Fighting the odds: Kenny Solomon

by Priyadarshan Banjan
1/14/2015 – Kenny Solomon, South Africa's first Grandmaster, was born in 1979. At that time Apartheid still enforced racial segregation in South Africa. This also affected the life of Solomon. He grew up in Mitchell Plains, a densely populated township near Cape Town, plagued by poverty, violence and crime. Chess helped Solomon to discover new worlds.

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Fighting the odds: Kenny Solomon, South Africa's first Grandmaster

Kenny Solomon grew up in Mitchell Plains, a township at the outskirts of Cape Town infamous for its gang violence and drug abuse. “It was built during the 1970s to provide housing for coloured victims of forced removal due to the implementation of the Group Areas Act“ (Wikipedia), which forbid “non-Whites” to live in more developed areas. Mitchells Plain - for decades now - has been notorious for high crime rates, with no signs of improvement over the years. From 2012 to 2013 approximately 1.8 million serious offences such as murder, attempt to murder, rape etc. were reported.

Even though Apartheid ended in 1990 such high crime rates are the heritage of the system of racial segregation that curtailed the basic rights of the so called coloured people and subjected them to social, political and economic suppression, forcing them to dwell in penury in townships. Coming from such a background Solomon is now a Grandmaster – South Africa’s first.

Solomon still remembers how it was to grow up in such surroundings. At his first day in high school he sat near the school playground, lunchbox on his lap, enjoying the delicious food his mum had prepared for him. The children around him were also eating their lunch while some were busy playing. The cheer was wrecked by a commotion – a 15-year old boy, armed with a knife, was hounding another student. At that time and in that place it was not uncommon to see children brandishing knives. Gang violence, crime and abuse was just part of life. The people around managed to catch the boy before he could cause any casualties, but the mental ordeal stays with Kenny to this date.

Kenny Solomon with his mother Rose

Kenny’s parents suffered from lack of educational and job opportunities and were forced to move into Mitchells Plain. Kenny’s father William Charles was well educated and would occasionally drill the works of Shakespeare into his eight children, of whom Kenny was the seventh. However, he was forced to work as a daily wage worker in an industrial area. He had to feed a family after all. Kenny's mother Rose Solomon worked as a sample hand in a clothing factory where she did ironing and stitching.

The feeling of being segregated and the lack of respect society gave them led many young people to turn to crime and to join violent gangs, which at least gave them a feeling of identity. Young Kenny’s family always tried to keep him inside the house but that was impossible – his friends would wait outside and often he escaped. Kenny knew he was breaking the rules. “I would mostly be outside with my friends in the streets and parks having our adventures like fighting with other groups from other areas. At School we would hear stories and details about certain actions that took place, what was seen, etc.” For Kenny and his friends, every day was a test.

Part of the Solomon family

His parents nevertheless had a vision for their children. They created an environment at home conducive to study and emphasized education. Kenny’s elder brothers and sisters attended college and University, which, considering the situation in South Africa, was an achievement in itself! Kenny would see his elder brothers studying or playing chess with friends.

Nelson Mandela

Things began to change in 1990 when Apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was released from his cell on Robben Island after 27 years of imprisonment. For Kenny and South Africa, Mandela was a sign of peace and reconciliation, a powerful leader who united the country. It saw the birth of a new South Africa where opportunities became available to all racial groups.

William Charles Solomon with his son Maxwell at his graduation

In 1992, Kenny’s brother Maxwell qualified to represent South Africa at the Chess Olympiad in Manila, in the Phillipines. His family went to see him off at the airport in Capetown. His brother’s send-off deeply affected the 13-year old Kenny. That same night, and for the first time in his life, he took a chess book from his brother’s shelf: a collection of the games of Karpov. Kenny already knew the rules of chess and started playing through the games. He eventually cultivated this new hobby that made him stay more indoors and less outdoors. When Kenny's brother Maxwell returned from the Olympiad their father instructed him to guide and help Kenny with his chess studies. Kenny was on his way.

“My brother instructed me to stay with Karpov games for two years (I should study only his games) but of course I couldn’t resist looking at Kasparov’s fighting chess.

Anatoly Karpov

Nevertheless, the book with Karpov’s games was my bread and butter for the first two years I played. Later, I also studied games from other great players of the past.”

At Sao Paulo, Brazil

Soon after, Kenny joined a chess club in Mitchells Plain where the so-called coloured people used to congregate in a library to play blitz. “A new world opened up on me. I was fascinated by this game that gripped me and I found myself indoors most of the time. Travelling to tournaments and meeting different people broadened my horizons. Chess definitely helped me to see beyond the apartheid’s classification of black and white.”

Happy for a game! Kenny playing Prasenjit Dutta of India at the World U16, Brazil.

Until late 2014, Kenny was a GM-elect with a peak rating of 2461. He had completed his norm requirements at the 2012 Olympiad in Istanbul. His mother has reached old age and his father passed away in 2011.

Winning the African Individual Championship 2014 Kenny Solomon became a Grandmaster – at the age of 35. “My Mother remembers the years of struggle and sacrifice very well and was overjoyed at the news.”

“I know I have inspired many young chess-players in South Africa by showing that it can be done. In the future there will be a greater number of chess-players and grandmasters in South Africa who will make their mark. It’s been a long journey and it’s not over yet! My dad always liked to say that we must use what we have to get what we want. For me, it was chess. Chess is a beautiful game and impacts positively on the lives of those who play it.”

Kenny, you are a living example!

Priyadarshan Banjan is a 23-year-old club player from India. He works as an editor for ChessBase News and ChessBase India. He is a chess fanatic and an avid fan of Vishy Anand. He also maintains a blog on a variety of topics.


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