GM-elect Kayden Troff: A Case Study by Kenneth Kiewra [EXCERPT]
By Kenneth A. Kiewra   
April 14, 2014
Nurturing300bookcover.jpgKenneth A. Kiewra, father of IM Keaton Kiewra, is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He recently contributed a fascinating new chapter to the book, The Nurturing of Talent, Skills & Abilities edited by Michael F. Shaughnessy. His section focused on five case studies of exceptional young Grandmasters and the background to their success including GMs Robert Hess, Marc Arnold, Daniel Naroditsky and Ray Robson. We present an excerpt from the chapter, the fifth case study, GM-elect Kayden Troff.

Kayden Troff: Sacrifice to Win

Kayden Troff was raised in Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, a place with minimal chess resources. Kayden Troff’s introduction to chess mirrored Naroditsky’s. Kayden’s father was a recreational chess player who wanted someone to play chess with so he taught Kayden’s older brothers how to play. Kayden sat silently on his Dad’s lap and watched his Dad and brothers play. When Kayden barely turned three years old, he announced to his Dad that he was ready to play. Dad thought that he would be a good sport and humor “the baby” so he set up the board and had Kayden try to play.

The family was amazed when they saw that Kayden knew how all the pieces moved and how to attack with them without being taught directly. From that moment on, Kayden was a regular player in the Troff household. Kayden’s father soon realized that family chess was not enough to contain the boys’ interest and skill levels. But, he knew nothing about chess activities outside his home, especially “the scholastic chess world” that awaited them. But, he learned about available resources and scholastic chess and began taking the boys to local tournaments and to a community chess club in the Salt Lake City area where they—including five-year old Kayden—would dominate other kids and even adults.

Kayden’s intellectual gifts seem well suited to chess. Kim Troff reported that Kayden was born with an ability to see patterns, a skill that is crucial for chess success. She also reported that Kayden was obsessed early on with following patterns or routines. She said, “He loved to see patterns. He loved following routines. Everything had to be done exactly the same way every day.” Kim Troff, however, believes that Kayden’s innate gifts account for just about 10% of his chess ability. She said, “I think the rest comes from his willingness to take something that he loves and just put a lot of work into it.”

Kayden is the fifth youngest of six children, all of whom are home-schooled by Kim who is also the family homemaker. Husband Dan is a banker. In the Troff home, hard work and high achievement are stressed. Kim Troff said, “We believe very strongly in hard work. It is a big foundation of ours so we have taught our kids from the time they were very little that they can accomplish anything they want to if they are willing to put the work into it. One way we foster that belief is through family projects. We built a lot of things as a family like patios and walkways made of bricks. We show and teach the kids that hard work is okay (and with it) there is no limit to what can be accomplished.” The family also stresses togetherness and mutual support in the pursuit of excellence. Kim said, “We tell our kids that if they work hard for something, we will make sure that you have the family’s full support. You need not do it alone. We’ll be there for you. We are very invested in each other, and we celebrate each others’ successes.”

In terms of chess instruction, Dan was Kayden’s first teacher and he continued to work with Kayden even after Kayden began training with professional coaches. In order to teach Kayden, Dan studied chess on his own 10-15 hours per week during his lunch hour and at night after the kids went to bed. He read books, watched videos, and studied grandmaster games that allowed him to create a chess book with specialized lessons that he and Kayden used to study. During one period when Dan was Kayden’s primary teacher, Kayden’s chess rating rose an astounding 300 points. Kim Troff is involved in chess instruction as well. When Kayden takes lessons via computer, Kim listens in on all lessons, takes notes, and compiles those notes in a folder that Dan later uses to review lesson material with Kayden.

Because Dan eventually reached his chess instruction ceiling, the Troffs hired a number of professional coaches over the years to work with Kayden. In some cases coaching changes were made because Kayden’s ability was exceeding that of his coach. In other cases, coaches were replaced because Kayden’s parents were dissatisfied with Kayden’s progress or because coach and player were not a good fit. The Troffs, for example, dismissed Kayden’s first grandmaster coach because Kayden was not progressing sufficiently relative to the expense for grandmaster lessons. Moreover, the coach was not available to Kayden throughout an entire summer. Kim Troff said, “At that point, we just said, this isn’t working. Kayden wasn’t progressing at all and was stuck at (a rating of) 1700 for that whole year. And, we were paying $300 a month.”

