Phiona Mutesi, From Pawn To Teenage Chess Queen

Mutesi playing a chess game with the grand master Gary Kasparov.

Chess is just a game to most people, a simple pastime that exercises the mind, but for Ugandan teenager Phiona Mutesi, it has changed her life.

In 2005, Phiona was a nine-year-old living in Katwe, a slum in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

Phiona (right) in action at the 2010 chess Olympiad in Siberia.
Phiona (right) in action at the 2010 chess Olympiad in Siberia.

Her father had died of Aids when she was three and her mother cared for Phiona and her three siblings by selling maize.

The family could not afford to send her to school, so she could not read or write and every day was a battle.

One day she approached a Christian charity in Kampala called the Sports Outreach Ministry. Phiona did not care about sport, she was more interested in getting some free porridge it was distributing.

At the mission, she discovered chess – a game that has no word in her native language.

“We were living a hard life whereby we didn’t have anything to eat,” said Phiona.

“By the time I came to chess, we were sleeping on the street.

Mutesi playing a chess game with the grand master Gary Kasparov.
Mutesi playing a chess game with the grand master Gary Kasparov.

“Chess was so amazing. I had never seen such a game.

“My first win was against a boy; he used to beat me every time; he only had to do five moves and the game was over.

“I was taught how to defend; I played him, and won, and he cried.”

Against all the odds, Phiona started to make a name for herself in a game previously reserved for the privileged children of Uganda.

In 2007, she became national women’s junior champion of Uganda and defended her title the following year.

In 2009, she travelled to the International Children’s Chess Tournament in Sudan. It was the first time she had seen an aeroplane or stayed in a hotel – a paradise compared with her home life.

“I felt bad when I came back as where I was I was eating very well and sleeping very well,” she recalled.

“Coming back home, we didn’t have a lot to eat. I didn’t want to go back.”

After winning in Sudan, Phiona qualified for the 2010 chess Olympiad in Siberia.

“When I was there, it was very, very cold; I have never been in such cold weather. It was so bad for me; I didn’t do well, but I got an experience at least,” she said.

People outside of Africa were starting to take notice of this little girl from the slum.

Sports writer Tim Crothers published his book about her called The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster.

It has been widely reported that Disney is interested in making a film about her life, but the company did not comment on the suggestion.

At the 2012 Chess Olympiad in Istanbul, Phiona was awarded the title of Women Candidate Master by the World Chess Federation.

The teenager is currently preparing for the qualifiers of this year’s chess Olympiad in Norway.

Big ambitions

Robert Katende, the director of the Sports Outreach Ministry and Phiona’s chess coach from the beginning, is pragmatic about her future.

Phiona is now back in school and teaches others how to play chess
Phiona is now back in school and teaches others how to play chess

He says as she does not have the same resources as her competitors she may have to go abroad to achieve her potential.

“Representing the country at the Olympiad in Siberia, she had never read a chess book and didn’t know about chess on the computer,” he said.

“If she is to achieve her dream, she can’t make it from here.”

Phiona’s achievements on the chess board have allowed her to move out of the slum and into a house with her family.

The 17-year-old is now in school and teaches chess to others, with dreams of becoming a grandmaster and a doctor one day.

“Chess has totally changed my life,” she said.

“I have got to do many things and I have been in many parts of the world now because of chess. I now have a goal.

“I want to be a physician as when I was in the slum, I used to see kids suffering. It inspired me to become a doctor and help.”

As for the film, she just cannot believe somebody wants to make a movie about her life.

For Mr Katende, his protege is an inspiration to people around the world: “She is now an icon in the whole country.

“There are so many other people who are struggling with life and are having several challenges and in most cases they lose hope,” he said.

“If this kind of story comes out, it will be one point that someone can cling on to and try to gain hope.”

Adapted From BBC

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