Forty years later, Dallas is running his own gang of outlaws, using the tricks his father taught him to hustle Harvard’s rival debaters straight under the rug. Having learned from the best, it’s no surprise that he’s considered by many to be the greatest debate coach in the country. Under his watch, the Harvard team has climbed to the very top of the supremely weird world of competitive policy debate. I spent a weekend with the team back in February, flying to my hometown of Chicago to follow them around at the last regular tournament of the season.
Before I actually saw it, I associated debate with briefcases and ties. I expected official procedure, strict rules and a swarm of snobby political buffs pretending to be lawyers. I also came expecting drugs. Mountains of coke, primarily—so much of the stuff that you could run a slalom. The Crimson actually footed the bill for my trip under the condition that I find some. These debater kids talk inhumanly fast, I was told, and the only way they can stay focused is by doing lines and taking meth. Unfortunately, my expectations did not pan out. But despite the absence of cocaine, I found a universe unlike any I’d ever seen before—a community where every college freshman in sight could speak at an incredible 600 words per minute, weaving the subtle ins and outs of theorists like Heidegger, Baudrillard, and Levinas into complex arguments about nuclear proliferation and toxic emissions. I found a world where college students, paired off into two-person teams, woke up at six every morning, frantically collected evidence for their arguments, and then ran four debates a day before hitting the bar for drinks with their judges.
Hosting the showdown was Northwestern University, where Harvard would be competing against 80 other colleges from across the country in the high octane three-day meltdown known as the annual Owen L. Coon Memorial Debate Tournament.
The topic for the year—and this weekend—was energy policy, and the stakes were enormous. Harvard’s top team, Elliot S. Tarloff ’05 and Michael K. Klinger ’05-’06, would be battling not only for a top spot at the Owen Coon but also for the prestigious Copeland Trophy, an award given out at the end of every season to the team with the best record and the most style. The Copeland is the holy grail of every debate season. Northwestern won it in 2003.
Now, they were up once again, with one more win than Tarloff and Klinger. But because of a traditional debate taboo against competing on your home turf, Northwestern did not register at the Owen Coon, leaving Tarloff and Klinger one last shot at the big prize before Tarloff graduates.
“The word on the street, and I’m not saying this is my prediction, is that Klinger and Tarloff are more popular and that we, Harvard, are more popular than Northwestern,” Dallas told me before the tournament. “They’ve won a lot, more than any other debate team in the nation. People would like to see somebody else win [the Copeland]. A lot of people are wishing us good luck.”
There was more riding on this competition than usual, in other words, but Klinger and Tarloff, collectively known as “KT” when they’re debating, handled the pressure with a cool confidence.
Klinger, the shifty-eyed, quick-thinking co-captain of the team, is known only by his last name to both his friends and his enemies. The general consensus on him, according to his teammates, Dallas, and pretty much everybody else I talked to, is that he’s a lazy bastard who could become one of the best debaters to ever play the game if he’d just put forth a little more effort. Klinger, 21, has one more year left on the Harvard team because he was kicked out of school after his freshman year for ditching too many Expos classes.
He’s still number one with a bullet though, and his partner Tarloff, a fresh dresser and an unlikely womanizer on the side, is just as good. Together, they’re basically unstoppable, and in the grand tradition of debate, they’re both most likely destined for positions of great power. People say that the debate community breeds more politicians and public policy makers than any other college activity—student government included. Top debaters are frequently scouted and recruited into high state positions, and several recent alums currently serve in the Department of Homeland Security and the C.I.A. Sure, a lot of debaters start their careers coaching and judging college debate, but more often than not, it’s just a temporary measure before law school or government.
According to Daniel E. Luxemburg ’07, a blockmate of mine who also happens to be the Harvard team’s most promising rising star, the race for the Copeland has only been as close as it is this season once in the last 20 years.
