Chess with Chris and Kenny

Back to the Ruy Lopez next week unless anything else happens. Today there’s something different I have to share with you.

I returned from Richmond Junior Club last Saturday to see the sad news that one of my oldest chess friends and most regular opponents, Chris Clegg, had died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 66.

I’d known Chris for more than 40 years and saw him regularly at matches in the Thames Valley League between my club, Richmond, and his club, Kingston. We played six times in a decade between 1978 and 1987, and then, strangely a 22 year hiatus before four more recent encounters.

Chris started playing chess at his secondary school, taking part in junior tournaments and soon joining his local chess club where he remained for the rest of his life. Every time we played Kingston we knew he’d be there, captaining the team. If we were playing at Kingston he’d be the first to arrive to set up the furniture and equipment, and the last to leave, having put everything away. He’d even arrive early for away matches and help set everything up without asking or being asked. Chris would be at almost every tournament in the London area, arriving on his own and leaving on his own.

By profession he was a solicitor, but he retired very early. He had no family, living with his mother until she died some years ago. His other interest was bird watching. Chris was one of those highly intelligent, rather introverted people who tend very often to be drawn to chess. As his Kingston Chess Club colleague John Foley wrote in his obituary on the English Chess Forum, chess kept Chris going and Chris kept Kingston Chess Club going.

The chess world has always needed, and will continue to need, the likes of Chris Clegg. At his best he was a county standard player, a bit short of master strength. But, more importantly, he was an organiser who worked at a local level, never seeking fame or recognition. Chess isn’t just about producing grandmasters. Without dedicated organisers there would be no grandmasters and no chess.

Here’s an exciting game from a Thames Valley League match a few years ago in which both players missed wins.

But there was also good news recently: news that, as Bruce Mubayiwa reported on this site, Kenny Solomon has become South Africa’s first grandmaster. A great achievement in itself, but notable also for Kenny’s background, growing up in a township notorious for drug abuse and gang violence.

From his website:

“Kenny was exposed to gang culture from an early age. 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. Strong family values and his early interest in chess kept him away from these influences and compelled him to make choices about his fate.

“After getting into chess at the age of 13, he would play blitz games with his older brother and a friend in the Solomons’ backyard, amidst lines of dripping washing.”

Note that he taught himself to play chess in his teens. Not starting young is no barrier to becoming a grandmaster.

Chris Clegg and Kenny Solomon, two very different people and two very different players, but united by their passion for chess. I’m not sure whether chess made either of them smarter but it had an enormous social impact on both of them. It enabled Kenny to escape from the gangs and drugs of a South African township, taking him to Europe where he married an Italian girl, and to grandmasterdom. It gave Chris a purpose in life and a means of connecting with an increasingly alien world (he never used the internet or even owned a mobile phone).

There’s something else they have in common as well. I don’t know when Chris learnt the moves: probabbly round about the age of 11, as we all did in those days. There’s a loss to Ray Keene from the 1961-62 London Under 14 Championship, possibly his first tournament, on chessgames.com. I would guess that they both started their obsession with chess at about the age of 13 or 14. Not at 7 or 8 as children do today.

Regular readers will know that I consider the social benefits of chess at least as important as the academic benefits, and that these benefits really kick in for older rather than younger children. I’ll leave you with a quote from a recent interview with the comedian Stewart Lee.

“But also the things that get you when you’re 13 or 14, that’s when you’re most susceptible and if you’re lucky enough to encounter a good thing when you’re 13 or 14, it will stay with you for your life.”

Chris and Kenny were both lucky enough to encounter a good thing when they were 13 or 14.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.