Johannesburg — Amid all the adulation paid to South Africa’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes, one no-less notable achievement has been under reported. A South African man is about to become the country’s first ever chess Grandmaster, joining the ranks of greats like Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer.
Kenny Solomon perfectly fits the theory that, other than a few outliers, chess players peak between 30 and 38. Mitchell’s Plain-born Solomon is 32, and following his performance in this year’s World Chess Olympiad, held in Istanbul a fortnight ago, he can now call himself a ‘Grandmaster-elect’.
Solomon is on the verge of attaining the highest possible ranking in the chess world, with the exception of “World Champion”. Chess SA President Emelia Ellappen explained to the Daily Maverick that in order to achieve Grandmaster status, one has to have a rating of 2,500, with three “Grandmaster norms”. You get your norms by performing well at chess tournaments at which other Grandmasters are competing. Solomon has the norms in the bag already. All he now needs is 50 more rating points, but the really difficult part is behind him: it is now assured that Solomon will become South Africa’s first-ever chess Grandmaster, a title he will hold for life. He joins more than 1,300 active Grandmasters worldwide.
It is a truly inspiring achievement for a player who grew up in less than privileged circumstances in a country where there is relatively little official funding or support for chess. Partly, that may be because people don’t know quite how to classify chess: is it a sport? Is it a game?
Ellappen is adamant that it’s a sport – a notion backed up by the fact that chess is actually a recognised sport of the International Olympic Committee. “It’s just not a spectator sport,” she said. “But we’re getting to the point now that our students, when they go to tertiary institutions, can receive sports scholarships for chess.” She said there are as many as 20,000 chess players across South Africa, and she estimated that at least 75% of them fall into the youth demographic (6 to 18 years old).
Solomon, who took up chess at 13, is not unusual in that regard. He told the Daily Maverick via email that his older brother Maxwell sparked his interest in the game. “I was inspired by my brother qualifying for the Chess Olympiad in Manila in 1992,” he said. “While he was at the Olympiad I took a chess book from his shelf and started studying. After Maxwell returned from the Olympiad he saw I was finally interested, and took me under his wing.”
It didn’t take long for Maxwell’s tuition to yield results: within two years, Solomon was the South African Under-16 champion. Astonishingly, Solomon has never had a formal coach, though he benefited from the mentorship of figures like his brother. It was largely from books that he learned strategy. On his blog, he reveals an encyclopaedic knowledge of chess greats and their most memorable games, and a keen interest in the history and psychology of the sport.
Solomon’s blog recounts the 1978 World Chess Championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi as illustrative of the fact that mere technique is not always sufficient to win at chess. Because Karpov’s favourite way of psyching out an opponent was to stare straight at him throughout, Korchnoi played the entire game wearing dark sunglasses. But Karpov had his own tricks up his sleeve: when an assistant brought him a yoghurt, he would begin playing with machine-gun speed immediately after consuming it, with the aim of raising Korchnoi’s suspicions as to the content of the yoghurt.
“Young players are often advised to ignore the opponent, and to focus on their game at the board,” Solomon concluded on his blog post. “This surely has its benefits, but in order to excel at chess one has to take many factors into account.” Solomon credits his own success as a chess player to a number of different aspects. “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…
Read more: All Africa