A chess player who grew up one of eight children in a township notorious for gang violence and drug abuse has become South Africa’s first grandmaster.
Kenny Solomon, 33, was awarded the title after winning the Africa individual chess championship in Namibia last month. He is only the second grandmaster in sub-Saharan Africa after Amon Simutowe of Zambia.
Solomon started playing chess as a 13-year-old in Mitchells Plain, a township on the Cape Flats, after his older brother was flown to the Philippines to take part in a Chess Olympiad. He read a book about former world champion Anatoly Karpov, taught himself to play and won the under-16 national championship two years later.
In 2013, Mitchells Plain, where most residents are of mixed raced ancestry, was identified as having the highest crime rate in South Africa with 1.8m serious offences reported over the previous year.
“Kenny was exposed to gang culture from an early age,” his website states. “Kenny 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 his early interest in chess kept him away from these influences and compelled him to make choices about his fate.
“After getting into chess at the age of 13, he would play blitz games with his older brother and a friend in the Solomons’ backyard, amidst lines of dripping washing.”
In 2011 Solomon married an Italian chess player and moved to Venice, where he competes on the European circuit. A year later, a strong performance at the World Chess Olympiad gave him the status of grandmaster-elect.
He told South Africa’s Daily Maverick: “There are many ingredients to make one a good chess player – talent, hard work, etc. In my case, it’s dedication, determination and perseverance. As a youngster there were not too many opportunities, but I didn’t give up.”
He hopes to play chess professionally for another 10 or 15 years, he added. “If I didn’t play chess, what would I have been? I don’t know. I chose my profession at age 13.”
Chess receives relatively little support from the South African government, but the game is featured in the recent film Four Corners, set on the Cape Flats, in which a rising young player is caught up in gang warfare. President Jacob Zuma hosts an annual chess tournament at his home village, Nkandla, and this year drew in a game against seven-year-old Minenhle Zungu.
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