Here I am nestled in the tranquil academic setting of Arizona State University, using a private ASU email that has never seen the filth or decay of USCF politics, when this missive rudely shows up in my in-box. Wait, before delving into this mess, you might want to delve into the other Nipsian mess first as background.
Newsflash: See below for an exciting new poll!
hide details Dec 17 (1 day ago)
The following article presents evidence of recent instances of deliberate manipulation of the USCF rating system. While the activity may be technically legal, it strongly indicates that the current system of USCF ratings must be carefully revised and better policed to stop such blatant abuse.
Sound off in the blog http://chess_watcher.livejournal.com/643.html. You can post your thoughts with or without registering, if you prefer to do this discreetly.
A brief history of ratings abuse
Barely two years after Nicholas Nip’s rapid ratings rise which made him the youngest-ever NM in America, it would appear we have another young rising star of American chess. Kayden Troff, in three short weeks, has added more than 100 points to his standard rating, currently 2340. Like Nip before him, Troff achieved this spectacular rating gain without playing in a single regular tournament, relying instead on matches. While Nip was undoubtedly a talented young player, his match-inflated rating clearly did not reflect his true strength. As a result, after breaking the 2200 barrier, Nip participated in a single tournament, where he withdrew after his first loss, and he has since completely disappeared from the chess scene.
Similarly, the evidence should compel anyone to question whether Troff’s current rating reflects his true strength because the evidence strongly suggests deliberate manipulation of the current rating system. Therefore, the USCF ratings system has to be revised and better policed as soon as possible to stop such blatant abuse.
Why would anyone manipulate Troff’s rating? While the rating would not help him win any chess games, being #1 is key for fundraising. Of course, the #1 rating does not mean much unless others know about it. Based on an examination of Troff publicity, the Troffs understood that from the very beginning and went about the advertising and fundraising business like real pros. While local Utah papers provided an initial outlet, they lack the broad reach of the Internet. Thus there are currently at least six blogs that in different ways promote Kayden:
A number of these blogs, by the way, appear to be written by Kayden himself, and written very well.
Could it be that what we have here is a true talent, both a gifted chess player and a gifted writer? One would like to see some corroborating evidence. As anyone who met Kayden in person knows, he usually does not say much, and when he does… well, in his interview at the World Youth http://wycc2010.chessdom.com/video-and-interviews-round-8/ Kayden does not come across as particularly articulate and, rather embarrassingly, could not even remember the name of his coach, Armen Ambartsoumian. That did not stop Troff from using a picture featuring Armen embracing him at World Youth on his blog http://kaydentroff.blogspot.com/ soliciting donations.
Kayden is clearly not an orator, but there is no real evidence his written English is any better. In his online chats with peers (other chess kids) Kayden has demonstrated neither the depth nor polished grammar nor complete syntax of the blogs. His two favorite phrases seem to be “Way cool” and “I am awesome”. Most of the more extensive discourse therein is actually quotes from his chess blogs. By the way, where does Kayden find all this time to maintain his blogs? A much likelier explanation is that the blogs are written by Kayden’s father (who does write very well) and knows a thing or two about chess, as can be seen at http://blog.chess.com/Piecefulchaos/kayden-troffs-dad. Another likely candidate is… well, did you know that Kayden Troff has a publicist? To the careful reader, fundraising suggests itself as the most likely motivation here.
For example, on July 26, 2010, Rex Sinquefeld’s Charitable Foundation announced the Chess Scouts Merit Badge
This did not go unnoticed, as Troff’s Facebook page shows:
August 4, 2010: “I read on the USCF site how they were going to work on creating the merit badge. They haven’t published the requirements yet or I’d definitely have to work on that one.”
August 24, 2010: “Awesome!!! I’ve been wondering when they would come out with that article in Boy’s Life Scouting magazine.”
August 26, 2010: “Boy’s Life was supposed to include my website address at kaydentroff.blogspot.com and we were hopeful that with it’s wide circulation across the United States this might be a help to get some sponsorships, but that didn’t happen.”
But more to the point: Whether or not Kayden is a writer, he must be an amazingly talented chess player, right? Let’s see. Did Kayden ever win any important adult tournaments? No. Scholastic national competitions? Not a single one. Did Troff win any international events? He did win the North American Youth Championship, where with the rating of 2174 FIDE Kayden was by far the highest rated in the tournament (the average rating of rated opponents was 1834)
In particular, Troff could not beat Jeevan Karamsetty (National Champion), rated 1894 FIDE at the time, despite a difference of almost 200 rating points.
Admittedly, Troff just got a silver medal at the last World Youth competition. As Kayden’s blog states, he is “number 2 in the world for his age with a record 1400 players from 87 countries!” http://kaydentroff.blogspot.com/. That sure sounds impressive. One clarification, however: 1400 is the total number of players in 12 sections, but why not put a good spin on numbers? Did Troff play excellent chess in Greece, worthy of his inflated rating? One could argue he did receive a lot of help from his opponents who blundered left and right. The silver medal looks impressive on its own, but even that achievement is tarnished in the context of what has been happening with his rating.
So how did Troff get this rating of 2340—amazing for his age? Here are the facts, each one verifiable.
Let us start by introducing Damian Nash, the current Utah State Champion, a long-time supporter of Troff, and the chief TD in the majority of recent tournaments featuring Troff, in particular the last three matches which catapulted Troff’s rating well over 2300. Nash also controls the Utah Chess Association Chess Excellence Scholarship Fund
100% of which went to Troff in the past two years.
Next, there is the mysterious figure of Harold Stevens. Who is he? Troff’s blog http://blog.chess.com/KaydenTroff/playing-for-1 explains: “His name is Harold Stevens and he is a homeless guy that lives in Moab. Harold had been playing chess for many years, but hadn’t played any rated games until recently. How was Harold discovered? The people in Moab are always looking for more people to be in their chess club. Harold hangs around town and his chess abilities were discovered. Damian Nash who was the highest rated active player in Moab played Harold and figured out that he has some talent. Damian later set up some tournaments to get Harold a rating. Harold played 30+ standard games and had only one draw (all the others were wins) and ended with a 2348 rating once he came out of his provisional.”
