Who will win the 2017 National Chess Championship?

The annual National Chess Championship, a tournament to be played over two consecutive weekends in Kigali, starting this Saturday, will feature more than 12 of the country’s best chess players.
CM Godfrey Kabera.
CM Godfrey Kabera.

The annual National Chess Championship, a tournament to be played over two consecutive weekends in Kigali, starting this Saturday, will feature more than 12 of the country’s best chess players.

Rwanda Chess Federation (FERWADE) president Kevin Ganza said that after last year’s event was cancelled, due to poor organization, better preparation will now see games deciding who will become 2017 male and female national champions, running without difficulty.

Ganza said: “We are confident that it will go smoothly as the Qualifiers in November were run successfully. We expect around 12 players to participate in the event.”

It is a little bit hard to predict, who stands a better chance to oust Alain Patience Niyibizi and Marie Faustine Shimwa, the 2015 male and female national champions, because the top guns are set to play apart from Candidate Master (CM) Alexis Ruzigura – one of Rwanda’s three titled players, who is out of the country.

The 2016 event was marred by poor organization and Niyibizi and Shimwa retained the titles without firing a shot. The duo will certainly not have it their way this year.

“We shall have another section for women, which had also been postponed. In women’s, as well as in the open category, it’s not easy to tell who is likely to be national champion,” Ganza observed.

He added that: “We believe games will be tougher compared to previous championships, as players improved their game through a number of other tournaments, in reading as well as working harder in training.”

Three top contenders

The latest World Chess Federation (FIDE) individual player ratings could, arguably, give a hint on who stands a better chance in the men’s section.

Statistics show Valentin Rukimbira (1857), CM Godfrey Kabera (1857), Ben Tom Zimurinda (1806), and CM Alexis Ruzigura (1802), respectively, as the active players with more than 1800 rating points.

But rating points alone will not decide everything when the battle begins this weekend. Even so, here are the three most important candidates, on paper, to watch as far as the men’s title race is concerned.

CM Godfrey Kabera

The new Board Chairman of RwandAir is – more than ever before – a very busy man. In spite of his overall strength, his busy schedule is a drawback that can cost him. But the man hates losing chess battles and he has, perchance, laid the best plans. Do the best laid plans ever go awry? We’ll see.

Dr. Ben Karenzi

Dr. Ben Karenzi.

The retired former Commandant of Rwanda Military Hospital only returned to active chess a few months ago. In spite of his long absence from action, he is proving to be a force to reckon with.

In the past when he was active he trounced opponents with ease and, lately, his body language has oozed resolve. The good old doctor is on a mission. Opponents who dare underestimate him will endure a bad fall.

Valentin Rukimbira

The mechanical engineer has slowly but surely consolidated his position as an undisputed threat to Rwanda’s best. No doubt about that. FIDE rates him higher than all other active local players even though he ties with Kabera. Rukimbira will be looking to make a big statement.

Valentin Rukimbira.

All others can pull a perfect surprise

In chess, people pull all sorts of tricks to fool opponents. Some bait opponents by intentionally leaving a piece unprotected, or at least make it appear unprotected, to trick opponents into making a rash move.

The question now is; in recent contests, has any of the others been feigning weakness or using covert operations to build momentum for their ultimate assault or have they been feigning disorder to deceive, all the while laying a death-trap? Fasten your seat belts. We shall, before long, know truth.

In a way, the tournament could be likened to scenes in the scariest National Geographic Channel TV shows.

CM Maxence Murara, Zimurinda, Asad Ndangiza, Joseph Nzabanita, Eugene Mugema Kagabo, Anastase Nyandwi and youngster Rongin Munyurangabo are not the type to bow out without a fierce fight.

For one, Kagabo had memorable successes and signs of progress last year, winning the 2016 Genocide Memorial Chess Tournament and the tougher 2016 Rwanda Open.

Nzabanita is fresh from testing his mettle in one of the biggest events on the Uganda Chess Federation calendar, the Rwabushenyi Memorial Open Chess Championship, organized annually in honor of former UCF president, the late Cyril Rwabushenyi.

Murara might not be in the 1800 class but has played in eight consecutive Chess Olympiads since the 34th Chess Olympiad of 2000, in Istanbul, Turkey.

Again, his big match experience is an advantage. And his prayers have been answered since only two games – not three – will be played every day, allowing him the respite in between games he so loves.

And there is the 17-year old Munyurangabo, who emerged second in the qualifiers last month, and has nothing to lose. It is his maiden appearance and he is the only player under 30 in the tournament.

The high school student goes into the tournament with no heavy burden on his shoulders. If, he relaxes and plays his game, some opponents will squirm.

The ladies

In the ladies section, defending champion Shimwa will be a force to reckon with. By press time though, it was not yet clear which other senior ladies registered.

But dark horses, Joselyne Uwase, 14, and Sandrine Uwase, 15, neighbors from a slum in the Gikondo neighbourhood of Kigali, were on the list.

Sandrine Uwase.

Munyurangabo’s sister, Uwase, was seventh during the qualifiers, an open and rated tournament, and was number one in the U-15 category during the 2017 National Youth Chess Championship, which concluded last weekend.

In the Youth Championship, Sandrine Uwase was fourth, in the slightly tougher U-18 category. If they avoid the mistakes they are so prone to making, in a rush to win, the teenagers can cause major upsets.

To become ladies’ national champion, they will need more than good fortunes. The older and more practiced Shimwa cannot relinquish her title without a fight.

May the best players win…