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Young Ugandan chess-prodigy: lessons in the slum take her to the world stage

Phiona Mutesi, whose life and chess prowess are to be a Disney film, remembers at first, 'I was very dirty…They didn’t accept me even to touch the pieces.'

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Chess champion Phiona Mutesi contemplates a move at the Katwe Sports Outreach ministry in Kampala, Uganda, January 28, where she first learned to play.

Hilary Heuler

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The muddy alleyways and dark, crowded rooms of the Katwe slum in Uganda's capital city seem like the last place you’d expect to pick up a game of chess. But this is where one of the world’s most unlikely chess champions, 16 year-old Phiona Mutesi, first laid eyes on a board.

Young Ms. Mutesi was only nine at the time, a homeless school dropout hawking corn on the street. Her father died earlier and her family got evicted from their home.  

She heard about a Western-based religious charity that mentored slum kids and served food near her alleyway, and also taught the kids some odd game called chess.

“I was hungry,” Mutesi says, “I’d never heard of chess, and I’d never seen it. So… I was like, ‘Maybe I can also go there to learn about chess and get a cup of porridge.’”

She remembers on her first visit that, “I was very dirty…They didn’t accept me even to touch the pieces.”

Eventually, someone at the organization, a US-based group called Sports Outreach ministry, assigned a five- year old child to teach Mutesi the rules of chess, setting her on a path that would eventually transform her life and outlook, and lead her to compete in international matches.  

The first indications that she might be a prodigy came when she started to beat the boys in chess. In Uganda, chess is considered too difficult for girls. But Mutesi changed that belief.

Boys don’t want to play with girls, “because girls were not good,” says her older brother, Brian Mugabi. "But right now I think she’s better than me.”

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Mutesi's success has challenged the expectations of girls in Katwe as well, who often think of themselves as intellectually inferior. Those who do go to school often drop out, and many end up pregnant by their mid-teens.

“I thought we couldn’t play chess, because I thought there were only boys who could play”, says 13 year-old Stellah Babirye, who started the chess program at the same time as Phiona. “But at last I realized that we girls, we have opportunities as well.”

'The ultimate underdog'

As a child, before learning the game, Mutesi was prone to anger, and literally threw stones at people when her temper flared. Her early chess game also had an aggressive style.

But that approach had its upside: At the age of 14 she qualified to represent Uganda in the World Chess Olympiad. Even without formal training, she proved apt enough to travel to Russia for the match. She is considered the best female player in Uganda and last year became the first Ugandan female to enter a male tournament and win.

Mutesi is “the ultimate underdog” in the world of chess, as described by sports writer Tim Crothers, who discovered Mutesi in 2009 and wrote a book about her, “The Queen of Katwe,” which was published last October. Disney is planning a film on her. The first bank checks from the Hollywood giant recently helped Mutesi’s family buy a plot of land.

“She has absolutely no business succeeding in this game…She should never have discovered chess, and when she did discover it, she should never have been any good.”

In central Africa, chess is “a rich man’s sport,” Crothers continues. “It’s considered a sport for the intellectual, and it’s certainly not considered a sport of Uganda.”

Street smarts

Robert Katende, who runs the Katwe chess program, doesn't think Mutesi’s chess aptitude is so surprising. He has a theory that some basic aspect found in chess – the need to pay close attention to moves to survive and win – resonates with the experience of many kids from the slums.

“I very much believe that having gone through all they go through from childhood, figuring out how to survive on a daily basis, they easily identify themselves with the board,” Mr. Katende says. “They have to face challenges, devise moves, think what will be the next step, what will come after that. I think it somehow makes them understand it better.”

Mutesi learned her moves with nothing other than a few grubby boards and chess magazines from the 1970s. She has never had the training materials, nor learned the kind of opening moves and combinations that are familiar to most of the players she meets at international tournaments.

 “For them, they have theory, and they play on what they know,” Mutesi says. “Me, I just come and I see the board, and I look for the best move.”

Last year she was named “candidate master.” While that is the lowest ranking in the World Chess Federation hierarchy, it is leagues better than most amateurs.

Mutesi speaks of becoming a ranked “grandmaster,” but Crothers says that while she has “figured out how to play almost completely on instinct,” she will need more rigorous theoretical and conceptual training to make the top competitive ranks. 

But such informal preparation can also make the Katwe chess kids more formidable opponents, points out Mr. Katende.

“Many people lose games to these children, simply because of that. Because they expect them to play certain lines, and they don’t. They play their own game.”

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