Cape Town - Kenny Solomon has made history and fulfilled his dream by becoming the first South African chess grandmaster-elect. And he dreams of opening a chess academy.
Solomon became a grandmaster-elect last month at an Olympiad tournament in Istanbul, Turkey.
This means he is 50 ratings points away from becoming a grandmaster.
With the exception of being named world champion, being bestowed the grandmaster title is the highest ranking and a lifelong achievement.
Solomon, who celebrated his 33rd birthday recently, was taught how to play chess by his brothers when he was eight years old in their Mitchells Plain home. He learnt the art of chess at the age of 13 when he joined a formal club.
“At 13 I understood that chess was going to be my career,” he says.
Two years later, still considered a junior, Solomon was winning senior championships.
When he finished school, he thought about enrolling at university. But each time he changed his mind after being inundated with requests to join teams or play in tournaments.
“Chess just took me,” he says.
Between tournaments, winning championships and making a name for himself in the chess community, Solomon also taught chess at schools, universities and privately until 2008. But this left him unable to fully focus on developing his own game.
The turning point came in 2009. SA Bunkering & Trading, an oil company, became Solomon’s sponsor.
It was this support and financial backing that launched him into the international arena. Solomon was able to take on chess full-time, and develop his skill set.
He doesn’t consider himself particularly talented. “There are more talented chess players in SA. I could see that in their games,” says Solomon.
But, he says, it takes many ingredients to become a great chess player.
What Solomon lacks in talent, he says, he makes up for in tenacity. This allows him to fight right up until the end of a five-hour game. Even in the face of defeat, he doesn’t give up. Instead, he makes it as difficult as possible for his opponent.
He credits his environment as part of what has shaped him – many people who grew up living comfortable lives wouldn’t necessarily have the same fighting spirit as someone who had it tough, he says.
But it’s important that he prepare for a tournament: there is pre-match fitness, scientific studies in approach, and psychological training. And it all varies.
Solomon has a strict regimen of swimming and running as part of his training. This helps with circulation and concentration when playing for hours at a time. The longest game Solomon has played was in Harlem, US in 2001. The game lasted seven hours, with Solomon fighting to hold a draw.
His diet during a tournament is very strict. He eats lots of vegetables and fruit in the morning and for lunch. At night, he eats lots of fish for protein. He keeps the red meat to a minimum, as it takes longer to digest and can affect his game.
While preparing, he does research on his opponents. He has noticed that there is a difference between men and women opponents.
Women are more protective over their pieces and take fewer risks, he says. Men, on the other hand, fight harder and play with less fear. These are some of the psychological aspects of the game, that can be exploited to a player’s advantage, says Solomon.
He feels that those who learn chess – whether they compete seriously or not – naturally excel in other areas of their lives.
“It teaches objectivity. That there are consequences for bad moves, and rewards for good moves,” he says.
Now that he’s so close to realising his dream of becoming a grandmaster, Solomons would like to establish SA’s first chess academy. His sponsor is keen, but it will take a lot more planning and resources before the doors are opened.
The idea has been with him for a long time. Solomon feels chess is not given the same priority as other sports.
By opening a chess school, he believes he can make a contribution to the development of the game, and possibly more grandmasters.
“You have to be exposed to the principles and ideas.
“You have to be exposed to the inner beauty of the game. That’s true chess development. And that is what I want to share.” - Cape Argus