KING: When Kenny Solomon becomes a full grandmaster, he plans to return to South Africa and start an academy to share his passion. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
KING: When Kenny Solomon becomes a full grandmaster, he plans to return to South Africa and start an academy to share his passion. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

KENNY Solomon was seven when his oldest brother, Maxwell, taught him to play chess. But, while he — the sixth of eight children — quickly learnt how to "make the moves", he wasn’t interested in the game. He preferred to be outdoors playing with his friends in Mitchell’s Plain, where the family lived.

It was only about six years later, when Maxwell flew to Manila to compete in a chess Olympiad and Solomon absent-mindedly picked up one of his brother’s books (about Russian chess grandmaster and former World Champion, Anatoly Karpov), that the chess bug bit.

Two decades and hundreds of chess books and games later, Solomon is South Africa’s first ever chess grandmaster-elect. He is the second player from sub-Saharan Africa (Amon Simutowe of Zambia is the other) and the eighth from Africa to achieve this status.

With an international performance rating of 2,450 and having met all other grandmaster norms set by international chess federation, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE), Solomon needs just 50 more rating points to graduate from grandmaster-elect and join 1,300 other active grandmasters worldwide. The best among them has a performance rating of 2,880.

So what was it about his brother’s book that triggered his enthusiasm? (Maxwell is currently rated SA’s 11th best active chess player by FIDE.)

"At first, I simply paged through it. But then I began reading and it dawned on me that chess is not just a game of moves," he says. "I saw that it is about ideas, principles, analysis, predictions and calculations. It’s a complicated, rich game that trains the mind and teaches you when to navigate by using your intuition rather than your intellect. Chess has a fascinating history but the game never stops evolving. Once I saw this, I was hooked."

Unlike many other chess talents, Solomon does not recall having shown extraordinary mathematical aptitude as a little boy. He wasn’t, he concedes, that engaged at school at all. And at 13, inspired by Karpov, Solomon decided he wanted to become a chess grandmaster — world champion even — and his attention to his schoolwork dwindled further.

"I joined a chess club and entered my first tournament, which, at 13, is pretty late in chess. I had some catching up to do and was determined to develop a chess culture. I’m naturally very competitive, which spurred me on. It’s fair to say I became chess-obsessed. I couldn’t wait to get home from school and read about chess. If you take it seriously, chess is very time-consuming. It has to be a full-time commitment if you want to achieve. My friends couldn’t entice me outdoors to play. And quite honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to school."

That is not to say, however, that Solomon was a poor student. He didn’t realise it at the time, but the endless reading, studying and playing chess not only provided him with exceptional skills in concentration, but also helped develop his language and maths skills. His vocabulary improved radically, essays flowed freely and numbers fell into place.

"Although I didn’t study much for school and, in hindsight, could have done a great deal better, my grades were good, all things considered. And, while I’m not advocating that youngsters ignore their schooling for the sake of chess, there’s no doubt it helps improve cognitive skills. In my case, my fixation served a dual purpose: I got a chess education and I got through school."

Ever determined to succeed on the international chess scene, after matric Solomon continued to study chess and compete at every opportunity. But, even if you win most tournaments in this country, it’s difficult to earn a livelihood as a chess player. He supplemented his income by teaching chess at the University of Cape Town and the University of Western Cape and also offered private lessons.

"I was reminded, when I was teaching, that even though chess is recognised by the International Olympic Committee as a sport, SA doesn’t have a chess culture. I am self-taught and I saw, particularly with my younger private students, that if they wanted to advance, it would be as difficult for them as it had been for me. In countries such as Russia and China, children learn chess from as young as four. There are specific chess schools that help develop real talent. It was as a teacher that I first had the idea of establishing a chess academy in SA."

But, first things first: Solomon was still on a mission to become a grandmaster when, at a tournament in early 2009, he became acquainted with chess coach Pieter Theron. It was a fortuitous meeting. Theron was reminded of Solomon’s talent and ambition, and introduced him to Andre Baard who, in addition to being a fellow chess enthusiast, is the MD of Cape Town-based fuel trading company South African Bunkering and Trading (SABT). Impressed by Solomon’s skill and fortitude, Baard decided to "pioneer chess sponsorship in South Africa and give Kenny the opportunity to realise his full potential". SABT provided him with sponsorship, including unlimited overseas travel so he could prepare for and compete in international tournaments and, crucially, play against grandmasters, thus fast-tracking his dream of becoming South Africa’s first chess grandmaster.

As part of the deal, Solomon devised a training programme for SABT, which uses chess to teach a wide range of business competencies. It’s a continuing initiative, which, says Baard, has shown "notable influence in our company’s thinking…. We gained a first-class strategist to teach our traders better positional, strategic and tactical play in the bunker-trading business."

It wasn’t, however, immediately a case of checkmate for Solomon. "I didn’t realise how much I still needed to learn about the international circuit. I was inexperienced and the first year of sponsorship was stressful. I was so driven but lacked the kind of understanding, know-how and maturity necessary to compete at international level."

Chess, he insists, is not all about intelligence. It’s also about robust nerves, good memory, creativity, emotional intelligence and confidence. And it takes as much preparation and training to stay in shape at the top of your game as it did to get there.

With SABT’s continuing support, Solomon was able to continue to train and compete extensively in Europe. Last year, he married an Italian chess player and relocated to Venice, which gave him easier access to the European chess circuit. He achieved the breakthrough he was after in the recent Chess Olympiad in Istanbul, when he achieved a double grandmaster norm. This, and a rating of 2,450, gave him the status of grandmaster-elect. He’s hoping to accumulate the 50 points necessary to become a full grandmaster within six months. And then, says Solomon, he’ll come back to South Africa and establish an academy that will provide talented youngsters with the kind of chess education they deserve.

"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."