Joselyne Uwase, 15, was tense when hesitantly sauntering towards one of the back entrances to Makuza Peace Plaza, an upscale mixed-use urban development in Kigali, on the evening of September 17 with her big brother and a friend.
The youngster fully understood the purpose of their unusual late evening trip to town. She was being escorted there so that she could use and get used to the escalator before her then fast approaching first-ever trip to Europe.
She so much wanted to enter the impressive building commonly called kwa Makuza. But she was scared stiff of stepping, for the first time, on “the moving staircase.”
By mid-September, the teenager’s emotions were so often a mixture of curiosity – anxiety and joy.
No one in the family knew where exactly Georgia was. All they grasped was that it was overseas and, to get there, one flies on an airplane.
Traveling in an aircraft for the first time made her edgy every time the topic was broached by friends and siblings.
A week earlier, she toured one of the big hotels in Kigali and was stunned by the size and sparkle of everything in the hotel room. Nothing compared to anything in other hotels she had been to during local chess tournaments or the crowded home quarter of Gikondo where her mother ekes out a living selling charcoal at a nearby roadside market.
Everything seemed to move fast ever since her mother was informed that the national chess team was ready to travel for the 43rd Chess Olympiad 2018 in Georgia’s second-largest city, Batumi.
But that evening, the escalator was her main cause of distress, and she couldn’t find a solution to her bitter-sweet dilemma.
Uwase moved through security in deep thought. At the escalator, she panicked and refused to budge. After endless assurances that no harm would come to her, she quickly stepped on it. After five up and down rounds on the escalator, the last two which she cautiously managed unaccompanied, Uwase was grinning and back to her normal chatty self. She had conquered the moving staircase!
But that was not the last of her worries.
“Will I play against a world champion at the Olympiad? Do I have to play three games in a day? How many games will I play? Can’t someone else play on board one?”
Her questions were countless.
One of her biggest of concerns, it seemed, was the fact that since she wouldn’t be travelling with her neighbor and reigning national women’s chess champion, Sandrine Uwase, also 15, the burden of playing on board one at the Olympiad would fall on her shoulders.
Asked how she felt about traveling without her friend – who failed to process a passport on time – the youngster said: “It is going to be tough! I guess there is nothing to do about it. Is there? I hope I do my best.”
Three hours before midnight, on September 23, the youngster was giving her visibly nervous, but excited, brother and parents bye-bye hugs. Members of the national chess team joined the departures queue at Kigali International Airport. Everyone wished her luck. She even talked to Sandrine – then in boarding school upcountry – on phone and got more support and encouragement.
The team travelled through Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, before arriving in Batumi late the next day, and missing round one games.
For the next two weeks, the S.3 student of GS Kimisange Secondary School would mingle, dine, and play with chess players from Togo, Kuwait and Mexico, among others, at the Sport Palace, a very spacious modern complex in the center of Batumi.
Naturally, Uwase was moved being around the likes of the legendary Judit Polgár – who achieved the Grandmaster title among men when just 15 – and other greats she only knew from chess video tutorials.
On September 25, she played her first game in an Olympiad, and beat Burundi’s Yvonne Nahimana, on board three.
“We first met the Burundians on the plane. And I didn’t fear them when we played,” she said, the next day.
Come round three, her team faced a strong Mexican squad. The kid who arrived at the tournament rated 1551 was no match for Mexico’s Woman International Master (WIM) Ivette Ale Garcia Morales (2013).
Uwase admitted that, right from the word go, she “felt uneasy” after seeing her adult opponent’s high rating. They were all overwhelmed, and crushed.
In round four, she dispatched Malawi’s Anne Simwaba (1206) with ease while playing black.
But round five was another trial. She fought but succumbed to pressure from Iraq’s Woman Candidate Master (WCM) Yamama Asif Abdula Al-Fayyadh (1604). So, she kept telling herself, this is how tough things can be? Fortunately, the next day, Saturday, was rest day for all teams.
Uwase returned to action on Sunday in a different frame of mind. With two wins and two heavy defeats, she had been there, done that, and was more daring, even unnecessarily hasty, when attacking. But, who cares? It worked!
In her fifth game, on board two, she trounced Togo’s Ivana Claudia Eyram De Souza, while playing black.
Late that night, a mild headache started bothering her.
But come Monday she trudged on and defeated Bermuda’s Yasmin Flanagan. This win caused rapture since, in an Olympiad, a 50 percent winning rate in a minimum seven games earns a player the Woman Candidate Master (WCM) title, or Candidate Master (CM) for men.
When the World Chess Federation (FIDE) published a list of players from different countries who earned their WCM titles, Uwase was on the list. She made history, being the very first Rwandan girl, or woman, to get a FIDE title.
Her fifth win – when she thrashed Lesotho’s Likhomo Malehloa (1174) – also inspired as her performance then climbed to 62.5 percent, beckoning a higher title.
In Kigali, fans were making noise. To them, events in Georgia were, simply put, surreal. Hearts were racing, on the board and away. A 65 percent win rate in 9 games would bring the higher Woman FIDE master (WFM) title home – also the first by any Rwandan.
In Nairobi, FIDE arbiter Peter Duke Michieka, a Kenyan, who knows Uwase, wanted her to play on knowing that it possible to get the WFM in the remaining games. “If she gets 65% she gets WFM,” he said.
Unfortunately, the headache persisted. The teenager was also worn out and, on Wednesday, she was allowed to rest and recharge her batteries.
The Four Knights Game
When clocks started ticking on the afternoon of October 4, Uwase and Tanzania’s Bertha Samson quickly deployed troops into the Four Knights Game (Italian Variation) formation. It is an opening popular with beginners who strictly adhere to the opening principle: develop Knights before Bishops.
Uwase was black. And by move four she was already intent on messing. Luckily, her opponent knew nothing about Uwase’s perpetual weaknesses. The youngster dreads opponents’ knights and will not rest or care about wasting time until she at least eliminates one. Uwase did just that when, on move five, she exchanged a Bishop for a Knight instead of working to complete her development.
By 14:19 hours Kigali time, an hour and 19 minutes into the round 10 game, the tension was high. Samson had a reasonable positional advantage.
On move 15, Uwase threw a spanner in the works when she initiated the exchange of Queens and her unsuspecting opponent obliged. The game, at that point, looked to last unnecessarily long.
An hour later, Samson’s rear was infiltrated by the enemy’s Rook and, the rest is history.
Hours later, Rwanda’s first WFM was confirmed by FIDE. The youngster was still raring to go.
“I feel good and fresh enough. I want to continue and play the last game,” she said, later that night.
The next day, Uwase defeated 23-year-old Shahad Alraqum (1458) of Kuwait in the last round.
Uwase then joined others for the closing ceremony at the Batumi State Musical Center; marveled at Georgian dancers, the impressive building and architecture around her, well knowing that besides her historic title, she also added three points to her rating.
After her conquests in Batumi, however, Uwase will not have ample time for celebration.
Nor will she, most likely, attend all her weekend church choir practice sessions as she used to.
The national examinations set to start on November 20 are her new task.