Ugandan Chess Queen
Our guests today were Phinoa Mutesi and Robert Katende whose story is detailed in THE QUEEN OF KATWE: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion by Tim Crothers. Crother’s account of Phinoa's story begins in the Katwe slum, one of the poorest and most despairing places on earth. Phiona grew up sleeping in a decrepit shack with her mother and three siblings. Her father died of AIDS. Phiona has been out of school most of her life because her mother cannot afford it; she has often struggled to find a single meal each day. One day in 2005, while searching for food, nine-year-old Phiona followed her brother to a dusty veranda where she met Robert Katende, a war refugee turned missionary, who had an improbable dream: to empower kids through chess. Laying a board in the dirt, Robert painstakingly taught the game each day to a rag-tag group of local children. At first, the slum kids came for a free bowl of porridge, but many quickly grew to love chess—a game that, just like their daily lives, means using strategy in order to survive. When Robert would leave at night, the kids played on with bottlecaps on shards of cardboard. Of these kids, one stood out as an immense talent: Phiona.
And so begins the ultimate underdog story of THE QUEEN OF KATWE. Mentored by Robert, an enterprising Ugandan with a past marked by personal tragedy, Phiona began to play chess competitively. Persevering against the challenges of scarce resources, sexism, and class discrimination, Phiona became her country’s junior girls champion in 2007 at the age of 11, and then, at 15, Uganda’s female national champion. In 2010, having spent virtually her entire life within the Katwe slum, she traveled to Siberia to compete at the Chess Olympiad, the world’s most prestigious team chess event.
Now, having earned the title Woman Candidate Master at the 2012 Chess Olympiad in Istanbul, Phiona has become the first titled female Ugandan player in history and accomplished the first step toward realizing her dream of becoming a Grandmaster, the most elite title in chess. Her dream is to blaze a trail out of Katwe that her siblings and the other children in Robert’s chess community can follow. But Phiona, now 16, must still grapple with everyday life in one of the world’s most unstable countries, a place where girls are taught to be mothers, not dreamers, and the threats of AIDS, kidnapping, and starvation loom. In a new postscript for the paperback edition, Crothers updates readers on Phiona’s story, including her chess match against world champion Garry Kasparov during her trip to New York City for the Women in the World Summit.