New Crop of Great Debaters

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, one of Virginia's top high school debaters, is talking very fast. When you're contending that "the United States ought to submit to the jurisdiction of an international court designed to prosecute crimes against humanity," there's a lot to squeeze into a six-minute speech: the skeleton of an argument, the sinews of logic, the muscle of evidence.

There's no room for rhetorical frills, and even if there were, they wouldn't mean anything to Adam Gerchick, sitting at the other end of the table. He intently scribbles down every point Batmanghelidj makes. He's putting together an outline of the argument so he can rip it apart -- all in good fun, of course.

Both students attend the Potomac School in McLean and are members of a tiny, upstart debate team that has taken Virginia by storm, winning state championships in Lincoln-Douglas-style debate for two consecutive years. Batmanghelidj and Gerchick were the last two debaters left standing at the state tournament in January, meaning they didn't have to face each other in the final round.

Watching the students prepare for a tournament at Harvard University, one can see why they're so good. Rather than lapsing into the sloppy street brawl of a typical argument without time limits or standards of evidence, these teenagers trade verbal punches with the speed of Olympic boxers. Batmanghelidj, 17, a junior, offers another comparison: "It's a lot more like a game of fast-paced chess. If you treat arguments like pieces on a chessboard, the goal is to move your arguments in such a way that you win."

Batmanghelidj argues that the International Criminal Court will save lives by helping fight global terrorism. No sooner does he finish his speech than Gerchick, 18, a senior, launches into a series of questions.

"Are terrorists going to respond to the threat of prosecution?" Gerchick asks.

"We're not going to prosecute terrorists but states that harbor terrorism," Batmanghelidj replies.

"So states like Libya, which sits on the board of the ICC, are going to allow them to prosecute their leaders?"

Batmanghelidj tries to reply again, but Gerchick cuts him off. Next question.

So it goes for almost an hour of intense argumentation. Then coach Tom Rollins dissects the round. He doesn't mince words, critiquing Gerchick for missing an opening for what he calls his "magic card": a piece of evidence showing many civil wars have been resolved internally rather than by international court. He advises Gerchick to tattoo it on his arm.

"I want it tattooed on there so you can just read off it," he says. "That card is wicked good."

The advice is easy to take from an acknowledged master. In high school, debate is something that a small guy can be good at, and Rollins was one of the best. Coaches voted him the top debater of the 1970s, and he continued in college, where one of his rivals was Lawrence H. Summers, the future Treasury secretary and head of the National Economic Council. Rollins became a lawyer, worked for a Senate committee and is now more or less retired.

When his children entered Potomac, he discovered that the 950-student private school didn't have a debate team. So he ruminated about starting one. The lure of returning to forensics was visceral: "It's like the DNA in every cell in my body is asking, 'Where can I get some more of that?' " Rollins said.

So, with approval from the school, he recruited a handful of students -- Gerchick and Batmanghelidj among them -- and set out on a quest in early 2007 to win championships. Less than a year later, students won their first state title.

"He's basically a dad. I think he cares about us," said Gerchick, who is headed to Amherst College after graduation. "I guess we return the favor by winning."

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