South Africa Celebrates First Chess Grand Master

It’s taken many high-pressure, strategic moves for Kenny Solomon to leave his home in Mitchells Plain, travel the international chess circuit for years and arrive at the title of Grand Master.

Kenny Solomon playing Chess
Kenny Solomon playing Chess

This is the highest chess honour bestowed by FIDE, the World Chess Federation, bar the World Champion title.  After two frustrating years as a Grand Master-elect, Kenny won the gold medal at the 2014 African Individual Chess Championship, held in Windhoek this past December.  By virtue of a recent change to FIDE’s regulations, he became 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.

“Obviously, I am overjoyed,” Kenny smiled during a skype interview through to his home on the mainland of Venice, Italy.  “My family is overjoyed.  They, more than anyone else, know how I have struggled and how I have worked for this.”

The odds were stacked against Kenny when he was first inspired by chess at thirteen years of age, which is considered a late age to enter the game if you have your sights sets on a professional career.  While at least amongst his seven siblings, he had older chess-playing brothers to learn from and practice with; this was 1992, and chess culture and real tournament opportunities open to a boy in a gang-infested Cape Flats neighbourhood were basically non-existent.

Kenny immersed himself in both the history and the current world of chess.  His studies of the origins, principles and innovations of the game lit the flame in him for a deep and abiding love of what Kenny compellingly   calls, “the inner beauty of chess.”  Like luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, and many other known and lesser known chess devotees, the young Kenny realised and valued that playing chess changes your thinking and the way you see the world, for the better.

When he turned his attention to the possibility of making a career from chess, there was nothing but Kenny’s sheer will and determination, his family’s love and the interest from a few fellow club chess players to support him.

“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.”

Unlike young, upcoming players in countries with rich chess cultures who are groomed to succeed, Kenny had to spend valuable years peddling his Grand Master dream in a relatively barren landscape.  However, his perseverance paid off in late 2008 when a chess colleague set up a meeting for him at the Mugg & Bean in Tyger Valley Shopping Centre.  Kenny didn’t actually have to work too hard to convince the General Manager of SABT (South African Bunkering & Trading) 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”.  In early 2009, the African marine fuel supply company embarked on an innovative, lengthy sponsorship that has played a part in enabling Kenny to work towards, and achieve his historic Grand Master title.

“Chess sponsorship is surely a road less travelled for South African corporate sponsors who generally vie for high profile spectator sports offering massive, instantaneous media coverage,” comments Jon Hughes, the current MD of SABT, “Hopefully now that SABT’s pioneering sponsorship has helped Kenny to deliver such a spectacular result, the way will be paved for young generations of South African chess stars to more easily realise their dreams of making a career out of this great sport.”

Kenny readily admits that becoming a Grand Master was much harder than he imagined it would be after he became South Africa’s 1994 Junior Chess Champion and set his sights on a professional chess career and the title.  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 boy 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 Grandmaster can create a blooming chess culture and a boom of Grand Masters.  SABT is proud to be part of this process.”

In 2014, FIDE amended its regulations.  While the 2500 rating still stands, a player winning gold in a continent-wide championship can now also be awarded the Grand Master title.  “I came to the Windhoek tournament with the aim to win,” Kenny says, “It was not just the opportunity to gain the GM title, but it is a special feeling to win an African Championship. I thought my chance of a win was realistic.  I was really well prepared.  I knew I would have my toughest struggles against Grand Master Adly Ahmed and International Master Farahat Ali, both from Egypt, so I studied their games intensely beforehand.’’

Despite his meticulous preparation both rounds against the Egyptians were long, concentrated fights for dominance over the board demanding all Kenny’s emotional control and psychological mettle.  Once again, his determination pushed him through and he eventually triumphed over Ahmed and tournament leader, Ali to take the gold.  A few days later, FIDE confirmed that Kenny had reached his Grand Master dream.

In his 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.


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