Meet the man who turned down life of crime to become chess grandmaster

Oscar Quine@oscarquine
Saturday 10 January 2015 10:50
Celebrities

What’s your opening move?

Careful who you’re challenging. Kenny Solomon is South Africa’s first chess grandmaster – defying the odds of having grown up in one of his country’s most notorious townships.

That’s a big move.

Solomon, 33, was inspired to first line up his pieces when his older brother was flown to the Philippines to take part in a Chess Olympiad. Sidestepping the gang violence and drug abuse that blighted his hometown of Mitchell Plains, he instead picked up a book about former world champion Anatoly Karpov – and two years later won the under-16 national championship.

What was he up against?

In 2013, Mitchell Plains was identified as having the highest crime rate in South Africa with 1.8 million serious offences reported in 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.”

Most impressive.

His rise was capped last month when he became only the second grandmaster in sub-Saharan Africa after Amon Simutowe of Zambia. It’s been an eventful few years, all thanks to chess. In 2011, he married an Italian player and moved to Venice before a strong performance at the World Chess Olympiad led to him being named grandmaster-elect.

What next?

Solomon says he 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 has previously told the Business Day newspaper. “I’d like to be part of whatever is necessary to help more South Africans appreciate that.”

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