2018: A thrilling year for Rwanda chess

Joselyne Uwase, 16, is the first and only Rwandan chess player to attain the WFM title. / File photo

WHEW! No doubt, 2018 has been a thrilling – and tumultuous – year for Rwanda Chess.

As 2018 comes to an end, Sunday Sport boils it down to some few, plausibly, leading events that capture the year – twelve months that will continue to shape things as we usher in the New Year.

Despite the seemingly rampant challenges, Rwanda Chess Federation (FERWADE) president, Kevin Ganza, is an optimist who prefers to call it “a year of great achievements.”

Olympiad qualifiers

The buzz and hubbub, by and large, started with the January to March qualifiers to select Rwanda’s flag bearers for the 43rd Chess Olympiad.

Among others, Candidate Master (CM) Maxence Murara and his teenage son Ian Murara Urwintwari defied the odds to make it to the next, and tougher, phase. Murara Jnr, as predicted, turned out to be an unshakable rock. He lost only one match. The final phase of the qualifiers, in March, also dominated headlines.

When 10 players eventually qualified to make the open and women’s national teams, respectively, CM Murara was a proud father. Not only was his teenage son on the team but his younger daughter too, Layola Umuhoza Murara, made the women team. It was a joy to behold.

Sandrine’s bad luck

Unfortunately, the then reigning women national champion, Sandrine Uwase, 16, could not make it to the Olympiad. The youngster was not able to get her passport on time and the federation had to replace her to complete the squad.

In September, she remained in boarding school upcountry as teammates eventually left Kigali for Batumi, the second-largest city of Georgia, where the Chess Olympiad 2018  would be held. But Sandrine was happy that her neighbor, Joselyne Uwase, was flying, and wished her luck.

Clubs burrow, enter inter-schools chess

Some unpleasant things never changed of course.  Another sad element in 2018, perhaps, is the fact that the earlier frozen inter-club championship was never revived. Worse still, throughout the year, local chess clubs continued to burrow.

On the other hand, the inter-club contest was replaced – as it seems – with the inter-schools chess tournament. Earlier in the year, the maiden inter-schools chess tournament was held at Green Hills Academy in Kigali, where seven schools battled for supremacy.

The hosts won, followed by Lycée Notre Dame de Cîteaux (LNDC) and Kagarama Secondary School, in that order, and the resulting impetus has shown in recent bigger events. Kids from schools where chess has been introduced are intent on conquering the national scene.

Olympiad team’s late departure

Finally, on Sunday night of September 23, Team Rwanda comprising four teenagers, left Kigali. But, due to difficulty in getting necessary travel logistics on time, they would arrive a day late and not only miss the opening ceremony – those who attended say it was an opening ceremony like no other – but round one of the competition as well. But, they got there anyway.

It was a coup of sorts, considering the federation’s situation at the time. In December 2016, the Ministry of Sports and Culture suspended nine national sports federations including the chess federation for operating without legal status.

Two teenagers, two FIDE titles

And then, when the games were over, it was time to leave Batumi. And Rwanda – particularly the young girls on the team – left the Chess Olympiad 2018 two titles rich, and optimistic.

The World Chess Federation (FIDE) had confirmed the Woman FIDE Master (WFM) to Joselyne Uwase, who turned 16 on Christmas day as well as the Woman Candidate Master (WCM) title for another Olympiad debutante, Christelle Uwamahoro, 14.

Joselyne’s performance was impressive and inspiring. Ganza said: “This year has shown us that kids like chess and we could capitalize on that. It has been a year of great achievements.”

Nzabanita, Uwase crowned Champions

The annual U-18 chess championships too were a sign of good things yet to come, especially from the chess hungry youngsters. The 2018 edition of the National Chess Championship even painted a better picture.

Joseph Nzabanita and Sandrine Uwase became 2018 national male and female chess champions respectively after their individual triumphs in the National Chess Championships. While it was Nzabanita’s first, Sandrine, 16, defied the odds to win all her seven matches to retain her title.

Federation gets new lease on life

And lastly, even before all competitive events were done and dusted, on December 12, according to Rwanda Chess Federation (FERWADE) president Kevin Ganza, the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) finally issued the much needed legal status documents.

One important thing Ganza would like to see happening is “chess being able to attract sponsors.”

“I would like to see each of our tournaments having its own sponsor. That is our task at hand now that we have completed, successfully, the legal personality processes.”

The often cash-strapped federation will now function, hopefully, with some energy since it can solicit funds, and any other support, with relative ease.