A chess board and clock lie on a small table positioned in a corner of their neat and tidy living room. It is a sunny mid-morning, on Saturday, and 15-year old Ian Urwintwari Murara is playing a game with his father and coach, Candidate Master (CM) Maxence Murara.
Candidate Master is a title awarded by the World Chess Federation. Father and son were staring at the pieces, lost to the world, before Sunday Times’ team interrupted for this interview.
In their beautiful home, such scenes are a common occurrence. The game is an integral part of their culture and chess books and chess sets are noticeably accepted home décor.
Murara Snr, and Ian, one of Rwanda’s top young chess players, are well-known in the local chess fraternity.
His sister, Layola Umuhoza Murara, 14, and younger brother, Vivat Muyango, 11, all students of Wellspring Academy in Kigali and their mother, Rica Rwigamba, play chess as well.
How the game found them
The father, one of Rwanda’s only three Candidate Masters at the moment is their coach.
Murara Snr began playing as a little boy living in DR Congo, former Zaire, but devoted more time to it when he joined university back home in Rwanda. “I had this white friend whose father played chess. The game was a new thing in my village since all we knew were local games that just sort of looked like chess,” he said.
Like most chess players, he was captivated by the game early in his life and kept on playing throughout. “Later, at university, I became a national player,”
Murara’s love for the game swayed his wife who started learning when they first met. Ian would start learning by age five, while his sister started when she was four.
“I saw the chess board in the house then asked my dad to teach me. It took me two weeks to learn how to arrange the pieces and I eventually began to move them. I found it fun and started playing with my sister and dad every day,” said Ian, who is nowadays every so often putting adults to the sword.
“I would, sometimes, lose but with time I began getting better. I began beating my dad. As years went by, he bought us chess books to learn and get even better.”
Their last born, Muyango, was taught chess by Ian.
In December 2013, Ian who was then 11, represented Rwanda at the World Youth Chess Championship (WYCC 2013) held in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.
This came after he earlier conquered seven other kids and became the best, followed by his sister who was then 10, during a local contest to choose the country’s flag bearer for WYCC 2013.
Come 2014, Layola outdid her brother.
She took things a notch higher, during qualifiers, by convincingly trouncing six adult ladies to lead Rwanda’s women team – on board one – at the 41st Chess Olympiad, in Tromsø, Norway.
The Chess Olympiad is a biennial chess tournament where national teams from all over the world participate.
In chess, board one is usually reserved for the strongest player and considered prestigious although it is informal and teams are free to line up as they wish.
Despite her successes, however, young Layola somehow started losing interest in the two-player strategy board game played on a chessboard. “I still wanted to play chess but Ian had more chances of playing in tournaments, most of which aren’t my category.”
“Men play more tournaments than women which I think could be improved because in the beginning we didn’t have as many women in the game but then it progressed and we got to have our first tournament for women,” she says.
Even though she plays chess for fun, Layola found her passion in playing two musical instruments – the Clarinet and the Piano – while Muyango loves soccer.
In chess, however, Ian is firmly stepping into his father’s shoes. His father is the only Rwandan who has previously played in eight consecutive Olympiads ever since the 34th Chess Olympiad of 2000, in Istanbul, Turkey.
After the Dubai experience Ian decided it was time to start playing against stronger opponents so as to grow.
“When I returned home, I decided to play with adults. In the beginning I lost but the next tournament I got better and beat two adults. My father was my biggest supporter and introduced me to the Rwanda Chess Federation that exposed me to bigger players and games. I began winning more games.”
“My best moment came during my first inter club game between Knight Chess Club and Eagles Chess Club. I always considered Alain Patience Niyibizi [the 2015 national chess champion] as the biggest opponent but we tied during a national league game. I was excited,” he said.
The youngster who plays for the Kiyovu-based Knight Chess Club now plays more often on the internet, to improve.
More than just a game
Besides playing the game as a hobby and passion, he said, it has actually given him some life lessons.
“In the beginning I was just playing for fun but after a while I became more precautious on how I make decisions in daily life and now I tend to take them more seriously,” Ian said.
His mother agrees that other than entertaining her children, the game has developed more skills and helped shape their behavior in terms of patience and analytical thinking.
Rica recalls an incident when Ian was younger and his main goal was to beat her in the game.
“I’m glad that they discovered their passion early because competitions expose them beyond the academics,” Rica said. “They learn from their loss and these are conversations we have in our house to keep them motivated. They get emotional when they do not win and are challenged to work harder to beat opponents in the next game.”
Her husband added: “Other than the game instilling some skills in children, Ian is naturally humble and self-composed which has contributed to his success. He is able to read the mind of opponents which is why he beats me now. He mastered my moves and mind.”
“I don’t want to push my kids to play chess because they are too young and their energy levels are low. Ian beats me sometimes but I wish he could play simultaneously with other players to improve.”
Murara Snr hopes to retire leaving behind Rwanda’s next board one, a legacy that he will “always be proud of.” The father also wishes the country could have chess in more schools.
“I helped train many kids, because it’s not only about my son but also other children but there are not as many chess groups as there ought to be. We need more chess in schools.”
And his son wants Rwanda’s chess fraternity to go international.
“We are having many tournaments and making a lot of open contests for other countries to come in but I think it’s high time we compare ourselves to other countries, by participating in other tournaments especially within East Africa,” the youngster said.