Chess star inspires

Kenny Solomon is a beacon – his story one of hope, and inspiration. It delivers the universal message that each of us has the power to change our own lives through hard work and dedication, impact our destinies and be more than we ever dreamed we could be. The story has deep resonance in our society that is so mired in crime, violence and hopelessness.

Kenny (33) is one of eight children, with humble beginnings in a Mitchells Plain neighbourhood where the only real employment was crime. Kenny was one of the lucky ones, he found a way out. He was seven when his eldest brother taught him how to play and the chess bug bit on absentmindedly picking up one of his books.  He worked hard at it, alone, because he saw the potential it had to change his life.

Ever determined to succeed on the international chess scene, Solomon continued to study chess after matric, competing at every opportunity. He supplemented his income by teaching at University of Cape Town and University of Western Cape, as well as offering private lessons.

The turning point came in 2009 when South African Bunkering & Trading (SABT), an oil company, stepped in as sponsor.  It was this support and financial backing of Kenny’s training, unlimited overseas travel so he could prepare for and compete in international tournaments thus fast-tracking his dream. But SABT got much more than they bargained for in the young prodigy. As part of the sponsorship deal, Kenny conducts strategy training with SABT staff so that they can always be one move ahead of their competitors.

Inspired by Solomon’s skill and fortitude, MD of SABT, Andre Baard decided to pioneer chess sponsorship in SA. “We gained a first class strategist to teach our traders better positional, strategic and tactical play in the bunker trading business.”

“Chess is life on a board.  It teaches immediacy of cause and effect, the need for patience and delayed gratification, all disciplines South Africa’s youth desperately need,” says Andre. “The sport that engages the mind is all too neglected – sadly what is most needed in our nation.”

Today Kenny is on the verge of attaining the highest possible ranking in the chess world, with the exception of “World Champion”. Two decades and hundreds of chess games later, he is set to become South Africa’s first Chess Grandmaster, joining a mere 1300 active title holders worldwide. As Grandmaster elect he will become the second player from sub-Saharan Africa and eighth in Africa to achieve this status.   

With an international performance rating of 2413 and having met all other grandmaster norms set by the International Chess Federation (FIDE), Solomon needs a mere 87 more rating points to graduate.

He has inspired many, including the Western Cape MEC of Cultural Affairs and Sport who has dedicated the next four years to raising the profile of chess as a sport in our country and sharing its benefits. SABT has flown Kenny here to be at the MEC’s budget speech on Monday where he will reveal his chess revolution plan to raise the awareness of sport and the chess profile of South Africa.

Dr Ivan Meyer’s department is on a drive to encourage every SA child to play chess as it is statistically proven to improve Maths and Science results.  “In addition, chess teaches youngsters that life is about choices, there are consequences to your every move in life and personal responsibility,” Dr Meyer shares. “There is nothing more magical than seeing a six-year old play chess.”

Over the past year, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport has championed the installation of chess sets in 80% of our libraries, 28 museums and is now focussing on getting schools to add chess to their curricular offering.

Yet another area of focus for his team is installing outdoor chess sets in public places and blocking of streets for chess games by the local communities, that way refocusing current aggressions amongst our youth, especially in disadvantaged areas, onto the board.

“”Our department funds chess coaching, transport to tournaments and athlete development and we are also actively promoting chess for the blind, together with the Worcester Institute for the Blind,” Dr Meyer adds.  “We recently witnessed 2000 children gathered around 1000 chess boards at the Chess Tournament held at UCT.

He also indicated the need, as in China and Russia, to invest in teaching and coaching chess at a competitive level, which is what Kenny will drive on receipt of his Grandmaster title later this year.

Kenny is here to deliver a message of hope, that South Africa is a land of excellence to the world at large. It is time for us to show the world – once more - that we can be thought leaders in the areas of transformation and reconciliation.

People need a working class hero they can admire and who can show them the way to a better future. It’s through sharing Kenny’s moves that we can heighten awareness of the value of playing chess.

Research has shown that children who play chess are more likely to be naturally sharp, logical, creative and intelligent. Academic improvements are demonstrated in diverse disciplines, including maths, reading, critical thinking and memory.  

“While I’m not advocating that youngsters ignore their schooling for the sake of chess, there’s no doubt it helps improve cognitive skills,” he stresses. “I didn’t realize at the time, but the endless reading, studying and playing chess not only provided me with exceptional skills in concentration, but also helped develop my language and maths skills. My vocabulary improved radically, essays flowed freely and numbers fell into place.”

Initiatives like Chess for Change, which aims to develop chess in local schools, are already changing attitudes toward the game.  But as Kenny says, “We need more institutional support for chess at a youth level.”

Now he is close to becoming SA’s first grandmaster, Solomon’s dream is to open our country’s first chess academy.  “By opening a chess school I believe I can make a contribution to the development of the game and possibly more grandmasters,” he shares. “I want to share the principles, ideas and inner beauty of the game.  That’s true development.”

What Solomon lacks in talent, he makes up for in tenacity which allows him to fight during a five-hour game.  He credits his environment as part of what’s shaped him – a fighting spirit of someone who had it tough.  

He has a strict regimen of swimming and running as part of his training which helps with circulation and concentrations when playing for hours at a time. 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 volumes of fish for protein, keeping red meat to a minimum as it takes longer to digest thus affecting his game.

Even though Kenny now lives in Italy, after marrying an Italian who grew up with a chess board in every room in their home he is still officially considered a South African player.

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