With the coolness of a card shark at the final table of the World Series of Poker, Matt Bergin pulls the hood of his brown sweatshirt over his head and concentrates on the task at hand.
The task: hacking into as many target computers as he can and then defending those computers from attacks by other skilled hackers.
Other skilled hackers like Michael Coppola, 17, a high school senior who, at this very moment, is hunched over a keyboard in his Connecticut home.
Or like Chris Benedict, 21, from the tiny town of Nauvoo, Illinois. Chris is sitting silently nearby, one of 15 "All Star" hackers who have taken over this spacious hotel conference room.
At days end, the moderator of this unusual computer challenge declares the best of the best: Benedict is the winner, king of the hacker hill, followed by Bergin and Coppola.
The trio -- a job seeker, a grape distributor for a vineyard and a student -- are precisely the type of people whom organizers of this event hoped to attract: young techies with perhaps little formal computer education who, nonetheless, could contribute to the defense of the nation's cybernetworks.
In many cases, organizers of the U.S. Cyber Challenge say, hackers' skills go unrecognized or unappreciated by those around them and sometimes even by themselves.
Organizers say the competition is aimed at identifying young people with exceptional computer skills and inspiring them to join the country's woefully understaffed ranks of cybersecurity specialists needed to protect systems used by the military, industry and everyday people.
Hackers may see the U.S. Cyber Challenge, which culminated last Thursday, as a game. But Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, an information security training institute, says it is really a national talent search.
And one that gives hackers an outlet not usually open to them.
"This is to capture kids that can be very good at this, whose only real option is to do illegal things with it because there's no place to do it in school; there's no place to do it legally," Paller said. "This creates an environment where they can show their skills and advance their skills and do it in the nation's interest rather than for other purposes."
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