It is about a month to the qualifiers to determine five players who will make the open section of the national team for the 2016 Chess Olympiad.
The Chess Olympiad – arguably the World Cup of chess - is a biennial chess tournament where teams from all over the world compete.
A total of 10 players will challenge for a place on the national team of five – the standard open section – to play in the Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan from September 1 to 14.
No lady is on the list of 10 but women too can compete for the five places in the open section of any country’s team. The ladies opted to compete for the women’s national side.
But who will make the open section’s top five? Will Alain Patience Niyibizi, the surprise 2015 national champion, or Eugene Mugema Kagabo, lucky winner of the tough 2016 Rwanda Open stand a chance?
Are Rwanda’s only titled players – the three Candidate Masters (CMs) – Alexis Ruzigura, Maxance Murara and Godfrey Kabera, favourites?
How about the five ‘survivors’ – Ben Tom Zimurinda, Joseph Nzabanita, Fidele Mutabazi, Valentin Rukimbira, and Jean-Baptiste Hakizimana – selected from last month’s gruelling three-day nine-round pre-qualifiers encounter?
There’s some pretty stiff competition. Unlike previously when not more than five players vied for a place on the national team, there are many strong players today.
Two years ago, Niyibizi, Kagabo, Ruzigura, Murara and Kabera qualified for the 41st World Chess Olympiad 2014 in Tromsø, Norway. Will they all triumph again? How about a dark horse such as Zimurinda, Rukimbira or Nzabanita?
Considering recent performances each of the 10 is a potential candidate. But let’s look at every contender so as to, possibly, better appreciate the odds.
Alain Patience Niyibizi
Niyibizi turns 31 in a few days. Like most others, Niyibizi has big stage experience. He played at the 39th and 41st Chess Olympiads, 2010 in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia and 2014 in Tromsø, Norway, respectively. And he is training to get better.
Friends and opponents alike have openly told him that he was merely lucky to be crowned 2015 national male chess champion. With such taunts, the stakes are high. He needs to prove the doubters wrong – by qualifying.
That kind of motivation, if properly channelled, will very much benefit him.
Eugene Mugema Kagabo
Kagabo first participated in the world's fourth largest sporting event during the 40th Chess Olympiad in 2012, in Istanbul, Turkey.
In 2014, the man with a ponytail again qualified but was not on the plane to Norway because of a last minute passport hitch. Now, however, his papers are in order and he trains every day.
Unlike the others, Kagabo has no full-time job and is not inconvenienced by hectic work schedules. This is an advantage but, clearly, much will be determined by who is training smarter, not harder.
CM Maxance Murara
It will not be easy to eliminate the only Rwandan who has previously qualified and played in eight consecutive events ever since the 34th Chess Olympiad of 2000, in Istanbul, Turkey. But it is possible. For his uncanny ‘troublemaking’ temperament, some think Murara is his own worst enemy. He is likely to walk a steep hill as they will particularly be eager to get rid of him.
But the lawyer’s self-confidence is high as he most often openly declares, to the chagrin of rivals. His big match experience is also an advantage if he doesn’t rest on his laurels.
CM Godfrey Kabera
The 32-year-old's super demanding schedule at the ministry of finance’s planning directorate where he is in charge is detrimental. But the careful and calculated economist is possibly one of the three favourites. He could make a good team captain if he qualifies and is preferred to steer the ship.
Like the other CMs, Kabera’s superior problem solving, logical analysis and deduction skills will count more during the qualifiers. But many a time, very good players blunder in key games too. And Kabera is no deity.
CM Alexis Ruzigura
The 2014 male national chess champion can be deliberately ruthless. But in recent contests he appeared hesitant when facing stubborn and fortunate risk lovers. Nevertheless, he manifests a passion and sense of dedication that will propel him higher.
The 42-year-old professional marketer is the only Rwandan rated in the three FIDE categories – 1809 in Rapid chess, 1752 in Blitz chess and 1796 in standard chess. The road to Azerbaijan is long but it's highly improbable that Ruzigura will miss out.
Ben Tom Zimurinda
The Vision Chess Club (VCC) president is a never say die player. He will respect the CMs, but not fear them. And that will be recipe for entertainment.
In December 2014 local rapid tournament Zimurinda proved he can ruffle feathers by stubbornly grinding to a win against Kabera. He is not among the favourites but if underestimated; his resilience and willpower are killer weapons likely to bring about unanticipated outcomes.
Another dark horse that must be respected is the little known University of Rwanda (UR) mathematics lecturer. Nzabanita showed up without warning a few months ago, joined Knight Chess Club, and started making waves.
Strong players have fallen to his deceptive moves as he carries his bag of tricks wherever he goes. Last month, he fairly demonstrated strength when he garnered seven points to lead the table – together with Zimurinda – after the nine-round pre-qualifiers contest. The spotlight will be on his every move, and game.
Like most other contenders, Nzabanita’s club mate has dedicated time to studying chess and opponents will only underestimate him at their own peril.
Like everyone, Rukimbira makes mistakes, he is work in progress, but he is patient and dangerous. The 30-year old mechanical engineer also has time on his side as he has not yet found a full time job and, trains every day.
After being subdued by Rukimbira in the last round of last month’s pre-qualifiers, Hakizimana was stunned when informed that he qualified for the last 10 on tie break advantage.
The 63-year old played in three previous Olympiads; in 2004, 2010 and 2012, and is as tough as they come.
But to go through, he must understand that no one fears him because his nick name is Fischer (Robert James "Bobby" Fischer was an American chess Grandmaster and former World Chess Champion).
Rwanda’s highest rated chess player, Mutabazi, has been inactive but he returned to action last year determined to go all the way.
Some have suggested that he stands no chance but he absolutely wants a place on the Baku team and will pull all tricks to make it happen. The 53-year old boasts three Olympiads.
Before returning to action, a year ago, his individual rating had peaked at 2089 but was quickly scythed to the present 1888.
His highest rating achieved in the FIDE database was 2200. If he reawakens his tactical instincts in time he will turn the tables on any challenger.