South African escapes township violence to become chess grandmaster

Kenny Solomon started playing the game at 13 while living in Mitchells Plain, which has the highest crime rate in the country.

A game of chess
Kenny Solomon escaped township violence to become a chess grandmaster. (Steve Prezant/Getty Images/Image Source)

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 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.
The late Donald Woods, a newspaper editor and biographer of Steve Biko, drafted the first nonracial constitution of the South African Chess Federation.
Solomon hopes to set up a chess academy in South Africa one day. “Chess is a beautiful game that impacts positively on the lives of those who play it,” he once told the Business Day newspaper. “I’d like to be part of whatever is necessary to help more South Africans appreciate that.”

 David Smith
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About Tsogo Sun Moves for Life

Education through Chess. A proven intervention to unlock the potential of SA's children. Moves for Life unlocks the cognitive potential of South African children by structured implementation of chess education where essential aspects of the game are actively linked with math, science and lifeskill concepts. Learning fundamental concepts are made fun and exciting for the child.
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