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High school chess flourishes in Rochester
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Century High School chess players sweep the city championships. Many of the students plan to participate in the state championship this weekend. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
This weekend, more than 300 young chess players from around Minnesota will gather in Bloomington to compete in the state scholastic championship. On Sunday afternoon, one outstanding chess player will emerge victorious and then head on to represent Minnesota nationally. Rochester held its own city tournament as a warmup this week.

Rochester, Minn. — Forget about the quiet, bookish stereotype. In Rochester at least, the world of competitive high school chess is filled with trash talk and clever boasting

"It doesn't matter who we play. We're going to win."

"That's the kind of attitude we need."

"We're going to dominate."

Meet varsity players David Ley and Jeff Olson.

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Image Jason Ley

The two John Marshall High School students sit at a long lunchroom table, playing a warmup game before their first match.

Nearby, Ann Sagstetter waits with a group of friends. This is the first year she's competed. She's a junior at Century High School and one of only a handful of girls at the competition.

"My uncle is a chess player," says Sagstetter. "He's been teaching me the ropes and stuff, and I decided this year to get into it."

Shortly before 4 o'clock, things begin to get serious when a teacher picks up a cordless microphone.

"OK, we're going to have our 2004 Rochester Scholastic Chess Tournament begin. We're going to have varsity down at that end," the teacher says, pointing.

The players are matched up, paired against others with similar skill levels.

A hush descends over the room.

Organizer Dennis Mays steps out into the hallway. He's a soft-spoken man, who spends his days as a Mayo Clinic researcher. Mays started working with Rochester high school students six years ago. Under his direction, the chess program has flourished. Mays says the students tend to be involved in a range of activities.

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Image Matt Jensen

"They're on the speech team, they run track, they play baseball, they may play basketball, and they may run cross-country. We've even had a few cheerleaders. It's pretty much all over the place," Mays says. "I think there is a bit of stigma attached to it some circles, but most of the schools and most of the circles can rise above it -- think in terms of nerdiness."

Mays points to Matt Jensen as an example. He's a sports-obsessed senior and also one of the best chess players in the state. He's won two state championships, and he's eager to win one last time.

After a couple of hours of heated competition in Rochester, Jensen wins the individual title. After claiming victory, he paused for a moment to talk about how he first became involved with chess.

"I've been playing since I was about five," says Jensen. "A lot of experience, my parents take me to tournaments and stuff. I've even had coaches."

With the individual title decided, the focus turns to team competition. A small crowd gathers to watch David Ley and his opponent. Their game speeds along as they move their pieces and click their timers on and off.

They're both aggressive players who delight in capturing their opponent's pieces. Ultimately, they whittle each other down to two pieces each. The game is declared a tie.

The Rochester tournament has no bearing on this weekend's state championship. But many of the players agree, it's great preparation for the challenges they'll face this Saturday and Sunday.

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