The Owen Coon was the last tournament of the year that would be considered in the deliberations—set to take place several weeks later among a group of national debate committee higher-ups—and if Klinger and Tarloff didn’t win, they would have no chance.
DAY ZERO: “MODERNITY IS THE HOLOCAUST"
I flew in to the city separately from the rest of the team, taking a two-hour train out from O’Hare Airport to Evanston, where the rest of them had already arrived and packed into their seventh floor suite in the luxurious Hotel Orrington.
When I got there, I found a storm of debaters teeming by the door with piles of luggage and plastic tubs full of files (tubs packed with a semester’s worth of research are a debate mainstay). A lot of them looked up at me as I walked in, probably wondering what team I was on and why I was carrying a big camera around my neck. I stood in the elevator with a frail looking bald man, and when he asked me who I was with, I said Playboy.
Upstairs, I found Luxemburg and his debate partner, Christine A. Malumphy ’05, the team co-captain, preparing their arguments for the next day with a skinny, fresh-faced guy with a hammer and sickle tattoo named Nate Gorelick. Gorelick is an assistant coach—a 24-year old NYU grad who runs an after school debate outreach program for inner-city kids in New York. He reminded me of the Wolf from Pulp Fiction, lying there on his king size bed and calmly barking instructions at Luxemburg and Christine.
“We’re gonna throw a pie at octos,” Nate says to Christine from his bed, in the characteristically foreign language that only other debaters can understand. “Because if there’s anything I learned during my entire undergraduate career, it’s that modernity is bad. Modernity is the Holocaust.”
The Harvard team employs a total of five assistant coaches: Nate and four others, who work mostly with Klinger and Tarloff, developing technique and logic and helping them gather the enormous amounts of evidence they need to be adequately prepared for a round. Dallas and second head coach Sherry Hall employ them for about $15,000 a year each. Some of the assistants work with the team year-round, while others, like Nate, only come down for tournaments. They’re all in their mid-twenties, they’re all friends, and they all remember each other from their days on the college circuit.
Klinger, Tarloff, and the pair’s four coaches were staying elsewhere on the seventh floor, all of them working and reading and discussing the next day’s strategies. The other four kids, freshmen Eli O. Anders ’08 and Alex N. Harris ’08, and sophomores Maya E. Frommer ’07 and Nikhil D. Mirchandani ’07, were staying in the next room over, and although they debated just as much as KT and Luxemburg-Malumphy, I didn’t get to see much of them at all. Their golden age, anyway, won’t arrive until next season at the earliest.
When we left the hotel for dinner around six in the evening, Dallas was waiting at the front door with a furious expression on his face. He grabbed Luxemburg by the shoulders as soon as he saw him and screamed in his face for being late. “We need to have a serious conversation,” he said. “You are always being late for everything. Do me a favor, out of respect, and be on time for something at this one tournament.”
It was the first time I’d ever seen him in person, and he was terrifying. Enormous, wild-eyed, and grizzly, he spoke with a predictably thick Texas accent. As he seared his gaze onto a very scared Luxemburg, I imagined Dallas coaching our embattled university president, which he did for four years as a law student when Summers was debating for MIT. Dallas told me that Summers’ biggest strength was his ability to listen for his opponents to say the wrong thing and “exploit it to win.”
That Friday evening, pairings for the next day’s match-ups were posted and every member of the Harvard team retreated into their rooms to plan their strategies. I didn’t feel right bothering Klinger and Tarloff in their room yet, but according to the schedule, Saturday would not be presenting them with any real challenges. There were only a few teams that could beat them, all told, and the chances of being matched against them in the first round were small. Preparation was still required, however, so the gang set diligently to work.
