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8 questions with Rochester chess master Matt Jensen

Matt Jensen has been playing chess since he was four years old when his grandfather taught him on a camping trip. Not soon after he fell in love with the game. That love and passion for chess have pushed him to become a national master and Rochester's highest-rated player.

Matt Jensen Chess Master
Matt Jensen with his chess board in Cafe Steam in Downtown Rochester on Friday, July 15, 2022. Jensen has been playing chess for 32 years. "It [chess] never changes, video games come and go, chess is always around," Jensen said.
Tucker Allen Covey / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Matt Jensen makes one of the world's most difficult games look simple.

While in the middle of an interview, Jensen casually makes chess moves that his opponent stresses over while doing his best to conduct the said interview. Of course, this is how the game should go.

Jensen, 36, is a statistician at Mayo Clinic, but also a national chess master, one of the highest titles a chess player can achieve. His opponent is one of many on his list that he's dominated over a chess board since he started playing at a young age.

He's used his status and knowledge of chess to help others learn the game he's spent the last 32 years playing, whether that's coaching at the Rochester Chess Club, through his chess tutorial website ChessGoals.com , or just casually playing someone at a coffee shop.

Jensen shared his journey to becoming a national master and how he fell in love with chess.

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When did you first start playing chess?

When I was 4 years old. My grandpa had this chess set that had these ancient figurines, and I always thought that was super cool, and my parents would say, 'No, you're too young. You're too young.' And then we went on this camping trip and he brought his chess set, and we were rained out for the day and didn't know what to do. So we were like let's play chess. So he taught me how to play. I didn't know all the rules like I didn't know castling, en passant yet.

But I just fell in love with it. And back then you couldn't play online really, so my parents found a local club and took me there. I started playing and just like, pretty quickly, I was beating like, my mom and dad and just kind of people who knew how to move the pieces, but didn't play in tournaments and stuff.

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And so when did you start playing in tournaments?

I think at age 6, I started playing in the United States Chess Federation, and my parents were super supportive. They got me a coach that was at the club, and we would just meet up a couple of times a month and he would teach me like end-games and openings and stuff like that.

What about chess made you fall in love with the game?

I think I've always kind of liked different strategy games. But I never really got into a bunch of other games. Once I found chess, I kind of just stuck with it. I'm sure part of it was just seeing some good results early on really kind of motivated me to stick with it. And like I was saying, my parents were just so supportive. So sometimes we would start taking family trips that would be based around a chess tournament.

For example, there was a Chicago open. And my parents would just stay at the hotel or the terminals and then they would just go do things during the day, and I would have these games that were like five hours long. They would come back and then bring me food or whatever. And they go and do their own thing again. So yeah, it was just kind of like, part of what our family would do.

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What age did you realize just how advanced you were at this stage?

I think probably already at 6 or 7 because there were like local tournaments that were held through community education in town, and a lot of those tournaments I was beating like fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, and there would only be maybe one or two of those older elementary kids that were beating me, so I knew pretty early on. I was doing well for my age group, and then in first grade I tied for first in state in kindergarten through third grade, then tied for first in first grade, and second and third grade also tied for first.

So going forward, what role did chess play in your life once you started middle school and then throughout high school?

Chess was just kind of on the side, you know? I liked playing but it was never really like a focus in my life. I think nowadays, the kids are really good, or they're prodigies, they'll be homeschooled flying around the world playing tournaments. ... But for the most part, it was like kids are just playing on the weekends kind of thing.

When did you start coming close to achieving the title of national master and what was it like for you once you'd finally achieved it?

I actually thought it was out of reach for a long time. So, when I was right around eighth grade going into ninth grade, I think I my rating hit 2,000 and I would say that was my peak in terms of how good I was for my age with being a 2,000 player at 13. ... But then high school hit, and I just started playing different sports and the poker boom was happening like right around age 15 or 16, and I got super into poker and my friend group was just playing every time it could and really chess just took a huge back seat. And so I stalled and my rating was low 2,100s when I graduated high school, and I just thought I would never be a master and I even kind of quit playing but just playing the bare minimum for six or seven years.

And then in 2012, I got back into it again and I kind of helped out the Rochester Chess Club and we sort of revived it ... and all of a sudden the club started taking off and then at some point then I was like okay maybe I will make that push and let's see if I get to 2,200.

(Achieving it) was huge for me. I didn't realize how much it would matter to me I guess until I got it because it's really kind of like the first recognized title. If you're in the 2,000s I think it's called "expert" but it's not a recognized title, so I was really pumped to get it for sure.

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You've been watching the Rochester Chess Club grow over these years, and just recently Rochester hosted its biggest chess tournament since 1958 with the Rochester Open. What do you think the tournament meant to chess in Rochester?

I think it was really impressive. It's just really cool. A lot of people came together to volunteer to make it happen. And the Civic Center was really helpful giving us a good rein on the space and stuff like that, which is usually one of the biggest costs.

It was really cool to play in, too. There was a long stretch where I was the head tournament director for the Rochester opens and it's really hard to play in an event while directing it. And this one, I was able to just focus on the playing which is really fun.

Last question I wanted to ask you is just what has chess meant to you overall in your life?

Chess is something that I always come back to. There are stretches in my life where I don't play much at all for a few years, but I get back into and it's like it never left. You know, it's something I'll hopefully be playing when I'm 70 years old. I hope that's like something that I could do someday.

Erich is a digital content producer at the Post Bulletin where he creates content for the Post Bulletin's digital platforms. Before he moved to Rochester, Erich worked as a sports reporter for Rivals.com covering the University of Illinois' athletic programs in Champaign, Illinois. Readers can reach Erich at 507-285-7681 or efisher@postbulletin.com.
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Highlights of events in 1997, 1972, 1947 and 1922.
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