WEST JORDAN Chess champion Kayden Troff had his picture taken for the newspaper earlier this week. He's 9.
He is, perhaps, a bit more mature than your average 9-year-old. But still, he's 9. As the camera flashed, Kayden's face froze into a lockjaw version of a smile.
He can concentrate on a chess board for hours at a time. He can play against adults and beat them. But Kayden also has a tendency to twist the top of his ears when he's asked to talk about himself. He can feel awkward about having his photo taken. In short, he can act like any other kid his age.
Tomorrow, at a chess tournament in St. George, Kayden will be inducted onto the U.S. Chess Federation's 2008 All-American team. Out of tens of thousands of young chess players in this country, only 40 were selected.
The other All-Americans will be honored at a tournament in Houston this weekend, but the Troffs did not want to go to Texas. The whole family will be in southern Utah this weekend so the three Troff sons can play in the Igor Ivanov Memorial Tournament.
Ivanov, a Russian immigrant and chess grand master, had become a family friend before his death from cancer two years ago. So, Kayden's parents, Kim and Daniel Troff, arranged for their son to receive his All-American honor in Utah rather than in Texas.
Alan Crooks, director of the St. George Chess Center, will present the award. He promises to make certain Kayden feels properly honored at the Utah tournament. He'll be honored in front of the attending grand masters. (Grand masters are the rock stars of the chess world, Crooks explained in a telephone interview. Kids who are Kayden's age but who didn't qualify to play in the tournament will nonetheless be hanging around, hoping for autographs from grand masters.)
Kayden learned about chess by observing his father teaching his older brothers, Jeremy and Zachary. It seems their dad had always wanted a chess partner and he began teaching his two oldest sons while holding baby Kayden on his lap.
As Kayden's mother tells it, one day when he was around 3, Kayden asked to play a game. They set up the chess board for him and, to everyone's amazement, his mom says, "He knew how to play. He knew how each piece moved. He attacked.
"Then my husband just started working with all three of them."
For some reason maybe because the Troff kids are home-schooled and the parents didn't know other chess players at the time the Troffs didn't think twice when they saw an ad for a class taught by a grand master named Igor Ivanov.
Kim laughs now to think about how naive they were, about how her husband took three little boys to southern Utah for a weekend of lessons from a grand master.
As Kim recalls it, Ivanov was intrigued by how well Kayden played.
The Troff children had other chess teachers over the years, of course. But recently, when their current teacher moved away, Daniel decided to go back to teaching his boys himself. Kim says he studies hard to keep ahead of them.
And all three Troff boys continue to do well in chess. Jeremy, 15, has a rating approaching 2000, or "expert." Zachary, 12, was the state's fifth-grade chess champion last year, while Kayden took that honor for third grade.
At their home, the Troffs explained their strategies for warding off nervousness during a tournament. Jeremy gets up and walks around. Zachary brings an extra chess piece and squeezes it in his hand. And as for Kayden, well, he used to bite on pens, but that habit was so messy that recently his parents suggested he try chewing gum.