The realm of corporate sports sponsorships is, of course, dominated by consumer brands hungry for the highest profiles and the most media coverage. B2B operation, African marine fuel supplier, South African Bunkering & Trading (SABT) certainly took the road less travelled in 2009 when they embarked on the sponsorship of Kenny Solomon, a young chess player from gang-infested Mitchells Plain who had his sights set on the chess Grand Master title.
Five years into his sponsorship, Kenny won the gold medal at the 2014 African Individual Chess Championship, held in Windhoek this past December to become South Africa’s very first Grand Master. He is only the second Grand Master from sub-Saharan Africa, joining Zambian, Amon Simutowe in holding the hard-won title for life. This is the highest chess honour bestowed by FIDE, the World Chess Federation, bar the World Champion title.
While South Africa has always had chess devotees, and today there are more promising, new initiatives to support young and upcoming players; our developing chess culture still pales in significance when compared to those of European, Russian and Asian countries who actively groom and fully support chess talent from as young as four years old.
As South Africa’s 1994 Junior Chess Champion and an aspiring Grand Master, Kenny had little support and no privileges. Sponsorship was vital to ensure that he could compete in the international chess circuit, gain the necessary experience and have opportunities to turn his dream into reality.
“I would write letters, I would go out to try to meet corporate decision-makers to find sponsorship,” Kenny remembers, “I knew I had to be able to travel and play tournaments against Grand Masters. Those kinds of tournaments flourish, especially in Europe, but there were no Grand Masters coming to South Africa at that time; somehow I had to get to them.”
Kenny’s perseverance paid off when a chess colleague set up a meeting for him at the Mugg & Bean in Tyger Valley Shopping Centre, Cape Town. Kenny didn’t actually have to work too hard to convince the General Manager of SABT that if he could just tap into the right support he could be South Africa’s first Chess Grand Master. As he says now, “The conviction was in my face”. SABT, a business who is challenged daily by strategic moves and problem-solving as it delivers high quality fuel products to ships in more than 50 ports around the African coastline, could easily recognise the synergies between their corporate brand and the chess player’s passion for his game.
The result has been an innovative, lengthy sponsorship that has played a part in enabling Kenny to work towards, and achieve his historic Grand Master title.
Kenny readily admits that becoming a Grand Master was much harder than he imagined it would be. His early years of regular international competition were tough learning years, where the thrill of finally playing against Grand Masters was tempered with the stings of many defeats. “I thrived on gaining the experience, though,” Kenny reveals, “I developed even more perseverance and determination. It certainly didn’t happen every time, but I did play some beautiful games.”
All the much-needed experience did start to pay off, and in 2012 the tally of Kenny’s Olympiad wins included the achievement of 3 Grand Master norms. His title changed from International Master to Grand Master-elect, and there were high hopes in the South African chess community that they would soon have their first Grand Master as Kenny needed just 50 rating points to meet the Grand Master requirement of a 2500 rating. But what followed was an unexpected loss of form, Kenny’s rating started to fall and it seemed that the title might well elude him.
For many sponsored sportspeople, a performance slump makes them vulnerable in all ways as corporate sponsors have a tendency to quickly drop a struggling performer who is not generating headlines. But SABT have matched Kenny in their patient, strategic approach to corporate sponsorship. “We stayed with Kenny through his long struggle period in which he constantly had to keep pushing himself towards achieving the GM title,” recalls Jon Hughes, “That was a unique aspect of our sponsorship and it reaped the greatest reward – South Africa’s first Grand Master. Perhaps this will impact positively on how South African businesses choose and make decisions about their sponsorships. We’ve learnt that going out on the limb and backing the unlikely guy from the Cape Flats in a marginalised sport can have an historic outcome which can reverberate through the next generations. Research has shown that a country with its first Chess Grand Master can create a blooming chess culture and a boom of Grand Masters. SABT is proud to be part of this process.”
In his open congratulatory letter to Kenny, President of Chess South Africa, Eldo Smart offered thanks to SABT for ‘investing so much in Kenny’ and remarked: “Kenny, you have now opened the door for all the aspiring chess players in South Africa, who wish to become Grand Masters. We know that this has been your lifelong dream and that you have played all over the world in trying to achieve this. And, now you have!”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Kenny returned home for a short break over Christmas before starting his preparation for a tournament in Gibraltar at the end of January. While he’s achieved his goal of a lifetime, there’s still much to aim for. “I started my career in chess late, so I hope to retire late too,” he says, “I’d like, one day, to be in the top 100 chess players in the world.”
Married to an Italian and a proud father of three year old Leonora, a budding chess player on her own terms, Kenny has lived in Venice over the past few years, which grants him easier access to international competitions. He remains registered as a South African player with FIDE and he has a keen interest in promoting a richer chess culture in South Africa. He has made several trips home to participate in competitions, exhibition games and initiatives with the hope of encouraging young South Africans from under-resourced communities to brighten up their lives by turning their minds to the chessboard.