Last Thursday Phiona Mutesi, a teenage chess prodigy from Uganda met the 13th World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov. It was a short but special moment for Mutesi, who played a game with her idol and received a gift copy of one of his books. Screenshot of the Women in the World Summit article
Phiona Mutesi is a name that hasn't been mentioned before here at ChessVibes, which is quite surprising if you look at the results if you Google her name! It all began with an ESPN Magazine story by Tim Crothers published in January 2011. It tells the remarkable history of a poor, 14-year-old girl from Uganda who gets to play for the September 2010 Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, Siberia.
Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog. 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 grew up in the slums of Kampala. She slept in a decrepit shack with her mother and three siblings and struggled to find a single meal each day. When she was three, her father died of AIDS. Mutesi has been out of school most of her life because her mother cannot afford it.
When she was nine years old, Phiona met Robert Katande, a war refugee turned missionary who had an improbable dream: to empower kids through chess – a game for which there's not even a word in the native dialect. Katande was teaching many kids who at first came for a free bowl of porridge, but many grew to love chess. Of these kids, Mutesi stood out as a big talent.
By the age of eleven she won her first Junior Championship in Uganda and at fifteen she became the country's champion. As part of the national team, she travelled to Siberia in September 2010, a rare journey out of Katwe where girls are taught to be mothers, not dreamers, and the threats of AIDS, kidnapping, and starvation loom over the people.
The ESPN story mentioned above is highly recommended and so is Crowthers' book The Queen of Katwe (2012, Sribner) which was based on the same article. It's "a story of life, chess and one extraordinary girl's dream of becoming a grandmaster", as the cover writes. Meanwhile, Disney has optioned the rights to the book, and is starting work on a movie.
In 2012, Mutesi and one of her team mates earned the Woman Candidate Master (WCM) title as a result of their performances at the Olympiad, making them the first titled female players in Ugandan chess history.
Piona Mutesi is now 17 years old (though she does not remember her actual birthday) and a bit of a star. At the moment she is in the United States for the second time, taking part in the fourth-annual Women in the World Summit in New York. On Friday afternoon she participated in a talk together with Garry Kasparov which focused on chess as a tool for opening doors for education.
The day before, Mutesi met Kasparov for the first time, another big dream of hers. Kasparov gave her a copy of his book Kasparov vs Karpov, and the two played a game. Of course Kasparov won. "He has won the game, but I have learned many things from losing,” Mutesi said. Kasparov responded that this was one of life’s most important lessons, to learn from one’s mistakes.