Apparently, Damian Nash finds a “homeless guy” with some chess skills and sets up tournaments (actually matches) for him to get an official rating. The only inaccuracy in Troff’s account is that Stevens actually got a rating of 2418
not 2348, which presented an obvious problem. A homeless guy from Moab got into the US Top 100 list, so the USCF adjusted his initial rating to 2325 based on 10 games, since Stevens does not have a FIDE rating and had not played any rated games until recently, thus avoiding a scandal on a grand scale. A careful examination shows that in three tournaments that established Stevens’ rating:
he lost just 0.5 points in 31 games. Who did Stevens beat? 1) The benefactor Nash (2012), 2) an old master from Colorado, Robert Fordon (2114 USCF), who has played a total of four tournaments since 2004, and 3) a handful of Utah chess players with USCF ratings ranging from 900 to 1450. Note that all three “tournaments” are actually matches set up by TD Nash where Stevens was playing against the rest of the participants. By current USCF rules, Stevens’ 30 wins in a row would have netted him a USCF rating of approximately 2520(!) if USCF did not intervene. That would, in just two months, have landed Stevens at #47, just ahead of IM Mark Esserman, who worked for over 18 years to get to where he is right now.
This, of course, would not be the first time someone abused the system in a similar manner. In addition to Nicholas Nip, Robert Tanner also comes to mind. As Mark Ginsburg writes in his blog
“Things can get really silly – for example a sponsoring relative might even be paying the ‘hurry-up offense’ match opponents. The incentives for abuse make for a lengthy list indeed. This sort of glaring abuse problem was actually exposed by Sam Sloan when he outed Robert Tanner’s fake matches, forcing Tanner’s ouster from the USCF Ethics (!!) committee. Tanner was trying to gain an NM title and claimed matches vs campfire buddies as legitimate games.”
It is one thing that chess parents and local supporters are blatantly manipulating ratings to unfairly promote a talented chess kid. The apparent complicity of USCF personnel is more disturbing. Bill Hall does not need any introduction; he is the executive director of the USCF with the authority to assign any rating to any chess player in the US. Yet, Bill Hall is hardly an impartial spectator himself, as illustrated by his contributions to Troff’s fundraising campaign. Organizer Damian Nash’s ad in http://www.utahsummergames.org/sports/chess.html
reads: “Chess Lesson and Simultaneous Exhibition by US Chess Federation Executive Director, Bill Hall. A fundraising event to help send Utah’s Kayden Troff to the World Youth Champs in Greece. Mr. Hall, a USCF expert-level player will take on a large number of people simultaneously. A great chess opportunity for kids and beginning adults.” How many other chess kids benefit from such fundraising events, courtesy of USCF officials? Will he come down and likewise support your talented child? The Troffs were understandably very grateful, as Kayden’s Facebook page shows: “Hey Damian, How about telling everyone about the fundraising event to help me get to the World Youth Championships that will feature Bill Hall the Executive Director of the USCF. I think it’s awesome that both you and Bill would do this for me!”
Staying at the top
Now, at last, let’s come back to Troff’s meteoric rise in the past few weeks. Losing the #1 spot is bad for publicity. But in June 2010 Troff lost his #1 spot on the Quick ratings list to Luke Harmon-Vellotti. This did not escape the Troffs’ notice. On 07/08/2010 Kayden’s father writes in his blog http://blog.chess.com/Piecefulchaos/kayden-troffs-dad
“Both Kevin Wang and Luke Harmon-Velotti have been chasing Kayden for all this time and Luke finally bumped a few points ahead of Kayden when the August lists will be published. We’ve been aware of this for a few weeks now, and I talked with Kayden about playing in a tournament or two to potentially continue his reign as the #1 Blitz player…” It did not take long to organize a set of matches, called “Youth Championship Warmup #1-4”:
which helped recapture the top spot for Troff, raising his USCF Quick rating by 86 points, to 2311, finishing with a perfect score of 19/19 against 3 other players, none of whom played each other in these matches. The opponents have certain desirable traits in common: Hans Morrow (USCF 2000) and Stephen Gordon (USCF 2100) are on their respective floors. The third opponent, Frank Flynn, barely played in any tournaments until the end of 2009 (right around the time Steven was recruited by Nash). During the first of the Warmup matches, Flynn’s Quick rating was 2101, his highest ever. Assuming all the opponents’ ratings reflected their actual strength, it would have been statistically impossible for Troff to emerge with a perfect score in 19 quick games.
Following these matches, Troff contentedly wrote on his Facebook page: “I recaptured my #1 place in the Quick under 13 and blew it out of the water by also being the #1 Quick under 16 and the #4 Quick under age 21 for the US.” On October 2, 2010 he brags: “I am #1 player on both the under 13 and the under 16 USCF lists-above IM Sam Shankland, NM Daniel Naroditsky, GM Ray Robson-guess they’re just gonna have to catch me now…” (We should correct Troff here, Naroditsky is an FM.) On November 22, 2010 Troff adds: “I was trying to catch GM Robert Hess’s blitz rating, but he just played a tournament that will put a little more distance between us.” Unlike Troff, the four referenced players have won multiple National Championships.
In October 2010, Kevin Wang overtook Troff in standard rating and Luke Harmon-Vellotti, Daniel Gurevich, and Justus Williams (all four are National Champions) nearly caught up with him. Furthermore, after his return from Greece, Troff dropped his standard rating from 2241 to 2234 in the Utah Closed tournament,
Allegedly, the Troffs could not let the #1 spot in the all-important standard top-list slip away, which brings us to the last three matches organized by Damian Nash: Utah Master Series #1-3:
All three featured a match format where Troff played a total of 15 games against three other players (Harold Stevens, Frank Flynn, and Damian Nash, whose USCF ratings are all in the range 2048-2258), while Troff’s opponents played a total of two games against each other.
