Chess Olympiad 2016: Which ladies will carry Rwanda's flag?

After looking at the 10 contenders for the five places in the open section of the national team for the 2016 Chess Olympiad, in this issue we focus on the likely favorites for the women team.
Rwanda's women team in action during the 2014 Olympiad. From L-R: Layola Murara Umuhoza, Christella G. Rugabira, Marie-Faustine Shimwa, and Monique Uwinkesha. (Courtesy)
Rwanda's women team in action during the 2014 Olympiad. From L-R: Layola Murara Umuhoza, Christella G. Rugabira, Marie-Faustine Shimwa, and Monique Uwinkesha. (Courtesy)

After looking at the 10 contenders for the five places in the open section of the national team for the 2016 Chess Olympiad, in this issue we focus on the likely favorites for the women team.

When the qualifiers kick off mid next month, it is predicted that not less than eight ladies will challenge for a place on the women’s team to play in the Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan in September.

 

The Chess Olympiad is a biennial chess tournament where teams from all over the world participate and, similar to the open section challenge, there will be stiff competition too in the women section.

 

Two years ago, Layola Murara Umuhoza, Christella Rugabira, Marie-Faustine Shimwa, Monique Uwinkesha and Aline Niyonsaba sat on board one, two, three, four and five (reserve) respectively, at the 41st World Chess Olympiad 2014 in Tromsø, Norway. 

 

It was their first time at a big, let alone international, chess tournament. They made Rwanda’s first ever female squad in a Chess Olympiad.

At the time, Umuhoza was a 10-year old primary school pupil. All others were grown-ups, some at university. The Tromsø five could again be top candidates but let’s look at each to determine the odds.

Dark horses Joselyne Uwase, Sandrine Uwase

Let’s start with this rising duo from a densely populated slum in the Gikondo neighborhood of Kigali.

It is difficult, at this stage, to look at them separately. They are not sisters. But both come from underprivileged families, especially Sandrine, who celebrated her 14th birthday early last month.

Joselyne turned 13 last Christmas. The former first saw a chessboard early last year and hastened to notify kids next-door about the captivating game. They first played competitive chess during last November’s national youth championship.

There are signs that they are now on the verge of something special. Ever since Eagles Chess Club (ECC) – cautiously decided to give them a first team experience, early this year, they did not disappoint.

Handed their long-awaited first team debut, they produced a performance they can be proud of – trouncing older opponents one after the other. 

And they haven’t stopped training. That will be their strongest weapon. Their impeccable work rate, hunger and will-to-win will also count much.

On the last day of the 2015/2016 national league, on April 3, Joselyne particularly surprised everyone by defeating Marie Faustine Shimwa, the reigning female national chess champion. The two youngsters will, most likely, be ruthless during the qualifiers.

Layola Murara Umuhoza

Today, Umuhoza is a grade eight (senior two) pupil at Green Hills Academy who turned 12 on September 2, 2015. She continued to improve her game and will also challenge credibly.

The cheerful youngster is the second born in a family of chess players – her father, and trainer, is one of Rwanda’s only three titled players; her elder brother is a burgeoning chess star; and her mother and younger brother also love the game.

That setting alone, other factors constant, gives her a substantial edge over her opponents. There is little doubt that Umuhoza will not qualify.

Marie-Faustine Shimwa

The reigning women national chess champion will, perhaps, have ECC youngster, Joselyne, 13, to thank if she qualifies for Baku. The teen recently – on the last day of the 2015/2016 national chess league – trounced Shimwa in the final round. 

It was a wakeup call that the latter can turn around into a lethal advantage. Shimwa simply needs to get it into her head that the kids – or any of the contenders for that matter – mean business and are working untiringly to overthrow her.

Not much else matters right now. The real challenge now is for her to bounce back, quickly. This is very possible. 

For two consecutive years, this third-year Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering student held on to the national female chess champion crown. And she stands a good chance to make the team.

Christella G. Rugabira

The graceful physical education (PE) teacher at Green Hills Academy is among the few seniors resolutely working to up their game before the qualifiers start.

However, much will be determined by how smart she trains in the shortest time possible.

Like Shimwa, Rugabira too was tamed by young Joselyne on April 3 and she knows what awaits her if she doesn’t up the tempo in training. And yet, she can do it. She only has to believe in her potential.

Despite falling to two junior players in the national league contest in the recent past, if she works hard, Rugabira who holds a degree in physical sports and education may possibly reclaim her place on the national team.

Aline Niyonsaba

The third-year electronics and telecommunications student at the Huye-based College of Science and Technology is another senior contender. 

After Tromsø, she will fancy another opportunity to play chess in the biggest arena, let alone an exciting trip to the largest city on the Caspian Sea and of the Caucasus region.

Located 28 metres below sea level, Baku is the lowest lying national capital in the world. It is the largest city in the world located below sea level.

In Tromsø, Niyonsaba who was a reservist played seven games on her debut and managed three wins on board four, against Swaziland, Togo and Palau. She too can make the team if she works hard.

Odile Kalisa

Two years ago, Odile Kalisa did not play but had the honour of travelling to Tromsø, as team coach. This time, however, she wants a place on the team. At the end of recent Rwanda Open 2016, she emerged as best woman of the tournament, an encouraging sign for her Baku credentials.

Among others, Kalisa was the best female player of the Genocide Memorial Chess Tournament (GMCT) last June. But she too must be on her guard. The new kids are in exceptional form and look to have a big future.

Monique Uwinkesha

This ECC first team player had to give up her board five slot to a teenager during the last rounds of the inter club ties. The kids’ unveiling, and mammoth performance, may well be a wakeup call propelling Uwinkesha to success too.

Her concentration during games is a weapon to reckon with. But her habitual lack of quality training time – supposedly due to a work schedule that involves upcountry trips – is a disadvantageous Achilles’ heel she ought to circumvent seeing that the road to Baku will be long, and slippery. 

It will be tough. If she recovers her spark in good time, however, she too could make the team.

The writer is a Chess player and writer.

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