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West Jordan • Kayden Troff's passion for chess began at age 3 and will reach new heights this weekend, when the 19-year-old competes for his second national championship.
But win or lose, the West Jordan native then will give up the game he loves while he serves a Mormon mission to Australia.
Troff also deferred a full-ride scholarship to play chess at St. Louis University to be an LDS missionary come October, a decision he said many of his peers don't understand.
What they don't realize, Troff said, is that he will be back. "Chess will always be part of my life."
The chess grandmaster and former junior champion heads Friday to St. Louis, where he will compete against nine of the country's top chess players younger than 21 in hopes of winning his second U.S. Junior Championship.
One of his mentors said his chances look good.
"He is one of the hardest-working kids in the game," said Tony Rich, executive director of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. "But he makes it look so effortless."
Opening moves • Troff grew up watching his father and older brothers play chess and eagerly waited his turn. That first game as a 3-year-old was a probably a miserable defeat, he said, but his skills and talent grew rapidly as chess went from a game to a lifestyle.
He began entering competitions at age 6, working with grandmasters privately and through elite national fellowships such as the Young Stars Team USA program at the Chess Club in St. Louis, where the junior championships will be held.
"The great thing about chess is you'll never really have the same game twice even though it seems like you should," he said this week as he hunkered down in his basement chess room at the family's West Jordan home, studying games of possible opponents.
"You find the best moves but there are so many possibilities and interesting ideas in a given game. You'll always find yourself in something completely new with chess."
Calm competitor • Troff's playing style is unique in that he straddles both defensive and offensive tactics in chess, said Rich, who has worked with him for years through tournaments in St. Louis, camps and fellowship programs.
And for being so young, Rich said, Troff can keep his cool in the face of stressful scenarios on the chess board.
"Whenever he is playing chess or even studying in our different programs, [Troff] has this persona where he is very relaxed and calm and taking it all in," the coach said.
Being home-schooled by his mother, Kim Troff, has given him flexibility to travel to more competitions and dedicate nearly six hours a day to practicing, playing through games with his coach, studying past matches online or working on chess strategies.
His mother Troff's teacher, cheerleader and confidante when traveling to tournaments said she will never forget some of the highlights along the way.
She recalled seeing him after he won a gold medal at the 2012 World Youth Championship in Slovenia, coming back from a near-defeat in the first few rounds of play.
"That was great," she said, "but the hug we shared after he left the match and ran to hug me was just everything."
Tough going • Despite his sister teaching piano a lesson upstairs and his nieces and nephews playing nearby, the younger Troff was laser-focused on chess during a recent visit to the family's suburban home, studying ways to sway an opening in his favor.
The St. Louis championship will be a contest as fierce as they come, Troff said, testing his endurance, creativity and technical skill. He won the competition in 2014 a title that helped earn him his grandmaster status the same year, at 16, elevating him among some of the world's youngest chess players to reach that level.
During the past month and a half, Troff has pored over old matches of his competitors and studied new strategies to give him an edge in the tournament.
Troff said he normally relies on technical skill to outplay his opponents, but he hopes to tweak his approach to match the strengths and weaknesses of his adversaries.
"You can see what people's tendencies are based on what they like to play," he said.
"For me, to hold a solid position of outplaying them is my ideal." Troff explained. "But then you have some people that are just attacking to get into crazy complications where both players don't really know what is going on. You have to be able to meet both styles of play and hope in the end you can play better than your opponent."
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