In addition to being both organizer and points donor, Nash also wore the hat of the Chief TD. Thus he had the authority to designate these matches as tournaments. This designation skirts the USCF rules on computing the ratings using tournament rather than match rules. Primarily, tournament designations allow giving bonus rating points where they are not allowed in matches. You yourself can reflect on whether this was done deliberately. As a result, Troff’s standard rating was lifted to 2340, not only separating him from the other top 12-year-olds, but bringing it in line with the ratings of the slightly older David Adelberg, Alexander Ostrovsky (both National Champions), and Yian Liou who, unlike Troff, have proved in multiple legitimate tournaments that their ratings reflect their actual playing strength. Their tournament history, like every rated player’s, is a matter of public record.
Troff finished off these matches with a perfect 15/15 score, statistically impossible, assuming all the games were legitimate and the ratings actual. This amazing performance (Troff’s performance rating in the three matches was 2658, 2643, and 2623) looks highly suspicious even on its own merit, but especially if we compare it with Troff’s typical performances in regular tournaments. As a reference, let’s look at the results of the most recent national tournament, Southern California Open in September 2010,
which Troff, at the time rated 2242, finished with a 3.5/6 score, against players all rated lower than himself. Troff drew 2145, 2230, 2189, lost to 2029, and won against 1823 and 2002. The corresponding performance rating was 2140, exactly 200 points lower than Troff’s current standard rating. Other tournaments paint a similar picture. In the aforementioned local tournament, Utah Closed, Troff faced players rated 2011, 1898, 1867 and 1897P10, lost one game out of four, and finished with performance rating of 2113, behind both Damian Nash and Harold Stevens. These tournament performances leave little doubt regarding the validity of the results of those recent matches.
Every informed person knows that ratings are not an absolutely objective measure of chess strength. Yet, because there are no less subjective measures available to us, ratings are often handled as if they were absolutely objective: they are often the dominating or sole criterion for selection for honors and invitations that exclude all but the highest-rated players. Because ratings are so misused (through overemphasis) by those who have the power to grant honors, it is no surprise that enterprising persons will manipulate the ratings system to achieve an inflated rating in order to garner honors and invitations and promote fundraising. But what happens, then, to those who want to play fair and earn an honest rating? Are the leaders in American chess content to let nice guys finish last?
Do we want to kill the motivation of numerous other talented kids by making the competition so unfair? Do we want the future of chess in this country to succumb to corruption? You can remain silent and acquiesce, or speak up in protest and “Nip” this current abuse in the bud. Decide for yourself.
This, of course, was not the end. IM Sam Shankland rose to the defense, writing:
Weng states that “Similarly, the evidence should compel anyone to question whether Troff’s current rating reflects his true strength because the evidence strongly suggests deliberate manipulation of the current rating system.” Now let me ask, is the entire world conspiring on this one? Because the last time I checked, Kayden recently made a huge performance at the Boys u12 World Championship, taking clear second place with his only loss coming to the first place finisher and that loss was the result of an opening gone horribly wrong. When competing on the highest stage, where absolutely NO MANIPULATION IS POSSIBLE IN ANY WAY, he showed a very strong performance. In the United States, there are a wide range of different socio-economic classes, and many of them are represented in the world of elite scholastic chess. I do not know exactly what kind of financial situation Kayden’s family is in, but I do know that he has multiple siblings, all of which have extracurricular activities, and his parents do not seem to be particularly wealthy. As a result, it makes a lot of sense for Kayden and his family to seek sponsorship, and self-promotion through newspapers and the internet is a great way to achieve that. Moreover, Kayden is an excellent ambassador of chess to the outside world, constantly showing a smile, a good attitude, and always keeping it fun. There is no doubt in my mind that Kayden would be doing all the same things for his P.R. whether or not he happens to be #1 on the USCF rating list. However, his skills in P.R. are attacked by this Weng, as seen in the following: “As anyone who met Kayden in person knows, he usually does not say much, and when he does… well, in his interview at the World Youth http://wycc2010.chessdom.com/video-and-interviews-round-8/“. I don’t think it’s possible to be any more off the mark. Kayden can occasionally be a little shy with new people, but anyone who has interacted with him more deeply than watching a 2 minute video clip knows that he is a very articulate speaker and a very energetic personality. Weng continues: “Kayden does not come across as particularly articulate and, rather embarrassingly, could not even remember the name of his coach, Armen Ambartsoumian.” As a matter of fact, Kayden did know the name of his coach. However, for a native English speaker to try to pronounce “Ambartsoumian” without having practiced before might lead to great confusion for the person conducting the interview, as well as be equally embarrassing in the eyes of those who can pronounce his name. Call it inarticulate if you will, I call it being culturally sensitive. Weng takes this one step further “Kayden is clearly not an orator, but there is no real evidence his written English is any better”. Well, how about his blogs, the ones that Weng states are “written very well”?
Self-promotion can be extremely helpful. My website, www.samshankland.com, has helped net me many opportunities as a teacher and player that I do not believe I would have otherwise profited from. In terms of the specific writing on it, it is not all mine. I wrote the original model, and then took suggestions from my friends and others who were kind enough to offer their advice. As a result, the general outlook is completely the same but some specific typos and other small issues here and there have been thus eliminated. Does this mean that I did not write it? Absolutely not, I refer to those words as my own. Yes, technically I had help from my friends, but would anybody care if Josh Friedel pointed out a few grammatical errors? No. Does he care that I don’t credit him with the writing? Of course not. I do not know exactly what Kayden’s writing process involves, but my guess is it is quite similar to mine, and that he writes it and then makes the occasional edit at the suggestion of an editor. Again, just like in my case, this does not mean in any way that they are not his own words. To compare his blogs to his instant messaging is beyond ridiculous. When talking with my friends, in person or online, I will often use informal diction and slang that I would never use when writing formally. It’s almost like two different languages, and anyone who has ever written a formal essay and had a normal conversation with a friend knows this to be the case.