There was a lot to do. Between the eight of them, the debate team was traveling with just under 20 plastic tubs full of research they had done over the course of the season. Since tournaments only happen once every few weeks, that research is really the heart of the debate lifestyle, and it’s no exaggeration to say that debaters do more of it than any other student in college. In the weeks before a competition, for example, one member of the Harvard team is responsible for combing Lexis-Nexis for every article published in the United States that mentions President Bush or Congress. Because of a relatively new emphasis on philosophically framed arguments, debaters have to know Marx, Weber, Kant, and Plato inside and out as well as the specific dates, aims, and authors of every relevant piece of legislation floated in the Senate.
In other words, debaters are smarter than just about anyone else their age, and they know more than you about everything.
DAY ONE: “DEATH DRIVES A CHEROKEE.”
On Saturday morning I followed Luxemburg and Christine to their first round—a gimme, more or less, against a minor team from Florida.
Clumsily carrying bagels and fresh-squeezed orange juice, we entered the Orrington’s Mulford conference room, where a fat kid in a vertical striped shirt had set his things down on one of the tables. Neither Christine nor Luxemburg, both of them intensely focused and predictably nervous, made eye contact with him as they set up their base at the table across from him.
Meanwhile, I went out looking for action in the halls of the Orrington. I quickly found it by the window, where a rosy girl from the Florida team was sitting on her knees and practicing her argument out loud. It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone speak “debate-style,” and the sheer speed and incomprehensibility of her machine-like chatter was mind-blowing. I could make out a word here and there, but to follow her sentences—let alone the progression of her argument—was positively impossible. She sounded like an auctioneer, shrieking violently every 15 seconds like a drowning victim to catch her breath. People walked past her, but no one seemed to take note of her disturbing behavior except me. Apparently, this was completely normal.
“You do it fast, so you don’t pass out,” she told me when she was done practicing. “The idea is that if you talk fast, you can say more arguments.”
Debaters are trained in this fast talk from a young age. Luxemburg said that one of the most gruesome parts of training, which usually occurs at high school debate camps over the summer, is an exercise in which one must lodge a pencil under his tongue and attempt to enunciate as clearly as possible using only his lips. It builds speed, Luxemburg said, and it trains you not to move your mouth too much.
Watching the Florida round, I finally got a sense of how a debate actually works. At the start of the ordeal, each team is allowed an opening argument (either an “affirmative” or a “negative,” depending on what you’re assigned in the draw) and then a chance to question the other team in an informal, three-minute cross examination. These are the most fun, the part of the show where rock stars like Klinger get a chance to flex their argumentative muscles and tear apart their opponents. Following the first set of back and forths, each team is granted a rebuttal speech and a final closing argument. Energy policy has been the topic all season, but since every debate team takes a unique approach to the question, no two rounds are ever the same.
From where I sat, the Florida debate sounded more or less like a normal conversation played in fast forward. The fat kid didn’t look Luxemburg in the face as he asked him questions during the cross examinations, and Lux snapped back with frustrated, condescending answers. They interrupted each other constantly. The rosy Florida girl, for her part, vibrated in her chair as she spoke, hiccupping loudly to draw breath and peppering her speech with periodic exclamations of “oh gosh.” Luxemburg, meanwhile, calmly walked around the room as the girl screeched and hyperventilated, pulling pieces of evidence from his accordion file and handing them to Christine to read during her rebuttal.For a time, it looked like Lux might not come to the Owen Coon at all. Earlier this year, he announced to the team that he was quitting. His ideas about debate, he felt, had strayed out of line from everybody else’s. Luxemburg wanted to be more experimental—to use the work of fiction writers like Borges and Kafka as evidence and to incorporate film and media studies into his arguments. Within a week, Dallas and the team had talked him out of quitting by agreeing to let him pursue these experimental techniques.
Today, Lux is one of the best sophomores on the entire debate circuit. His decision to pursue unconventional modes of argumentation—he uses everything from SUV commercials to poetry—has had him winning rounds and speaker awards at almost every competition he’s been to this year.
