Bill challenged the concept of rules vs. winning as a false binary. The audience voted, and Dan was selected to advance to the final round.


In the final round, Playing by the Rules–argued by Dan Tschida, went head-to-head against Winning–argued by AJ Gil.  In a back-and-forth debate, these two finalists each brought up excellent points in an effort to win over the audience as the debater making the best argument.

Dan began by arguing that character is built by losing, and that sticking to your values and the rules is how you really win in life. AJ responded that character is defined by principle, and that following an unjust rule is not following your principles.

Dan later returned back to this point, arguing that principles are rules, and thus following your principles, even it is means breaking an unjust rule, is still following the rules. AJ argued that fundamental principles are not absolute, and that we sometimes need to adjust our principles when looking at rules and whether they are just or unjust.


Throughout the debate, AJ continued to argue that winning is most important by returning to his point that the rules are made by those who have won.

Dan argued that in the United States, free speech is a rule that allows people to communicate their dissatisfaction with the rules to those in power, and that those in power are be obligated to follow their own rules and address these comments.

AJ responded by saying that rules can actually silence freedom of speech if those in power (the winners) decide to change the rules to their liking.


At the conclusion of the final round, the audience votes were collected by the New York Mills Cub Scouts, and Dan Tschida was selected as America’s Greatest Thinker for 2021, answering this year’s question that playing by the rules is more important than winning.

Executive Director Betsy Roder congratulates Dan Tschida on being selected by the audience as America’s Greatest Thinker for 2021.

The New York Mills Regional Cultural Center would like to thank everyone who attended the 2021 Great American Think-Off debate and those who tuned in online on our YouTube livestream. The video of the debate will remain on our YouTube page for your viewing pleasure!  2021 Think-Off debate on YouTube

Thanks also goes out to our moderator Tami Vigesaa, the Think-Off committee, Cultural Center staff and board, community volunteers, Nick DeVillers for the tech and livestream support, KLN for donating locally made & individually wrapped snacks, the New York Mills Cub Scout Pack 209 for collecting ballots, the New York Mills School for allowing us to use the Auditorium, even in the middle of a large construction project, Whistle Stop B&B for hosting finalists, Grassroots Ottertail for providing flowers and plants for the stage, Mid-State Auto Auction, and all our sponsors.

It was so great to be back together again after the struggles of the past year, but we are grateful that we learned how to be flexible and adapt! From COVID-safe food prep to using a different entrance to the School, we did our best to keep everyone safe and happy. Thanks to all of you who embraced these changes and expressed your appreciation for our work. We are grateful for your continued support!

Sign telling attendees to use a different entrance at the school due to a construction project.

Programs Director Cheryl Bannes using safe food handling practices while getting ready for the Think-Off reception!









Finally, we would also like to offer our congratulations and gratitude to all four finalists. (Click here to learn more about the 2021 finalists.) It is always a pleasure to hear these armchair philosophers share their ideas, listen thoughtfully to each other, and engage in civil discourse. The connections made with community members at the reception following the debate are equally as important and appreciated! Thanks for helping us continue to cultivate civil debate and the arts in rural Minnesota.

Click below to read the 2021 Finalist and Honorable Mention Essays.

2021 Think-Off Finalist Essays >> 2021 Think-Off Honorable Mention Essays >> Watch the 2021 Think-Off debate on YouTube >