Suggesting that Kayden has never won a major tournament is perhaps the ultimate display of ignorance. Does the World Championship for his age group not qualify as an “important tournament”? And who is this Weng Ming to decide what “blundering left and right” entails? Is his/her expertise so much greater than Kayden’s that they know exactly how and why he won all of his games? I personally think Kayden got lucky a couple of times at the World Youth. However, there is no question that to win a tournament of this caliber, one needs to be lucky IN ADDITION TO PLAYING EXTREMELY WELL. Let’s look at some other World Youth Champions. IM Steven Zierk just won the boys under 18 World Championship, and he was down to –3 in 4 separate games, all of them against players over 2400, and he did not lose a single one. Yet nobody is accusing him of just being lucky. I tied for first in the under-18 World Championship back in 2008, and to join the winner’s circle, I won the last game. However, I was incredibly lucky to win. I was on the worse end of a drawn ending against GM Le Quang Liem (2583 then, nearly 2700 now), but I managed to take advantage of an error. How come nobody accused me of just being lucky? This argument makes no sense whatsoever. Did Kayden get a little lucky? Perhaps, but not nearly as much as Zierk or I. Does that mean he did not play well enough for or deserve his silver medal? Absolutely not.
When it comes to matches, there is no doubt that they have helped Kayden’s rating. But this is not their purpose by any means. Nearly all of our country’s top young talents live in a chess Mecca, where decent tournaments are frequently organized. If anyone has a constructive suggestion as to how Kayden is to get over the board practice in West Jordan, Utah, within his budget, I’m sure he’d be happy to hear it. There is simply no other way for him to get practice in. In terms of “manipulating the system”, suppose, for the sake of argument that this is what Kayden is doing (which he is not). This is an issue to be taken up privately in a USCF board meeting, not by a trigger happy anonymous with a lack of gray matter emailing everyone they can think of. Continuing with this hypothetical situation, why not just look at FIDE ratings instead? Sorry to anyone who is jealous of Kayden’s place on the top rating lists, but the situation would remain the same: at 2217(+30), Kayden is nearly 100 points above his nearest competitors, and none of his matches were rated.
When it comes to addressing Kayden’s strength as a chessplayer, I believe I am as qualified as anyone. I have been working with him for the better part of a year now, and I have seen huge progress on his part. If one is to discuss match play, then consider this. About a week ago Kayden and I played a 3-game match on the ICC. I cannot publish the games because they contain integral moves to the opening repertoire that we are developing together, but I can say that the he made 2 draws and lost one game. Moreover, when one discusses “luck”, I was very lucky to hold a draw in one of the games, where he was pressing a better endgame for a very long time. A score of 1 from 3 (which easily would have been 1.5), against someone of my rating would indicate that 2350 USCF is a reasonable rating for them. But wait, what if my rating is inaccurate too and I’m not as strong? Well, luckily Weng thinks that I’ve proved myself, so he/she can’t question the legitimacy of this match without changing his/her already highly flimsy opinion. His/Her justification is that his results in matches do not reflect the same strength that his “typical” tournaments do. However, when one selects his worst tournament out of his last nine as a “typical” one, it’s very easy to construct such an argument. However, when looking deeper, it’s abundantly clear that this Weng has no idea what he/she is talking about.
IM Sam Shankland
A Little Quirk in USCF Ratings History – Claude Bloodgood!
Now let’s see an executive summary of the ratings manipulation problem which can rear its head in matches and some simple solutions.
Abstracting the Problem
Abstracting the Solution
- A) Ban Matches. If this is too draconian for your taste, see (B) and (C).
- A1) Ban Matches between U-14 and Adults. I don’t think U-16 or U-18 would resort to this channel as much. This allows us not to worry if the “Friendly” Adult opponent had been paid off by the kid’s camp.
- B) Allow Matches but cap rating gain for each match to +10 : makes it not worthwhile for the schemers to operate
- C) Allow Matches, cap rating gain to +20, but then disallow matches between the same “combatants” for a period of 3 years. Again, renders the scheme unappetizing.
The best thing: it’s for the kid’s benefit! One can and should progress naturally instead of short-cutting. Counter-argument: if a player is from a geographically challenged area… then? Answer: play in a Bloodgoodian Quad! I submit that a Quad is infinitely better, image-wise, than a match! Who needs the sniping – even the Friendly gets some heat.
The Final Word: Damian Nash Responds (also via ASU):
Dear US Chess Players and Promoters,
I apologize for intruding on your private mailbox.
Last week you received a letter from someone using the pseudonym “Weng Ming”. That anonymous author accused 12-year-old Kayden Troff of Utah of playing in rated matches that were deliberately rigged to artificially inflate his rating. According to his reasoning, I am the mastermind of the conspiracy.
Many readers simply deleted this email as a bitter attack from a disgruntled chess parent, and some have suggested the assault might not have originated in the United States. In case you read the whole thing, and are questioning the veracity of Kayden’s recent tournament experience, this is a comprehensive rebuttal, based on first-hand accounts of all the events in question.
Who is the Accused?
Most of you don’t know me. I am a 47-year old school teacher living in Moab, Utah. I have played USCF tournaments for 32 years and organized and directed them for 20. Everywhere I have taught, in California, Utah and Colorado, I have actively promoted chess, and I have passed my love of the game on to several hundred young people.
Regarding chess accomplishments, I am a USCF Senior level tournament director, with 128 events as Chief TD, mostly in Colorado and Utah, and 308 sections as Section Chief. I was a 1900-level chess player for most of my career, with occasional jumps over the 2000 mark. My rating is currently 2050 and climbing, due to a year of intense chess study in 2008-09 and the opportunity to play weekly games against a player much stronger than myself, Harold Stevens. Due to an odd twist of luck, I am also the reigning Utah State champion after winning the Utah Closed tournament in November.
