Kenny Solomon - the chess star from Mitchell’s Plain

Nathan Geffen
Kenny Solomon. Photo by Daaim Shabazz of The Chess Drum.
Nathan Geffen

Kenny Solomon is South Africa’s first chess grandmaster-elect.

GroundUp: Where did you grow up?

Solomon: I grew up in Mitchell’s Plain.

GroundUp: How old were you when you learnt to play chess?

Solomon: I learned the moves at about seven but studied my first chess book at the age of twelve. I started my first tournament at the age of 13. I was pretty serious already at 13.

GroundUp: What do you do for a living?

Solomon: I play chess professionally.

GroundUp: Did you do well at school and/or university?

Solomon: I did ok at school and passed matric. I didn’t get to go to university.

GroundUp: Tell us a bit about your family life.

Solomon: We are six brothers and two sisters. My mother’s name is Rose. My dad, William Charles Solomon, passed on last year May. I am now married to an Italian. Veronika is her name. My daughter is one year old and we live together in Venice, the mainland. I got married with an Italian and being based in Europe makes more sense as a chess professional.

GroundUp: Please explain to readers what you have to do to become a grandmaster.

Solomon: To become a grandmaster you have to achieve three grandmaster norms. One grandmaster norm means playing a nine round tournament and facing at least three grandmasters. Over all one needs to have a performance rating of 2601 after 9 games to secure one grandmaster norm. There is a difference between performance rating and one’s actual rating. The second requirement of becoming a grandmaster is that one needs to have the actual rating of 2500. My actual rating right now is 2450. Hence I am called GM elect. I’m in need of another 50 rating points [to become a grandmaster].

Editor’s note: The higher your chess rating, the better you are. An average club player has a rating of 1600 to 2000. Above 2000 is an expert. The number one player in the world, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, has a rating of 2847.

The effort required to become a grandmaster

GroundUp: I remember you were a child prodigy by South African standards. How much effort did you put into the game as a child?

Solomon: I was very dedicated since I started my first chess tournament. I put in a lot of effort. For example, I would analyse each and every game that I played in every tournament.

GroundUp: How hard do you work on your chess these days?

Solomon: I can put in many hours a day, depending on my tournament schedule, but now I am also a family man. So I have to divide my time accordingly and be flexible. There are periods when I don’t do much and periods when I can put in many hours a day.

GroundUp: What does chess training consist of?

Solomon: Chess training consists of studying the opening, middle-game and endgame.

GroundUp: What percentage of your time do you divide between opening, middle-game and endgame study?

Solomon: I think I spend 70% of my time on the opening and middle-game and 30% on the endgame.

GroundUp: I’m a patzer [weak player - editor] but (when I used to play) I found that if I went over tactical problems before or during a tournament, I was sharper and more likely to find tactics in my games. Is this still relevant at your level? Do you try to solve tactical problems while you’re training?

Solomon: Yes this is always good. I solve combinations to sharpen up just before the tournament.

GroundUp: How much use of computer software do you make in your preparation? Do you make effective use of large games databases and programmes like Chessbase?

Solomon: Chessbase is a must for any chess player in our time and generation. I use chess software quite extensively.

GroundUp: What were the most important aspects in your chess development?

Solomon: I think the development of my character played an important role. I continued to work on chess over the years until 2008 even when there were few opportunities. It was important not to give up, to be patient, to bide my time, to learn from defeats and recover quickly. What was lacking was experience! Then in 2009 SABT, a fuel company, sponsored me and with 100% support I could get the international exposure and play regularly in tournaments and face grandmasters consistently. This experience was necessary. Then in Istanbul [at the recent Chess Olympiad - editor] came the breakthrough where I achieved the double grandmaster norm.

GroundUp: Do you play a lot of blitz chess [short timed games where each player gets five minutes or less - editor]? Does it help or hinder your preparation for longer games?

Solomon: As a junior I played lots and lots of blitz. Nowadays, I play on-line blitz but rarely. I think it can benefit chess-players but for some it has a negative affect. Before a tournament I play little blitz because I think it affects my play in long time control tournaments.

Beyond being a grandmaster

GroundUp: What are your chess plans and ambitions?