Deathridge, the Northwestern coach known ominously as “the Duck,” says that Luxemburg is the only debater who can make that kind of thing work, adding that he’s “hands down” the best public speaker he’s ever seen. And the Duck is a seasoned soldier on this circuit. He’s been coaching debate for 20 years, and his team has consistently been at the top of the ranks—primarily because of his impeccably keen eye for talent. Though he failed to recruit Lux two years ago, he did win superstar M. Tristan Morales, Klinger and Tarloff’s big rival and an equally legendary figure on the circuit.
During the Florida debate, Lux played a series of SUV commercials on his laptop, commenting on the cultural implications of each and explaining just how hypocritical the “rugged lifestyle” of the SUV driver really is in the context of Heideggerian conceptions of morality.
“It’s hard not to notice,” he says about a Jeep ad featuring the grim reaper, “that Death is driving a Cherokee.”
The round took a total of 90 minutes, and Florida was soundly defeated. The Luxemburg-Malumphy team went on to post a 4-0 record for the day.
During the morning’s second round, I had planned to watch KT for the first time, but when I got to the room, all I found were two young kids sitting in the back typing on laptops. One of them had braces, and the other was dressed in a blue tracksuit. They told me they were high school students from Minnesota. They had driven down to Chicago with their debate coach to watch Klinger and Tarloff—to pick up a few pointers from the masters before KT broke up on account of Tarloff’s graduation.
The three of us sat in the room for about half an hour before someone came in and informed us that the other side had forfeited.
I left the young fans and went looking for their idols, who I quickly found on the balcony killing time with the coaches and talking about high school basketball. I joined them for lunch, where I was told I could finally meet Northwestern’s infamous Tristan, another star so big that high school debaters know his name.
Dallas, earlier that day, had told me that if you went around and asked 50 people in the Orrington if they liked Tristan Morales, 48 of them would say they “couldn’t stand the fuck.”
“I like him okay personally,” Dallas said, “but he’s arrogant, he’s elitist, he’s smarter than you are, and he knows it. And you know he knows it and he doesn’t try to hide the fact that he knows it, and it pisses you off.”
Tarloff, meanwhile, seems extremely well-liked. Ever the ladies’ man, Tarloff wore a white dress shirt and a tie all weekend—a relic of class among a sea of sweatshirts and blue jeans. Someone from another team told me he does it to intimidate, but the truth is, Tarloff was friendlier, sunnier, and more approachable than anyone else I met all weekend.
I saw Tristan for the first time at the Olive Mountain, a Middle Eastern shwarma place the Duck had commissioned to feed everybody in the tournament. He looked like a regular jock, with a silver stud in his ear and a baseball cap on his head. He seemed to avoid looking anyone in the eye, preferring instead to stare far off over their shoulder as he spoke.
That said, he seemed to get along great with KT; the mutual air of respect between the three of them was reminiscent of Olympic athletics. The Copeland remained on everyone’s mind, however, and although relations were friendly, the air was inherently thick with a passive, distant tension.
After lunch, we walked back to the hotel with Tristan and parted ways, and I followed Tarloff and Klinger to their next stop: a round against an experimental team of Dadaists from Regis College in Colorado.
At 2:30, half an hour after the debate was supposed to start, the Regis team strolled in carrying just one accordion file. They were packing light, compared to KT’s six full tubs—an indication, Tarloff said, that they weren’t going to pull anything but their usual, self-contained Dada attack.
One side effect of the rise of critical theory in policy debate has been so-called “concept” teams, like this one from Regis. These teams attack the fundamentals of language, argumentation, and sometimes, the debate activity itself, often ignoring the assigned subject altogether. Klinger and Tarloff prefer to stick to matters of policy, so they started off against the Dadaists by keeping the subject strictly energy. Regis would be using a “kritik,” as Tarloff explained to me, a method which originated in the early ’90s when critical theory first entered the realm of policy debate. Instead of just using facts and statistics, kids started invoking philosophical arguments to attack their opponents’ positions, and today, you usually can’t get through a single round without hearing Foucault’s name at least once. Despite the fact that Tarloff and Klinger prefer to stick to straight policy, they can wipe their opponents with critical theory if the situation calls for it.