The school subjects I teach are science, math and psychology, at secondary and AP levels. I have also spent many years teaching special classes for gifted and talented students. The teams I have coached over the years have all done well, winning state chess titles in Utah and Colorado, the Academic Decathlon championships in Colorado, and two world titles at the NASA Space Settlement Design Competition. I have been decorated as a “District Teacher of the Year,” and have written countless newspaper articles, usually related to the chess accomplishments of my students.
As part of all of my teaching assignments, I have chaired the school gifted and talented committee. It has been my job, therefore, to identify students with unusual talents and help them receive appropriate services. Over the years my students have gone on to attend virtually every one of the “Top 20” schools in America, many with fine scholarships.
So I am used to being around extraordinary talent, and the purpose of my career is to help accelerate talented kids along their chosen life paths. But I have never encountered a measurable intellectual talent so far off the charts as Kayden’s with chess — with the single exception of watching Nakamura and Bhat play as youngsters in California in the mid 1990s.
Most important here is that I am a real human being with a real name, phone number and address. I have earned an excellent reputation over the last 20 years as a chess organizer and director in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. My reputation is now on the line in a much wider court of popular opinion, so I am making a detailed defense. I stand by my actions in the Utah Expert Series and Utah Master Series as correct. They were not only perfectly legal and ethical, but they were the best available course of action to promote the best interests of chess.
As the tournament director for the events in question, I must accept full responsibility for any wrongdoing, though I believe there was none. I have made a full disclosure to the USCF about my involvement in the events in question, and will accept whatever judgment they make on the situation, and any consequences it might involve.
The purpose of this letter is to try to correct the some of the negative PR and deeply suspicious feelings that this anonymous email and web blog have created toward an innocent child and his family. Kayden is on a path to become one of America’s greatest players. He has been in love with the game since his earliest memories, and finds it very pleasurable to study for 6 or 7 hours every day. He and Rybka have been close friends since he was very young.
I fully admit that the Utah events in question, evidenced from the USCF member database, must seem odd to people who are unfamiliar with the real situation in Utah’s sparsely populated chess community. The anonymous attacker insists that “odd” equates with “suspicious” which then immediately equates with “conspiracy to abuse the rating system.” Unfortunately, many who received his initial email have followed his cherry-picked facts and incorrect assumptions to the false conclusion that the USCF rating system has been abused. They start their own comments as if this conclusion were inescapably true.
If the reader has made it this far, I thank you for already demonstrating an open mind to different evidence and different interpretations of evidence.
The “odd” nature of the tournament cross tables in question is simply a product of the very odd situation in Utah chess in general, and nothing more. It demonstrates the great difficulties that are involved in getting strong players together within a meager chess community. It also illustrates the great measures that a young super-talent like Kayden and his family have to go through in order to find strong, face-to-face competition.
I also agree that “odd” describes the initial rating of Moab Chess Club member Harold Stevens. That is also a product of an even more strange situation, where a 50-year old chess genius was unable to play anyone else outside the community of Moab (population 8,000), which is 2 hours away from the next larger city (Grand Junction, CO, pop. 50,000, with no active chess community). More on this later. Unfortunately, these two odd situations recently collided in the Moab Master Series tournaments, and the critics are relying on the line of reasoning that two odd situations, when they finally overlap in the same place at the same time, must signal a conspiracy.
What I have done in Utah was simply the most reasonable approach for a strange situation, explained in what follows. For the record, although I volunteered literally hundreds of hours toward promoting chess in Utah over the past two years, I have never earned a penny for my role in the Expert Series or Master Series tournaments, and everyone who has participated in these tournaments knows this to be true. There was no entry fee and no prizes, only the opportunity for high level (1800+ then 2100+) chess. I also have never received any compensation from the Troff family.
Utah’s Sparse Chess Community
Several critics on the blog site have compared Kayden Troff to the young American superstars GM Robert Hess and GM Ray Robson. This comparison turns out to be a useful introduction to the problem that Utah faces. Here is a quick look at the in-state competition available to each of these three young players.
For GM Hess, 92 other USCF masters, 48 with FIDE titles:
For GM Robson, 28 other USCF masters, 13 with FIDE titles:
For NM Troff, exactly one other USCF master, with no FIDE title:
Ironically, Utah’s only other USCF master, Harold Stevens, was also called into question by the anonymous attacker. More about his unusual situation below. The point here is, who should a kid with a strength well over 2300 play in the state of Utah? Even Harold Stevens is a 4 hour drive away from him!
What follows are answers to a specific objections raised by my anonymous attacker.
Tournaments or matches?
The anonymous blogger says the the Utah Master Series events should have been rated as a series of matches, not as a series of tournaments. This is the one and only place where he might have a legitimate point. As the TD, I acted in good faith, and can vouch for legitimate, fighting chess in every result I reported. I also advertised the events as double-round robin quads, so I reported it in as close to that format as I could. But the bonus points could become a legitimate issue in the eyes of the USCF rules committee.
Understanding the history of this tournament series will help enlighten:
During 2009 I organized the “Utah Expert Series” tournaments with enormous effort, making repeated phone calls and emails to Utah’s top players, current and retired, trying to find days and times when they could assemble to compete. It was like herding cats.
The purpose of these competitions was to provide an opportunity for Utah’s strongest players to find serious, monthly competition. There are only two regular events here each year with 1800+ sections: The Utah Class (X/A) and the Utah Closed. I freely admit that I was curious to see how well Kayden would do against the top talent, after he destroyed me at the 2008 Utah Open and very nearly won the tournament… at age 10. As he started to win one tournament after the other, excitement built in the Utah community and his rating started climbing with it.
