From a childhood filled with gunshots and foul-mouths to the serenity of Chess, South Africa’s Kenny Solomon has lived a full life

When dusk kicked in at Mitchells Plain, a suburb of Cape Town with the highest crime rate in South Africa until a decade ago, Kenny Solomon’s father would bolt the doors from inside and tell his eight children to not open the windows. The curious children would keep their ears on the window panes. Sometimes they would hear a gunshot, incessant clank of cheap alcohol bottles, unceasing foul-mouthed chatter, screams and shrieks. “Just noise and noise,” recollects Solomon, the first and the only Grandmaster from South Africa and the second from the sub-Saharan belt, who grew up in the last days of Apartheid South Africa.

When the streets were quiet in the mornings, he and his brothers would stroll around and snack from sweet-meat shops, but when the sunlight faded out and the streetlights blinked, the township would wake up and stay awake deep into the night. But his father, a daily wage worker but with a fondness for Shakespeare, knew that he would not be able to keep them unexposed to the gangs of the neighbourhood. “So all evening, he would recite from Shakespeare and other poets,” says the 42-year-old.

But the curiosity of the world beyond the bolted doors always piqued him. “I would sneak out and be with my friends in the streets and parks, having our bit of adventures, sometimes fighting. We would talk about one gang or the other, or a fight between them that someone had seen. It was part of growing up in our neighbourhood,” he says.

One day in high school, while having lunch, he saw a teenager with a knife chasing another boy. Other days, he has seen teenagers wielding guns and staring with bloodshot, drugged eyes. His parents were worried about his future, whether he would join a gang, but that’s when one of his brothers Maxwell qualified for Chess Olympiad in Manilla and the family went to see them off at the airport. “I thought that’s big. I should learn chess and travel by airplane. Actually another brother Graham had taught me the moves when I was seven, but I was not too keen. That night I got home, picked a chess book off Maxwell’s shelf and started playing,” he says.

From that moment, chess consumed his whole consciousness. “I was not able to stop playing the games that were shown in the book. It was Anatoly Karpov’s Collected Games. And then when Maxwell returned from Manilla, he took me under his wings,” he recounts.

His life changed in an instant. He mostly kept indoors, his friends would knock on the window panes and whistle out loudly. But he would not bother, much to his parents’ joy. But little were they aware that by the corner of a cramped room in their three-room apartment, a future Grandmaster was plotting his moves. “I realised that if I didn’t create my own future, I would merely become a pawn in this scene, trapped in the violent, oppressive cycle of gangsterism,” he says.

The awakening coincided with the end of the Apartheid Era and there was a sense of optimism among the non-white communities in South Africa. There was freedom and there was hope too. He enrolled in a chess club in Mitchells Plain where the “coloured people” used to congregate in a library to play blitz. “A totally new world opened up on me. Travelling to tournaments and meeting different people broadened my horizons about both life and chess. The game helped me to see beyond the apartheid’s classification of black and white. It puts a lot of things in perspective,” he says. A black-and-white game revealed the grey in the world outside.

Though Kenny got even more hooked into the game, besides playing and winning local tournaments, he never fancied himself becoming a Grandmaster. “It was very difficult and required a lot of patience and perseverance! As there were not many opportunities for international chess. I studied chess every day, played all the local tournaments and tried my utmost to qualify for international events which would be once every year. So naturally, my progress became slow. But I never gave up,” he recollects.

That’s when destiny kicked in. “I had met a chess player from Italy in a tournament in 1998. We had lost contact and then I saw her again at a tournament in 2006 and we fell in love and decided to marry. I then moved to Venice with her. It was tough to leave my country, but Europe was better for chess I thought, and of course you want to be with your wife,” he says,

More tournaments, more games, better environment, Kenny eventually completed his GM norms in 2014. “It was a deeply emotional moment for me, and the whole journey flashed through my mind. I thought of my parents, brothers, and the Mitchell Plains. My mother was very happy, she had put in a lot of struggle to raise us. But my father had died three years before that,” he says.

Eight years on, those days in Mitchell Plains look distant yet so clear in his mind. “There is nothing like home, like your childhood. No matter how difficult life might have been, a slice of you shall remain there,” he says, the whole journey flashing in front of his eyes.

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