Solomon: My goal now is to gain 50 rating points within the next six months and this means I will play many tournaments hunting rating points. After officially being awarded the grandmaster title, I would like to open a chess academy in South Africa and produce many more grandmasters.

GroundUp: Is it difficult to make a living as a chess player?

Solomon: In South Africa it is definitely difficult to make a living in chess. In my quest to become a grandmaster I had to focus on playing chess regularly to remain match fit. I won many local tournaments, but I had to combine it with being a chess coach.

Chess in South Africa

GroundUp: SA has produced some talented players like Watu Kobese, Donald Macfarlane, Charles De Villiers, Deon Solomon, Wolfgang Heidenfeld, David Gluckman, George Michelakis, Mark Rubery and David Friedgood (I’m sure I’ve left quite a few out), but none have made the required grandmaster norms. Do you want to speculate on why South Africa has not produced a grandmaster before?

Solomon: The players you mentioned above may in fact have been more talented than what I am. Some of the above mentioned names have had some opportunities and exposure at international chess for a short duration of time, which in my opinion was insufficient. You cannot give yourself one year or take leave from work and expect to achieve three grandmaster norms within one year. This is what I told my sponsor SABT in the beginning of 2009, that I could achieve three grandmaster norms within one year. However it has actually taken me three and a half years to complete three GM norms by playing constantly in Europe. What is needed is a proper chess education and international experience. International experience is the key ingredient that is missing for a lot of our top South African chess players. Of course South Africa is very far from Europe and chess players need financial funding and support to play regularly in Europe. I’m grateful that my sponsor SABT extended my sponsorship for more than one year. They definitely understood that I needed to gain experience.

GroundUp: Is the game being well-promoted in South Africa?

Solomon: Chess is definitely not as well promoted as soccer, cricket and rugby. We do not have the same chess culture as Russia for instance, but we must take into account our chess historical background. With this in mind I think South Africa has made some progress in developing and promoting chess over the years. More can be done but it is all a process and we are definitely moving forward.

GroundUp: What do we need to do to produce more talented players in South Africa?

Solomon: My idea of opening a chess academy I think is a good move to nurture our young talented chess players.

GroundUp: Are you still intending to play regularly in SA?

Solomon: As I am now living in Italy it is geographically difficult to play more often in local tournaments in South Africa. Should I be in South Africa while visiting family and there is a tournament I would be happy to play.

GroundUp: Is chess growing in working-class areas and townships? What more can or should be done to improve the uptake in poorer communities?

Solomon: Yes, chess is definitely growing. In my opinion it is important that transport be provided for the aspiring young chess players who are from poorer communities.

GroundUp: When I grew up playing chess as a youngster, it was during apartheid, there was very little integration of chess across races. Has chess become fully integrated in your view or is there a long way to go?

Solomon: I think chess has become fully integrated. However what is needed is to provide transport for players from poorer communities to chess venues.

On the Olympiad

GroundUp: You had a fantastic Olympiad, scoring 5.5/10 against nine grandmasters and one international master. Your rating performance was 2600. You beat three grandmasters and of the three games you lost, two were against top players including former World Champion Veselin Topalov. What were your best moments at the Olympiad? Which games were you particularly proud of?

Solomon: My best moment at the Olympiad was after round nine where I drew to a grandmaster from Bolivia which secured me my double grandmaster norm. I was proud of my game against the grandmaster from Colombia where I won a very nice game. I was very happy to have played against Topalov, where to me the result didn’t matter or wasn’t important. Just to face such an outstanding world-class player [and to see] what it is like to face such an opponent who you don’t get to play everyday.

GroundUp: South Africa did well at the Olympiad. You guys came 62nd, but were seeded 73rd and before the poor result against the highly-rated French in the last round, you were on your way to a spectacular result. Are you happy with the team’s performance? Was there a good team spirit and did this matter?

Solomon: This is the best team performance in the history of South African chess and for that to happen we definitely had to have a good team spirit.

Two games from the Olympiad

South Africa vs Nigeria

Here is Kenny’s game from South Africa’s match against Nigeria.

Game source: chessgames.com.

South Africa vs Columbia

And here is an excellent game by Kenny. In the final position, mate in seven moves is forced.

Note: 27 Qc3 appears to be a notational error. If you know the correct sequence of moves, please email info [at] groundup.org.za. Game source: chessgames.com.

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