Unlike me, many Utah players are Mormon and won’t play on Sundays. Several other top players have strange work schedules and hours. Eventually, the most successful tournaments were set up in a format of multiple round times from Thursday afternoon through Sunday afternoon, and Utah’s top players would sign up for the times they could play, taking zero-point byes in the other rounds. There were no entry fees and no prizes, only an opportunity for high-level chess. So some players would compete two or three rounds, while others would compete six or seven.
Eventually, the events turned into double-round robins, for the convenience of the participants. About the same time, players’ complicated schedules required that some of the games were played at other times and places, like local chess clubs or people’s homes. Throughout the Expert Series, players conducted themselves like true gentlemen, and there was only one dispute requiring a TD that was quickly resolved. (A young player made repeated draw offers).
The Expert Series continued into 2010, but without Kayden’s participation some of the competitive thrill disappeared, so they fizzled out into sporadic mini-matches over a period of approximately two weeks. I assembled these mini-matches into “tournaments,” much the way many chess clubs have one-game-a-week “tournaments.” As always, no entry fee and no prizes, just chess for the love of it.
In May, 2010, Kayden came to Moab to meet Harold Stevens, and I conducted the final “Expert Series” tournament here. Kayden won four of his five games. In October the whole Utah chess community eagerly followed Kayden’s progress at the World Championships. Kayden’s dad contacted me from Greece and said that Kayden would like to play more strong players in November and December, after the Utah Closed, to fill a training need in their schedule. I said “sure,” despite my overly busy schedule.
So I sent out emails and Facebook invitations to the strongest active players in UT, CO, NM, AZ and ID for whom I had contact information, inviting them to play in a tournament or two in Moab. I promised that Kayden and Stevens would be there. But with no entry fee and no prizes, only the usual suspects from Utah responded.
Because I had advertised the tournaments as double round-robin quads, I felt obligated to report them to the USCF in that format. I am not certain that was the correct decision, as evidenced by the vehement response of this anonymous blogger, and several others who have responded in suit. It did add bonus points to Kayden’s phenomenal 15-0 results.
What I am absolutely certain of, is that every game I reported was played according to USCF rules, and played with the spirit of fighting chess. Beyond that, if I made an error in judgment about the reporting format, I apologize to all who take offense.
Troff family promotion of Kayden
The anonymous critic seems to be particularly bitter about the incredible effort the Troff family has made to promote Kayden’s ability to travel for chess. I am very impressed with the Troff family’s ability to “fundraise like pros.” I have had no involvement with their publications, except that I have helped to update some of Kayden’s accomplishments on Wikipedia and I sent several press releases to news outlets when he had significant tournament results. The rest they do entirely on their own.
For the record, the Troffs have never paid me even a penny for any of my involvement in organizing, directing or publicizing chess tournaments. I have done this volunteer effort for the love of the game, and in support of an extraordinarily gifted child.
Kayden Troff as a writer
The anonymous accuser suggests that Kayden has an intellectual deficiency, based on his inability to remember the name of his assigned coach for the world championships, whom he had just met: GM Armen Ambartsoumian.
These remarks fall way under the mark of good taste, as the anonymous author hits a 12-year-old under the belt.
In the video interview he provides a link for, Kayden had just defeated a very strong young chess master from Turkey in a long and dangerous game, retaining his clear lead in the world championship tournament. He was obviously utterly exhausted, a fact which caught up with him the following day when he allowed his only loss of the tournament.
For those who actually know Kayden, he is initially a bit shy, but then comes across as extremely quick, warm-hearted and humorous.
The real shame of this kind of ad-hominem attack comes from the fact that Kayden consistently uses his writing skills and his visibility in the world to promote the game of chess, and he genuinely supports and encourages other kids to succeed. Anyone who has met him, or read his blogs at chess.com knows this about him.
Because I am a teacher, here is a quick quiz to the reader. You just read the name of the coach assigned to Kayden a minute ago. Can you remember it? If not, then perhaps you can forgive Kayden for forgetting it when he was put on the spot, while in such a deep trance of chess logic.
Kayden’s accomplishments outside Utah
The anonymous critic carefully cherry-picks data to build a case that Kayden is not as strong a chess player as he appears to be, so his numerous accomplishments in Utah should be viewed as artificial attempts to pump up his rating. Ironically, he discounts Kayden’s gold medal at the North American Championships in Mazatlan, because he gave up a last round draw to his much lower-rated team-mate Jeevan Kramsetty.
In truth, Kayden was dismayed to find himself paired with his US teammate in the final round. He needed only a draw to take clear first place, and quickly steered the game into safe waters where he offered a draw, to my dismay and his mother’s. Apparently he saw this as the best outcome, not only for earning the gold, but also for the higher purpose of seeing his whole team succeed.
How bitterly ironic that his gracious “take one for the team” gesture, done in recognition of the larger importance of team and country, should later be rubbed in his face by an anonymous critic.
It is fair to ask why Kayden hasn’t won as many adult tournaments or national scholastic events as his peers. The answer is really quite simple. Whenever he plays outside of Utah, he and his parents prefer for him to play in tournaments where he is at the lower end of the field. They correctly believe that it will help him improve more quickly.
Here are a couple of Kayden’s better results outside Utah that the anonymous blogger carefully omitted from his derogatory post:
Not to mention his greatest accomplishment so far, at the world championships!
In summary, Kayden was already performing over 2450 at several tournaments in 2009 and 2010, and then performed 2367 FIDE in 11 games at the world championships, against arguably the most under-rated players on the planet. Why is it so difficult to believe that his real playing strength might be well over his current USCF rating of 2340?
For strong players reading this, check out some of Troff’s games last year at the Copper State tournament:
Remember… he has already improved significantly since that time! Recently, Garry Kasparov himself recognized Kayden’s extraordinary ability. As I write, Kayden is training with him directly. I only wish Kayden’s critics could see his talent so clearly.