Klinger had the first speech. When he began, he transformed immediately, speaking faster than anyone I had ever heard in my life. The sound was dizzying, and yet the words were somehow completely clear. His breathing was metered, restrained, and regular—nothing like the nightmarish babble that came out of the Florida girl’s mouth earlier that morning. Tarloff, sitting quietly at his partner’s side, looked over at me with a proud smile.
Later, Tarloff explained to me that clarity was what separated a good debater from a bad one. Anyone can speak fast, he said, but to be understood is the most important thing.
Meanwhile, one of the Regis guys, dressed in baggy jeans, a backwards hat, and an Adidas sweater, was meticulously tearing up a sheet of paper into little bits and gluing it into his notebook. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but Tarloff had mentioned that they might do something along those lines to prove “the meaninglessness of syntax.”
As I suspected, the Regis guys spoke slowly—which is to say, like normal people. Strangely, I held a little bit of contempt for them at this point, having grown used to the breakneck speed of the other debaters. In their speeches, the Dadaists referenced Russian writers like Pelevin, Bulgakov, and Solzhenitsin, using their works as an excuse to self-righteously make fun of debate.
“Disorder creates a mode of escape that unravels itself and liberates us instead of making us into fossils,” one of the Dadaists said, looking around the room dramatically. “It is a book of white noise that erases itself.”
When it came time for Tarloff to speak, he rolled up his sleeves, sniffed, and asked the room if everybody was ready. A few people in the audience laughed, and he energetically kicked into a brilliant speech that lasted about eight minutes.
“Debate does not destroy human experience,” he concluded. “Debate is a human experience.”
KT won, and they had no trouble with the next team either. Undefeated, they headed to dinner.
At midnight, Luxemburg and I decided to go to bed, and as we rode up the elevator, he tried to communicate to me just how untouchable Klinger and Tarloff really are in the context of debate history. Most of the people trying to get assistant coaching positions at Harvard, he said, are doing so because they want the opportunity to coach them. If Klinger did as much work as Tarloff, Lux told me, the two of them could be legendary—paradigmatic, in fact, for what a great debate team should be.
DAY TWO: “YOU SHOULD ASK THE LITTLE YELLOW BEAR.”
Sunday was mostly uneventful, with KT losing a round and bringing their two-day record to 7-1.
Luxemburg and Christine went down twice, putting their total record at 6-2. Even so, both teams would qualify for the top 16 elimination round with no problems.
Before that could happen, though, in their last debate of the day, Christine and Lux found themselves in a messy swamp of a situation involving an uppity, difficult team from Weber State. Also something of a “concept” team, Weber argued that because all language is meaningless, a debate about emissions and pollution was completely irrelevant.
In one of their rebuttals, the Weber team uttered a string of gibberish containing key words from various tracts of critical theory as well as references to Jacques Lacan, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fight Club, and M*A*S*H. Christine, already in a bad mood on account of the day’s losses, thought they were making fun of her, and interpreted the speech as a personal affront.
“I have a question,” she said before launching into her response. “What did we do to deserve that?”
Having delivered a convincing counterargument, Christine sat down, and what ensued was the weirdest cross examination I witnessed all weekend.
“What is psychoanalysis?” the Weber girl asked.
“I don’t know,” an infuriated Christine answered. “What are you?”
“Um,” the girl stammered.
At first I thought Christine was throwing the round, but it quickly became clear that she was in fact turning their “language is meaningless” argument against them, showing the judge just how ridiculous such an approach is in the context of a policy debate round.
“I said what I said,” Christine continued, responding to a question about Luxemburg’s use of culture theorist Slavoj Zizek. “You should ask Winnie the Pooh. You should ask the little yellow bear.”
