Kenny Solomon: South Africa’s first chess grandmaster

Kenny Solomon chose a very different path from the boys he grew up with in Cape Town’s Mitchells Plain. He changed his fate when he began playing chess at the age of 13; now, 22 years later, he has become a chess grandmaster and an inspiration to youngsters everywhere.

ken chess grandmaster South African chess grandmaster Kenny Solomon at the launch of the Chess Garden at Tafelsig High School, in Cape Town. (Image: Mitchells Plain Chess Club)


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Priya Pitamber

It seems impossible until it is done, Kenny Solomon says, quoting Nelson Mandela. He is speaking at a press conference organised by the national Department of Sport and Recreation and the Western Cape provincial department of cultural affairs and sport, and he is referring to his status as a chess grandmaster.

“I know this achievement sets a precedent for many aspiring youngsters in all sporting codes,” he said at the press conference, held in Cape Town earlier this month.

No to gangsters

Growing up in Mitchells Plain, a predominantly coloured area in Cape Town, Solomon chose a different path from his peers. In the impoverished township, gangsters, drugs and crime are rife. But at the age of 13 – when many teens in his neighbourhood took to gangs – he took up chess. That decision has led Solomon becoming the country’s first chess grandmaster.

It all started when his older brother travelled to the Philippines to participate in a Chess Olympiad; the experience inspired him to get into the sport. His website explains that he taught himself how to play, adding “he would play blitz games with his older brother and a friend in the Solomon’s backyard, amidst lines of dripping washing”.

He was exposed to gang culture from an early age, it reads. He realised that if he didn’t create his own future, “he would merely become a pawn in this scene, trapped in the violent, oppressive cycle of gangsterism”. Strong family values and an interest in chess kept him away from these influences, prompting him to make different choices for his future.

Solomon received his grandmaster title in December 2014, after he won the Africa individual chess championship in Namibia. He is the second grandmaster in sub-Saharan Africa, after Zambia’s Amon Simutowe.

Hard work and inspiration

Former Chess SA former president Emelia Ellappen said she had known Solomon for a number of years, and in that time he had always strived hard. “He is very modest, always willing to teach others, and has earned the respect of all,” she told news website Daily Maverick

Solomon’s grandmaster status is an inspiration. “As many of you know, this journey for Kenny has been a journey of 22 years to become a grand chess master and it is no easy feat,” said the president of Chess South Africa, Eldo Smart at the press conference, “and for us as Chess SA, it is a huge moment because Kenny’s achievement gives us hope as a federation and gives the community hope that you can achieve.”

Deputy Minister of Sport and Recreation Gert Oosthuizen echoed his sentiments: “You’ve provided hope and inspiration to millions of young boys and girls around our country so to you I want to tell you, you’ve become a role model.”

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Becoming a chess grandmaster

The Fédération Internationale des Échecs (Fide), the world chess body, grants players grandmaster status. Four steps need to be achieved to get there:

• The player should score three grandmaster results or “norms” in Fide-sanctioned tournaments;
• The player needs to reach a minimum rating of 2 500 in the Fide rating system;
• All the required paperwork needs to be completed and the processing fees paid; and,
• The last step is to receive the conferral from Fide.

Solomon’s diligence and 22 years of hard work has paid off. “There are many ingredients to make one a good chess player – talent, hard work, etc,” he told the Daily Maverick: “In my case, it’s dedication, determination and perseverance.”

Chess foundation

Chess is more than just a board game: it promotes strategy, lateral thinking and problem solving. It also boosts mathematical skill, making it useful in life as well.

American founding father Benjamin Franklin wrote an article titled The Morals of Chess in 1750, in which he said: “The game of chess is not merely an idle amusements. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with.”

Indeed, some schools are integrating strategic games like chess into their curricula to build 21st century thinking, problem solving, and teamwork skills.

Playing chess has found to improve students’ social skills, memory, spatial skills, numerical abilities, verbal aptitude, creative thinking, problem solving, and reasoning skills. Many teachers have also found that the brain-building benefits of playing chess stick, leading to overall improvements in school achievement.

It’s an idea that has currency for Solomon, who now lives in Italy. “I have also thought about the establishment of a chess foundation in South Africa,” he said at the press conference. “This is what has been on my mind for some time now.”

He told Business Day: “Chess is a beautiful game that impacts positively on the lives of those who play it… I’d like to be part of whatever is necessary to help more South Africans appreciate that.”

Why could South Africa not also produce a world chess champion, he asked at the press conference. “It is not impossible. In the words of Bobby Fischer, who was a chess genius, a world chess champion can be born in any place… Since achieving the grandmaster title in December, winning the African championship, the question has come my way, ‘What is the next move? Shouldn’t the next step be to become a world chess champion?’ I know exactly what it will take and I am still thinking about whether I can do it. It is something that requires commitment,” he said.

“[But] I would like to throw the question to South Africa: why shouldn’t we produce a world chess champion? Why shouldn’t the youngsters dream of becoming a world chess champion? It’s not impossible.”