When he was 2 years old, Kayden Troff frequently sat atop his father's lap to watch him play chess. When Kayden turned 3, he said he wanted to play, too.
"We all just kind of laughed," said his mom, Kim Troff.
That was, until the tiny boy started shifting pieces.
"He knew not only how they moved, he could play a whole game of chess," she said. "From that point on, we realized it was something pretty amazing."
For years, the 14-year-old Kayden has been Utah's very own chess genius, winning championships and besting people many times his age. Now Kayden is working to take his play to the next level with former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. Kayden is one of about a dozen American chess prodigies who have been selected so far to spend up to the next five years working with Kasparov and others to perfect their game.
The goal is for the West Jordan teen to one day join the chess U.S. Olympiad Team. At 13, Kayden earned the title of No. 1 chess player in the U.S. for his age.
"It's a great opportunity, and I'm just going to try and work my hardest to live up to their expectations," Kayden said of being chosen for the Young Stars Team USA program, which includes trips to St. Louis and New York City each year to work with Kasparov.
Kayden just recently returned from a trip to St. Louis for the first master class of the program.
"It's like, 'Oh my goodness, there he is, that's him,'" Kayden said of meeting Kasparov for the first time. "But once you get used to him, he's a very nice guy."
Kayden said he was excited to learn from a man whom he considers to be "probably the greatest player in chess."
"The only comparison I can make would be if your son is a good basketball player," said Kim Troff, "and all of a sudden he gets a call from Michael Jordan and he says, 'I want to personally train you.'"
As part of the program, Kayden and the other kids, ages 9 to 15, get personal coaching throughout the year and then attend the master classes with Kasparov every six months. During the master classes, the kids bring the games they've played over the previous six months with analysis to discuss with Kasparov, said Michael Khodarkovsky, president of the Kasparov Chess Foundation, which is offering the program with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.
Khodarkovsky called Kayden "one of the top U.S. players of his generation." He said he was among the first kids selected to be part of the program.
"For the last couple of years, he showed quite steady, stellar results," Khodarkovsky said.
Kayden works hard to hone his skills, practicing about six to seven hours a day throughout the year. It's a heavy commitment, but for Kayden, who is homeschooled, the practice is far from drudgery. He enjoys the complexity of it.
"No matter how many games you play, it always seems like you're playing a new game every time," Kayden said.
He hopes to pass his enthusiasm on to others. Between lessons from coaches and mentoring from Kasparov, Kayden does his own coaching and teaching with Utah kids.
He and his family run a chess camp at The McGillis School in Salt Lake City each summer.
On Monday, Kayden stood before a couple dozen young children and teens in a classroom at McGillis, mapping out possible end-game moves on a large chess board. He taught them the importance of simplifying and coordinating, zipping large cut-out pieces from square to square for his young audience, many of whom are also competitive chess players.
"It's a great opportunity because he's so nice and funny," said camper Carly Atkinson, 9. "He's such a good chess player."
His students agree he's also a good teacher a teacher who's now learning from the best.