UCA Chess Excellence Scholarship Fund
I quote my anonymous accuser:
“So how did Troff get this rating of 2340—amazing for his age? Here are the facts, each one verifiable. Let us start by introducing Damian Nash, the current Utah State Champion, a long-time supporter of Troff, and the chief TD in the majority of recent tournaments featuring Troff, in particular the last three matches which catapulted Troff’s rating well over 2300. Nash also controls the Utah Chess Association Chess Excellence Scholarship Fund, 100% of which went to Troff in the past two years.”
I wasn’t even aware that this fund existed until the anonymous blogger brought it to my attention. It is administered by the UCA board, and I have not been a member of that board for many years.
According to Kayden’s mother, he has not received a penny from this fund.
Unfortunately for the anonymous blogger, his statement “Here are the facts, each one verifiable,” cuts both ways. Some of his “facts” are accurate, if carefully hand-selected from among contradictory facts. Others, like this one, are utterly contrived, based on false inference and a need to prove a grand conspiracy.
USCF Master Harold Stevens
“Next, there is the mysterious figure of Harold Stevens. Who is he?”
This is the second place where the anonymous blogger accuses me of unethically manipulating the USCF rating system. I freely admit that Stevens initial rating and lopsided results against weaker opponents appear very unusual. The anonymous blogger spins this unusual occurrence into evidence for his conspiracy theory. So in reply, here is my first-hand account of what actually happened.
Harold Stevens appeared on the Utah Chess scene in October, 2009, at the age of 50, when he showed up at a the chess club in Moab, Utah (population 8,000). It became quickly apparent that he was a far superior player to the perennial Moab Champion, which is me. When challenged to his first USCF rated games, he won seven of eight at a quick time control (G/15).
Because I was the director of the Utah Closed (the official state championship), scheduled for the following month, I immediately wrote the Utah Chess Association, asking them if a very strong but unrated player could compete. The answer I received was that he could compete if he had a provisional rating above 1800, and suggested that there was still time to get him a provisional rating.
In order to comply, I quickly assembled all the rated players in Moab to have a shot at Stevens, in 2-game mini-matches at the Moab library. We played as many games with each other as our schedules would allow, in the spirit of a real tournament for the Moab chess title. But Harold, as the “new kid on the block,” with no other pressing engagements, spent day after day in the Moab library, knocking down one opponent after another. Several of the Moab club players are severely under-rated and can play close to my level. They had excellent games with him. Nobody expected that he would win all of his games, but he did, earning a provisional rating over 2400.
Unfortunately for Stevens, the parents of some Utah young players complained that it would be unfair to allow him to play in the Utah Championship event because his rating had not been officially published in the November supplement, as advertised in a pre-tournament flyer. The board conceded to their complaint, and Stevens was not allowed to play in the Utah Closed tournament.
The Moab club continued to play games against Stevens during the winter of 2010-11, and I invited the only other strong player in the area — Robert Fordon from Grand Junction, a former Colorado State Champion — to drive over and have a crack at him. Fordon finally held Stevens to a draw in their third game.
Meanwhile, the USCF received anonymous complaints about Steven’s extremely high rating, presumably from a Utah player. They conducted a full inquiry. I knew that Stevens was much stronger than me, but when he received a 2504 rating after one of the December events, he and I both laughed because we thought it was ridiculous.
We discussed the situation in full openness with the USCF. The question they had was how to treat this unusual “outlier” while maintaining full integrity of the rating system. Stevens had not played a chess game in more than 20 years, but he gave the names of his former sparring partners, and the USCF researched his claims. Apparently his blitz game had been almost on level with a few senior masters and IMs. Their final decision was to assign him with a 2325/10 provisional rating, based on these reports. Then his 30-0-1 result in Moab lifted his rating as far as 2354.
Since that time, some of us have started to find his weaknesses, and we might also be “dumbing him down” by providing him too frequent club play against weaker opponents. Although it is obvious to anyone who has ever played him that Stevens is a strong chess master, it is also obvious that Kayden Troff is far stronger still, and belongs in another class entirely.
The Involvement of Bill Hall
The anonymous accuser draws the Executive Director of the USCF, Bill Hall, into his grand web of conspiracy. The evidence? While visiting Utah, Mr. Hall agreed to play a simultaneous exhibition and donate the proceeds to Kayden’s travel fund, because Kayden was already the designated US Representative for the 12/under section at the World Championships in Greece.
Here is the exact way that this event came about. Mr. Hall had planned to play in the 2010 National Open in Las Vegas. He noticed our ad for a nearby Quick tournament, Bughouse tournament, and especially a Chess960 (Fischer Random) tournament in Cedar City, Utah, in the days before the National Open. Because he is curious about Fischer Random, he wanted to play in the event, which fit into his busy schedule. It also gave him an opportunity to meet members of the St. George Chess Club, which not long ago had been designated the US chess club of the year.
After he signed up to play, I realized as the organizer that the presence of a chess celebrity (The USCF Executive Director) was an opportunity for additional publicity. So I asked him if he would be willing to conduct a simul, with proceeds going to the Kayden Troff scholarship fund, as Kayden was the selected US representative for the World Championships in Greece.
In the interest of supporting youth chess and drawing more people to this little tournament, he agreed, and I changed the tournament publicity accordingly. Unfortunately, the timing of his lesson and simul was not well-planned, when people were tired after a long day of chess. Only two players showed up, and both received a lesson. True to his word, Bill Hall donated all $20 to Kayden’s scholarship fund.
To my knowledge, that was the end of Mr. Hall’s special campaign for Kayden. Apparently, however, his willingness to help a kid play in the world championships was a cause for great concern for our anonymous poster.
Kayden’s rating drop
As evidence for his argument, Kayden’s accuser states, “after his return from Greece, Troff dropped his standard rating from 2241 to 2234 in the Utah Closed tournament.”
I was there to witness Kayden’s loss to his best Utah chess friend, Scott Treiman. Kayden was utterly exhausted from jet-lag, having just returned from Greece. His coach, Sam Shankland, advised him not to play. But with the Utah title on the line, he opted to go anyway.