“Okay, cool,” the girl said, getting used to the treatment now, choosing awkwardly to ignore it, and sitting down.
The round was over, and the judge began thinking over his verdict. Christine began nervously knitting a scarf that she had been working on intermittently all weekend, while the judge considered his decision.
“Gotta admit I’m not in a very good place right now,” he finally said, sitting down at his desk. “Most of the argumentation in this debate was in most places quite good. But the tone didn’t put me in a very good place.”
“Sorry about that,” Christine said sheepishly.
The judge paused briefly, looked around the room, and reluctantly announced that he was voting in favor of Harvard.
That evening, at the dinner banquet, Klinger got the tournament award for best overall speaker, and Tarloff trailed nearby in third place. The award didn’t impact anything at all—it didn’t extend past the tournament and it was unlikely to affect the Copeland odds. Still, it was nice to have. Luxemburg, who had been complaining all weekend about how poorly he’d been performing, did not place in the top 20, and Christine, who had been getting speaker awards on a regular basis all year, also missed the mark.
The Duck gave a brief address as the debaters ate, and the night dwindled before too long as everyone was exhausted and somewhat nervous about the upcoming elimination rounds. Bedtime came early, and the next morning at seven, as soon as the first round brackets were posted, the pressure clicked on and the real games began.
DAY THREE: “IF YOU WANT US TO PROVE IT TO YOU, WE CAN GO WAY FASTER.”
Luxemburg and Gorelick were out of the room by the time I woke up in the morning, so I took the opportunity to pack my bags for my 6 p.m. flight back to Boston. Regardless of whether Klinger and Tarloff made it through the day, I was going to miss the championship, which wouldn’t begin until 10 p.m. at the earliest. Realizing my coverage of this dramatic tournament was going to be inevitably cut short, I grudgingly found a match-up sheet in the hotel lobby and went to KT’s first round.
There was a serious audience at this one, with six debaters sitting around the room typing furiously on their laptops, most of them inputting all the arguments flying back and forth into Excel spreadsheets for future reference and self-instruction. Today’s rounds would be presided over by three judges each, a special measure intended to equalize any potential biases during the high-stakes elimination rounds.
Klinger and Tarloff won the round swiftly, garnering a unanimous vote from the panel of judges—one of whom lovingly berated the losing team in his post-round comments. “You’ve got to slow down and tell me what the fuck your argument is!” he shouted. “I don’t know what the fuck you said!”
Christine and Luxemburg, meanwhile, were busy losing to a team from Kentucky they had no business losing to. Christine closed her eyes as the head judge announced a 2-1 ruling in favor of their opponents. As soon as the round was over, she and Lux went straight back to the tapas bar with Dallas’s credit card and started drinking.
KT was set to go against Long Beach in the first round, which meant I’d finally get to see the famous hip hop team debate. I went out to the ninth floor balcony to have a cup of coffee and eat a quick breakfast.
Serendipitously, the Long Beach rappers were there, talking nervously to a short-haired Southern woman I assumed was their coach. The bigger one, Walid Kandeel, wore a crooked black L.A. baseball cap and a pair of Air Jordans. The other was a white guy with an unfortunate beard who initially refused to give me his “colonial name” but later grudgingly identified himself as David Peterson, DP for short. The coach had huddled them together in a triangle, and when I walked a little closer, I realized that she was giving them a dramatic pep talk.
“Today is a battle,” she said. “Everyone will be battling today. Everyone will be out for themselves today.” She patted them on the shoulders and they went in. At 2 p.m., Long Beach hit the play button on their stereo, and the round began.
“Now I see the American dream wasn’t meant for me,” Kandeel rapped over his beat. “It never gave me nothing but slavery.” DP stayed seated, awkwardly bobbing his head and mouthing the words.
“You talk about apocalypse,” Kandeel said during the cross examination. “A climate apocalypse that’s going to take place in the future. But our argument is that this shit is happening now. It’s happening in my community where I live.”
