The final phase of Chess Olympiad qualifiers for selecting Rwanda’s teams – open and women – for this year’s 43rd Chess Olympiad started last weekend with the first four rounds played at IPRC-Kigali in Kicukiro.
It is a tough contest in which 10 already known players, all men, vie for five places on the open team while six ladies – mostly teenagers – are tussling separately, for the five slots on the women’s team.
Competition is stiff but whichever way the wind blows, come Sunday evening, Rwanda’s flag bearers for the Olympiad scheduled to be held in Batumi, the second-largest city of Georgia, from September 23 to October 7, will be known.
Tournament director Kevin Ganza said the qualifiers are, going on smoothly, “with surprises though as, after the fourth round, it is still difficult to predict” who will make it to the top five.
“The competitive spirit is very high; everyone wants to make it and has been preparing for these battles on board.”
In the women section there is no doubt teenagers Layola Umuhoza, 14, Joselyne Uwase and Sandrine Uwase (reigning national women champion), both 15, will make it.
So is Odile Kalisa, the only senior lady contestant. The fifth member of the team will be known after the fifth and final round, over the weekend.
On the other hand, looking at current table standings – after the first four rounds – in the open section, as well as pairings for the fifth round on Saturday morning, it is clear that contestants in this tight race are living in ‘times of uncertainty and danger’.
Not even Candidate Master (CM) Maxence Murara who remarkably, and powerfully, climbed to the top by winning all his first four games, is guaranteed a place on the team yet.
He displayed a ruthless determination to succeed but round five will severely test him especially since he is playing against his son, Ian Murara Urwintwari, 15, currently fourth in the standings and determined to play in his first ever Olympiad.
But after the humiliation he suffered two years ago, when he failed to qualify for participation in this coveted world chess event, Murara is not ready to rest on his laurels.
There is no complacency in his mind. He could, imaginably, switch off while playing his son but his killer instinct will reappear in round six.
Everyone knows what the eager and patient youngster is capable of; inflicting pain. He defeated his father, and coach, during the first phase of the qualifiers in January. And he, all else unchanged, can repeat performance.
Urwintwari, 15, is the only contestant under 32 years of age in the open section.
There are still some rough edges about his play, several of which were exposed last weekend – especially when he accepted to tie the score against Niyibizi in round three yet he could have pushed for a win – but playing regularly against stronger opponents will help iron out those kinks.
Fidele Mutabazi, Alain Patience Niyibizi, Ian and Joseph Nzabanita are now second, third, fourth and fifth, with 3.0, 2.5, 2.5, 2.5 points respectively.
All are aware of the repercussion of losing the next round simply because, unexpectedly, or even unpardonably, below them are four wounded tigers who very well know they will starve if they cannot hunt.
And, as they say, pushing a wounded tiger into a corner means one thing: prepare for war, it is coming. There will be casualties.
The wounded tigers: CM Godfrey Kabera (2.0 points), Eugene Kagabo (1.5), reigning national champion Dr. Ben Karenzi (1.0) and Valentin Rukimbira (1.0) most certainly seek to quickly banish memory of their miserable start.
For some bizarre reason last weekend the quartet who comprise, arguably, Rwanda’s best players, especially the reigning national champion and CM Kabera, lost matches in quick succession.
While Dr. Karenzi got his only point from routing Rukimbira, in round one, Kabera surrendered to Murara while Mutabazi got the better of Kagabo.
It was assumed, naturally, that they would scratch something in round two but that was not to be. Kagabo got a free point because of the bye – a round that you are not playing – because of the odd number of contestants  after one Asad Ndangiza quit the tourney on the last minute; which means nearly all will get one before the eight rounds end.
By round three people were despairing and pretending they are Zen when they were stressed out. Save for Kabera’s bye, the round also ended in disaster. Come round four, Kabera luckily routed Kagabo, Rukimbira earned a bye and Kagabo lost.
Bad things happen to everyone. It’s their responses – especially in round five – that will make or break them. “For some players, the fifth round might be determinant or conclusive,” Ganza said.
The bottom four all have a point to prove, which makes them dangerous. And they are hoping to turn the heat up on Saturday.
Should the unthinkable happen in the next round, the boat will begin to sink. There’s no margin for error.
Family affair in Batumi?
Then there is this other interesting question: can the Murara family trio - Umuhoza, Urwintwari and their dad, Murara, – make it to Batumi? If they have their way, the Muraras could make Chess Olympiad 2018 a ‘family affair’. It would be quite an accomplishment.
The mademoiselle will make the team, for sure. And, so far, her dad and brother also appear to be coping well.
The Chess Olympiad is a biennial chess tournament where teams from all over the world compete. It is organized by the world chess federation (FIDE) and comprises open and women’s tournaments, as well as several events designed to promote the game of chess.
Contestants are playing eight rounds in a Swiss-system, a non-eliminating tournament format which features a set number of rounds of competition and each competitor does not play every other.
May the best players make it.