Treiman has been playing Kayden since they were little kids, and probably knows Kayden’s few weaknesses better than anyone alive. As a 16-year-old expert who is rapidly climbing the charts, he played a brilliant second-round game and took advantage of Kayden’s tired oversights.
Instead of withdrawing from the tournament, as other kids might do once their shot at the trophy disappears, Kayden kept playing. Though exhausted, he still loves to play chess for the fun of it, and knows it is good to practice in any condition.
Ironically, I ended up winning the Utah title with a last round victory over a very exhausted Scott Treiman. He tried the Caro Kann classical variation against me, an opening I have been studying for twice as many years as he has been alive. He kept equality until the early endgame, when the fatigue finally caught up with him and he missed a saving move.
After the tournament, once Kayden had caught up on sleep, he came to Moab to see if he could prove himself as the best player in Utah, despite missing the 2010 title. He looked forward to playing me (the lucky Utah Champion) and Harold Stevens (at the time still rated #1 in Utah) in the Utah Master Series. Frank Flynn also agreed to participate as the fourth in the quad, but then couldn’t make it to Moab so he played his games with Kayden in Salt Lake City.
Harold, Frank and I all prepared extensively for the tournaments. But our preparation was to no avail. He destroyed all of us in our over-the-board encounters. We were shocked by the final results, but even more impressed. Stevens finally became a “believer,” as one critic called us sedulous Utahns, because he had never been so completely shut out before, not even by senior masters and IMs.
The anonymous attacker concludes his rant with the following quotation, which is well-written and raises many issues that I fully agree with:
“Every informed person knows that ratings are not an absolutely objective measure of chess strength. Yet, because there are no less subjective measures available to us, ratings are often handled as if they were absolutely objective: they are often the dominating or sole criterion for selection for honors and invitations that exclude all but the highest-rated players. Because ratings are so misused (through overemphasis) by those who have the power to grant honors, it is no surprise that enterprising persons will manipulate the ratings system to achieve an inflated rating in order to garner honors and invitations and promote fundraising. But what happens, then, to those who want to play fair and earn an honest rating? Are the leaders in American chess content to let nice guys finish last?”
The USCF rating system is clearly imperfect, and the addition of cash incentives to titles and positions on the lists invites corruption. As he suggests, it is sad and true that in our culture, nice guys sometimes finish last. But in the case of Kayden and the recent USCF rating lists, extremely nice guys sometimes finish first.
What some critics describe as “premeditated and potential damage control” could just as easily be described as “an absolute commitment to the integrity of USCF rules,” which is ultimately the only way to defend against anonymous critics who feel no need to fight fairly.
It is my hope that maybe one day it will occur to these critics: “Wait… could it be possible? Kayden IS the real thing. He really IS that good as they said he was. He really HAS studied chess 7 hours a day for almost half of his young life. He really DID win the silver medal in the world championships. The people in Utah really WERE just trying to give him a fair chance to prove himself. There really was NO conspiracy. It really WAS just a well-organized support effort involving a generous TD and committed parents.”
We will all see, in upcoming months, how well Kayden’s 2340 rating holds up when he plays several FIDE norm tournaments in California. By the end of 2011, I expect to be fully vindicated by Kayden’s performances, and also expect his critics will be silenced.
2341 to 2340 in two weeks?
A few people in the blog have brought up the argument that Kayden’s rating gain of 100+ points in three tournaments is, in itself, a clear sign that somebody is manipulating his rating. They point out that other US chess superstars, like GM Ray Robson and GM Robert Hess, took six or seven months to move from 2231 to 2340. Therefore, they argue, if these superstars took so long to cross this rating span, it is impossible that anyone else could have done it faster without cheating.
I responded to this argument in satire, suggesting that these critics didn’t understand statistics or the way that young players’ ratings tend to increase with plateaus and huge gains over short periods of time:
“Why pick the arbitrary numbers of 2231 to 2240? Let’s look at the REAL scandals, the ones that occur at the much higher rating levels, where rating points are even more difficult to earn.
GM Ray Robson went from 2446 to 2527 (81 points!) in just two weeks in September, 2008. This is clear proof that the Florida State Championships and the Miami Open were both rigged!
GM Robert Hess went from 2545 to 2671 (136 points!!) in just two months between 3/22/2009 and 5/17/2009. This must be undeniable proof that the events he played in were all episodes of scandalous USCF rating manipulation!
What are those nefarious events? The Spice Cup, The Super Nationals, the Foxwoods Open and the US Championship! It’s a conspiracy! All these organizers and directors must have worked together for the sole purpose of artificially inflating Mr. Hess’s rating!”
In truth, I have utmost respect for both GM Robson and GM Hess, and would never dream of challenging their ratings. They are absolutely brilliant players, with hard-earned ratings, just like NM Kayden Troff. It will be interesting for all of us to see if Troff can continue his meteoric rise and eventually reach their exquisite level of play.
Thank you for reading through this long and detailed defense. I appreciate your willingness to hear the other side of the story. I am learning, sadly, that most of the chess fans who read the initial email and then went to the blog website to comment apparently did so because they were completely convinced by the opening statement of the anonymous prosecution. Kayden and I have therefore been found guilty in the court of public opinion without a right to a fair trial. Suspicion equals guilt in that court and, incomprehensibly, my detailed attempts to set the record straight only prove that I am trying much too hard to hide something.
The USCF, I am confident, will give us a fair trial. It is my hope that this report to you, made in the spirit of full transparency for the good of chess in America, will help diminish some of the false accusations and mean-spirited remarks that have entered into the public dialog about Kayden. People can say whatever they want to about me, I am an adult, a TD with specific duties and rules to follow, and a fairly good chess player with an ego to match. But please help stop the nasty attacks on a very nice kid who is a brilliant prodigy and a great hope for the future of chess in America.