Johannesburg — Amid all the adulation paid to South Africa's Olympic and Paralympic athletes, one no-less notable achievement has been under reported. A South African man is about to become the country's first ever chess Grandmaster, joining the ranks of greats like Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer.
Kenny Solomon perfectly fits the theory that, other than a few outliers, chess players peak between 30 and 38. Mitchell's Plain-born Solomon is 32, and following his performance in this year's World Chess Olympiad, held in Istanbul a fortnight ago, he can now call himself a 'Grandmaster-elect'.
Solomon is on the verge of attaining the highest possible ranking in the chess world, with the exception of "World Champion". Chess SA President Emelia Ellappen explained to the Daily Maverick that in order to achieve Grandmaster status, one has to have a rating of 2,500, with three "Grandmaster norms". You get your norms by performing well at chess tournaments at which other Grandmasters are competing. Solomon has the norms in the bag already. All he now needs is 50 more rating points, but the really difficult part is behind him: it is now assured that Solomon will become South Africa's first-ever chess Grandmaster, a title he will hold for life. He joins more than 1,300 active Grandmasters worldwide.
It is a truly inspiring achievement for a player who grew up in less than privileged circumstances in a country where there is relatively little official funding or support for chess. Partly, that may be because people don't know quite how to classify chess: is it a sport? Is it a game?
Ellappen is adamant that it's a sport - a notion backed up by the fact that chess is actually a recognised sport of the International Olympic Committee. "It's just not a spectator sport," she said. "But we're getting to the point now that our students, when they go to tertiary institutions, can receive sports scholarships for chess." She said there are as many as 20,000 chess players across South Africa, and she estimated that at least 75% of them fall into the youth demographic (6 to 18 years old).
Solomon, who took up chess at 13, is not unusual in that regard. He told the Daily Maverick via email that his older brother Maxwell sparked his interest in the game. "I was inspired by my brother qualifying for the Chess Olympiad in Manila in 1992," he said. "While he was at the Olympiad I took a chess book from his shelf and started studying. After Maxwell returned from the Olympiad he saw I was finally interested, and took me under his wing."
It didn't take long for Maxwell's tuition to yield results: within two years, Solomon was the South African Under-16 champion. Astonishingly, Solomon has never had a formal coach, though he benefited from the mentorship of figures like his brother. It was largely from books that he learned strategy. On his blog, he reveals an encyclopaedic knowledge of chess greats and their most memorable games, and a keen interest in the history and psychology of the sport.
Solomon's blog recounts the 1978 World Chess Championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi as illustrative of the fact that mere technique is not always sufficient to win at chess. Because Karpov's favourite way of psyching out an opponent was to stare straight at him throughout, Korchnoi played the entire game wearing dark sunglasses. But Karpov had his own tricks up his sleeve: when an assistant brought him a yoghurt, he would begin playing with machine-gun speed immediately after consuming it, with the aim of raising Korchnoi's suspicions as to the content of the yoghurt.
"Young players are often advised to ignore the opponent, and to focus on their game at the board," Solomon concluded on his blog post. "This surely has its benefits, but in order to excel at chess one has to take many factors into account." Solomon credits his own success as a chess player to a number of different aspects. "There are many ingredients to make one a good chess player - talent, hard work, etc.," he told the Daily Maverick. "In my case, it's dedication, determination and perseverance. As a youngster there were not too many opportunities, but I didn't give up."
Ellappen, who has known Solomon for years because he coached her daughter, testifies to this. "Ever since I've known him, he has strived so hard," she said. "He is very modest, always willing to teach others, and has earned the respect of all." Ellappen believes that if Solomon had grown up elsewhere in the world, it is likely that he would have made it to Grandmaster status before now.
"In India and the Eastern Bloc, youth excel at a much more rapid rate," she said. "The problem is that the only real way that chess players get experience and exposure is by playing in international tournaments, which is difficult because we're all the way down here." Ellappen said that as a result, on a global scale South Africa's chess standing is "pretty much average", though within Africa, we're doing better: South Africa competes with Egypt for the top spot.
Another challenge, according to Ellappen, is the lack of a chess culture within South Africa. "It is not really feasible to be a professional chess player here. Much of it is amateur. We don't really have chess academies, for instance." She said more institutional support for chess at a youth level could have a positive impact on South Africa's schoolchildren. "Chess trains the mind," she said. "It teaches you to analyse, think ahead, and make logical moves. If you make an error, you lose the game. It helps you apply the same lessons to life."
American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin held precisely the same opinion, expressed in a 1750 article titled The Morals of Chess: "The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement," he wrote. "Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with."
A number of educational studies have also found that chess was of more value as a tool for improving critical thinking skills than methods involving computers, creative writing and fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons. Time for a memo to Angie Motshekga?
Kenny Solomon no longer lives in Cape Town - he moved to Italy just over a year ago. The reasons for this were partly personal - "I married an Italian", he told the Daily Maverick - but also strategic. "Europe is where the fierce competition is," he said. From Italy, he is able to travel with far less hassle and expense to international chess meets.
Nonetheless, he is still officially considered a South African player.
Ellappen said the scale of Solomon's achievement cannot be overstated.
"It is so enormous for South Africa to have a Grandmaster," she said.
"It is what every chess player strives to be, the best in the world." For his part, Solomon was typically modest about the milestone, stressing that he still had to achieve his remaining 50 rating points.
Solomon said he never gets tired of chess, though he admits that "from time to time I might take a week's break". He hopes to play chess professionally for another 10 to 15 years, after which it may be time to lay down his pieces. "If I didn't play chess, what would I have been?" he mused. "I don't know. I chose my profession at age 13."