Chess Is One Girl's Ticket Out Of The Slums


Now, this is amazing. Phiona Mutesi, a 14-year-old girl from the Ugandan slums of Katwe, has been recognized as a chess phenom — and has traveled to Russia to compete in the 2010 Chess Olympiad.

Says ESPN, “To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe.”

Mutesi learned chess from Robert Katende, a young man who coaches kids in the town of Katwe. She quickly proved gifted.

Within a year, Phiona could beat her coach, and Katende knew it was time for her and the others to face better competition outside the project. He visited local boarding schools, where children from more privileged backgrounds refused to play the slum kids because they smelled bad and seemed like they might steal from them. But Katende kept asking until 10-year-old Phiona was playing against teens in fancy blazers and knickers, beating them soundly. Then she played university players, defeating them, as well. She has learned the game strictly through trial and error, trained by a coach who has played chess recreationally off and on for years, admitting he didn’t even know all of the rules until he was given Chess for Beginners shortly after starting the project. Phiona plays on instinct instead of relying on opening and end-game theory like more refined players. She succeeds because she possesses that precious chess gene that allows her to envision the board many moves ahead, and because she focuses on the game as if her life depended on it, which in her case might be true.

Phiona lives in total poverty. Her father died of AIDS and her mother is HIV positive; she has not been tested. And despite her team’s performance — which impresses the other teams — they will probably not have the money to compete in future Olympiads. The matches, while inspiring, are a strange experience: for the first time Phiona and her teammates experience beds, running water, all the food they can eat — only to return home afterwards. Nevertheless, Phiona is moved to tell Katende, “Coach, I will be a grandmaster someday.”

Game Of Her Life [ESPN]
[Image via Stephanie Sinclair/ESPN]

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