“But our argument’s about global warming,” Klinger answered in a deadpan, “which is a unique scientific process where CO2 particulates heat up the atmosphere. That destroys bio-diversity and kills human beings. So obviously that’s not going on in your home town, right?”
Kandeel and DP then attacked KT for speaking too fast and making debate inaccessible to students from the inner city who couldn’t afford expensive debate camps or home computers in high school. KT speaks a specific language, they said, that is useless because normal people can’t understand it.
“What’d you mean by a specific language?” Klinger asked. “Do you mean English? Because you guys both spoke in English too.”
“It has to do with the speed, the jargon—”
“You went pretty went fast too, man,” Klinger interrupted. “Probably easily as fast as I was going for most of mine.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay, well, where’s the bright line? How many words per minute does it take before it’s no longer an effective social process?”
“I think the breathing, the gasping...” Kandeel’s partner said, trailing off somewhat.
“I’m an asthmatic,” Klinger said sarcastically. “That’s seriously your standard?”
“When you speak normally, you don’t double clutch in your breathing,” Kandeel answered calmly, ignoring the laughter.
To the audience’s delight, Klinger insisted that he had been trying to slow down the whole time.
“If you want us to prove it to you, we can go way faster,” he said as the entire audience continued laughing.
At the end of the cross examination, almost the entire room—spectators, judges, and debaters alike—went outside to smoke before the last two speeches. Even though Kandeel and DP had basically labeled KT a couple of racists during their rebuttals, the four of them chatted like old friends and at the end of the break even made a date to meet up at the bar later in the evening.
KT once again won 3-0, and at this point, I sadly gathered my things and went to the airport. Quarterfinals was a tough round against Dartmouth, I hear, but they pulled in a 3-0 just the same. In the semis, they avenged Christine and Luxemburg’s loss against Kentucky, “a crafty young little team,” in the words of Dallas, that had had a miraculously successful day.
When they decisively beat Berkeley for the championship at one in the morning, the 40 people watching in the stands cheered and clapped. Many of them knew Klinger and Tarloff were now in the running for the Copeland.
Unbeknownst to most people in the Harvard community, Klinger and Tarloff came home the next day as heroes, anxious about the Copeland—whose results have still not been released—and ready to start practicing for the final competition of the year, to be held over spring break in Washington, D.C. The Owen Coon, all in all, was quite a tournament, as Dallas gleefully told me over the phone a week later. He had trained some damn good outlaws.
I wish I could be one of them. They know more about what goes on in the world than any other kids their age, and to see the scraggly, the nerdy, and the stoned transform into rapid-fire fact-spitting machines is inspirational. But it’s more than just a competition about knowledge—it’s a contest of style, reputation, and wit. So far it’s spawned a special on College Sports TV, an extensive ethnography entitled Gifted Tongues, and according to the rumor mill, Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz is planning to film a documentary about it.
The activity breeds weirdness and brilliance, and personally I hate my high school for never offering it. I could have been something, basically, and now we’re all at a disadvantage because we’ll never catch up.
As I write this, the Harvard team is busy administering the high school tournament, earning their budget and breaking their backs trying to make sure the kids get home alive. You can see the little ones rushing around Harvard Yard in suits, carrying trophies and wearing stupid ties, most of them unaware of just how much weirder everything is going to get when they make the jump to the college circuit. Waiting for the quad shuttle one evening, I stopped a group of them and asked if they’d heard of Klinger and Tarloff.
“Sure, man,” one of them said with a smirk. “They just won at Northwestern. I actually saw Klinger walking around earlier today. It was cool.”
The others passively confirmed the admiration and they were on their way. I thought about warning them, I really did—telling them about how complicated things would get, how busy their heads would become. Fact is, though, with kids like this, it would probably only encourage them. After all, they could become the next KT, and failing that, they could at least get some cushy government jobs.
—Alyssa N. Wolff contributed to the reporting of this story.