There was very good reason to celebrate in African Chess recently when Kenny Solomon of South Africa, the winner of the recent 2014 African Individual Chess Championship (AICC) held in Windhoek, Namibia was conferred with the title of Grandmaster. Solomon joined a very select group of individuals who have managed to get this title in Africa. He went through the entire tournament without losing a single game, featuring at least one grandmaster and several international masters (IMs) undefeated. His wins included a win against the top seed GM Adly Ahmed from Egypt.
The current grandmasters include One Moroccan, One Tunisian (Slim Belkhodja), Two Algerians (Mohamed Haddouche, Aimen Rizouk), 4 Egyptians (Samy Shoker, Essam El Gindy, Bassem Amin, Ahmed Adly), one Zambian (Amon Simutowe) and now a South African (Kenny Solomon)!.
We have around 10 Grandmasters on a continent with more than a 1 billion people. How is that possible? We still have a very long way to go in Africa. By way of comparison, we have less Grandmasters in the whole of Africa than Italy. Italy has at least 12 Grandmasters, from a population of at least 60 million people according to Wikipedia. At this stage I won’t even try to compare the number of Grandmasters in Africa with the whole of Europe. In terms of Chess development we are just not at the same level.
Is it so difficult to become a Grandmaster that even after Robert Gwaze from Zimbabwe won a Gold medal at the 2002 Chess Olympiad ahead of luminaries such as Garry Kasparov, he is still not a Grandmaster?
Amon Simutowe from Zambia was the first Grandmaster from sub-Saharan Africa and the third black chess Grandmaster in history of the game, after Maurice Ashley and Pontus Carlsson. However, Grandmasters Ashley and Carlsson are based in the US and Sweden respectively and not from Africa. It has been 7 years since Simutowe became a grandmaster in 2007 and the awarding of another GM in Sub-Saharan Africa was long overdue. There have been many false starts in this regard as a few players have managed to get the Grandmaster Norms but still need to achieve the rating of 2500 to get the converted title.
Now 35 years old, Solomon started playing chess at the ripe old age of 13 years, when most strong players nowadays are Grandmaster or are at least International Masters. Magnus Carlsen, the World Chess Champion from Norway who successfully defended his title against Vishwanathan Anand in Sochi Russia is 24 years old.
Many would have given up by now but Kenny Solomon just kept pushing the chess pieces until he achieved his life dream. Who knows what lies ahead now that he is a Grand Master. One thing for sure is there’s a lot more inspiration for African Chess players who also dream of become Grandmasters.