Inspiring Journey of Murat Zhunusov – Chess Champion for Visually Impaired

ASTANA – Murat Zhunusov, a 57-year-old chess player from Kazakhstan, has established himself as an international master and a world champion within the visually impaired community. He was born in the city of Balkhash where his life path unexpectedly intertwined with the game of chess. In an interview with the Astana Times, Zhunusov offers insights into his past, contemplates the strength of determination, and underscores the importance of persistence.

Murat Zhunusov, Chess Champion for Visually Impaired. Photo credit: Zhunusov’s personal archive.

First challenges and achievements 

Brought up in an athletic family, Zhunusov’s father, a Soviet boxing master, instilled in him a passion for sports from a young age. 

“Chess was never a part of my family’s interests. I was not even aware of its existence. But at the tender age of three, I excelled in checkers, mastering intricate combinations – like sacrificing two pieces to gain four. Counting came naturally to me, making the game an enjoyable pursuit,” he recalled.

Zhunusov’s talents garnered attention even then, and many predicted a bright future ahead. Born with a visual impairment, he faced challenges enrolling in a regular school due to his condition.

Zhunusov took second place at the chess tournament in the West Kazakhstan Region on July, 2023. Photo credit: Zhunusov’s personal archive.

“They suggested sending me to a specialized school for the visually impaired, but I was determined to prove my capability in a mainstream school. This opportunity, coupled with my aptitude and passion for calculations, culminated in my graduation with honors,” he said.

His remarkable memory allowed him to recite teachers’ words verbatim. By the third grade, learning became effortless, and this is when he first encountered the world of chess.

Zhunusov emphasized that he did not know chess notations or theory. He only knew basic configurations and started playing against himself to understand the essence of the game.

“Even as an amateur, I fared well in chess. School competitions earned me the championship title and secured my position on the school team,” he said.

Guided by prominent Kazakh coach Ergazy Alimzhanov at the Palace of Schoolchildren, Zhunusov delved into chess more earnestly. Here, he encountered chess books and terminology, achieving the second-rank norm within a mere two to three months.

“I developed skills in both defense and attack, always determined not to yield easily. A single lesson acquainted me with proper chess notation. With each subsequent lesson, my understanding deepened, encompassing concepts such as combinations, checks, distractions, decoys, double attacks, and more,” he said.

According to Zhunusov, he grasped everything at a tremendous speed and, most importantly, could immediately apply the knowledge in practice. Within a year, he met the requirements for the first-rank norm.

A strong commitment to chess 

Despite his victories in the competitions, Zhunusov had not yet aligned his future with chess.

“My focus lay only in the process, it was not until I turned 13, which was a turning point for me when I realized that I would pursue chess,” he said.

By 1979, he had earned the title of city boxing champion. However, his visual impairment prevented him from competing in regional events.

“Although I aspired to a serious boxing career, my health constraints led me towards chess,” said Zhunusov. He notes the parallels between chess and boxing, citing both sports’ reliance on strategic thinking and the natural selection of talent.

The same year, he triumphed in regional chess competitions in Balkhash, securing victory in all nine matches.

“In autumn, I clinched the city championship, becoming Balkhash’s youngest chess champion. My style was distinct – a composed approach, unafraid of sacrifices. Backed by my memory, I tackled nearly all openings with ease. What mattered most was knowing the outcome in advance,” he added.

His neighbor, an ardent chess enthusiast, played a pivotal role in kindling Zhunusov’s passion by providing rare chess resources and publications.

“Our correspondence games enriched my understanding. Recognizing my style, he predicted I would one day become a master, emphasizing the importance of dedication. He lent me all his chess books. I spent nights immersed in the world of chess, resuming regular school mornings. This routine persisted for around a year,” said Zhunusov.

This immersion propelled his skills, leaving him unrivaled in Balkhash within two to three years.

At university, he claimed the national championship among students, playing at a master’s level. The scarcity of tournaments and fierce competition posed challenges in achieving master status at the time.

“Amid this, a Higher Sports Mastery School emerged in Almaty, where I garnered insights from esteemed grandmaster Naum Rashkovsky,” he said.

Forging a path to greatness 

Zhunusov’s dedication extended beyond regular competitions, as he became a two-time champion among the visually impaired in Braille Chess, representing the Kazakhstan Society for the Blind.

“In the early 1990s, I participated in the final Spartakiad of the Peoples of the Soviet Union. I clinched victory in eight and a half out of nine games for the Kazakhstan team, securing the top board in the individual standings. A perfect score of 11 out of 11 in the semifinals qualified me for the Soviet Union championship, though circumstances prevented my participation,” he said.

“My aspiration to participate and win in the World Chess Championship among the visually impaired waned during this period. Nonetheless, I remained determined not to concede defeat and actively sought out opportunities. Ultimately, in 1994, the coach from the Kazakh Society for the Blind brought news of an invitation to the World Championship in Spain,” said Zhunusov.

With seven out of seven wins, Zhunusov triumphed in the World Chess Championship, becoming the first Kazakh to secure this prestigious title.

“Pride swells within me for scaling such heights. However, over time, I withdrew from competitions as the age gap between me and my opponents widened. Engaging with peers of the same generation was intriguing. Each generation brings its unique competition, joys, shared books, thoughts, and interpretations,” he said.

Currently, Zhunusov serves as a distinguished coach in Kazakhstan, imparting his wisdom to the next generation of chess players and participating in friendly tournaments with peers. 

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