The family later hired a new grandmaster coach who lived in Serbia, and Kayden took three lessons per week. Eventually, though, this coach did not work out either because the Troffs wanted a coach who Kayden could call anytime there was a question and who could be with Kayden at tournaments. Moreover, the Troffs felt that the Serbian coach was not up to date with current chess theory. The Troffs eventually found two new GM coaches for Kayden—one who focused exclusively on game openings and another who worked on other aspects of Kayden’s game.

Managing and financing Kayden’s chess career has been a supreme sacrifice for the Troff family. But just like in chess where players sacrifice material now for long-term gains, the Troff’s recognize that their sacrifices are sound and rewarding. Kim said, “The personal sacrifice has been huge, and the money sacrifice has been huge, but the payoff has been well worth it.” Kim estimates that they spend about $20,000 per year to cover the costs of Kayden’s lessons, tournament fees, materials, and travel to national and international tournaments. Kim said, “A lot of people say to us, well, of course, Kayden’s good because he can take grandmaster lessons. Well that grandmaster requires a price, and it is a very high price. And, we’ve done some unbelievably crazy things to make chess work.”
Kayden hugging his Mom after earning GM norm #2, see Kayden's CLO report on it here

First, the family lives in a home that is too small for eight people, but they cannot afford to move. Second, the family does extra work trying to raise money for Kayden’s chess. The parents worked second jobs as janitors for years at nearby office buildings. Each summer, the family organizes and runs a weeklong chess camp. Dan spends about 400 hours planning and supervising the camp.

And, they have sold things on E-bay. Not just personal items. Kim said, “We purchased truckloads of things and sold them.” Kayden has done work too. He was hired to write a weekly Blog for a chess website in exchange for lesson time with a grandmaster. Of course, because of Kayden’s young age, this time consuming task became Kim’s as well. She said, “All the people who read the Blog say that Kayden is the most incredible writer ever. Well, I just want to laugh. He’s 12. Yes, they’re his ideas and words, but it only works because I’m there saying, ‘okay, what do you want to say; what ideas are you trying to get across; or that doesn’t sound quite right, can you say it another way?’ So, every time he writes, it takes him hours to do it and it takes the same amount of time for me because I can’t simply tell him to go write his Blog.”

Third, the family developed an elaborate website to chronicle Kayden’s chess career and to raise money through advertisements and donations. The website also serves to protect the family’s time from the many chess writers and followers who want to know more about Kayden. Finally, the family cuts back whenever possible. Regarding chess, they substitute long drives for flights, stay in modest hotels, and pack suitcases full of food to offset restaurant costs. Kim said this about the family’s sacrifices for chess: “You have to understand that (chess success) doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t. None of it just happens. You have to be willing to sacrifice to make it happen.”

Kayden loves chess and practices about six hours per day. Still, his mom provides additional motivation and said that, “my biggest role is being his emotional support.” She once told Kayden this in the midst of an unsuccessful tournament, “Kayden, you know that Mom’s main job is to be your cheerleader, to cheer you on, tell you that you can do it, keep you going. Sometimes my job is to be the listening ear so you can talk and work things out. And, sometimes my job is to give you a kick in the pants, and that’s what you are getting right now.” Kim recognizes that chess is not always fun for Kayden and in those times she reminds him of his chess dreams, what it takes to reach them, and that others have invested heavily in his chess development.

She said, “If Kayden’s dream ever changes, if he ever gets to the point that he doesn’t want to do this anymore, then we pull out. I will never force him to do it. But so long as he is pursuing the dream, when he is lazy, I will sit him down and say ‘we’ve all invested way too much for you not to give your full effort. This isn’t just about you. This isn’t just your dream. There are a lot of people supporting you.’”

Kayden at the Holi Color Festival in Utah, More photos on his facebook page

In summary, Kayden was raised outside an established chess culture. His parents, though, created a chess culture in the home where Kayden learned to play chess with his father and brothers. His parents also made many sacrifices to further Kayden’s chess development. His father, for example, studied chess so that he could coach Kayden. And, both parents took on extra jobs as janitors or chess camp directors to fund Kayden’s chess. Kayden’s mom also pushed Kayden when necessary, reminding him that he represented the many other people who worked hard and supported him behind the scenes.

Kenneth A. Kiewra

Find more information on The Nurturing of Talent, Skills & Abilities here and find more about Kayden on his website, twitter and facebook.