Chess was introduced in Uganda in the 1970s by foreign doctors and even now remains predominantly a game for the rich.
So how did Phiona Mutesi get into the game that has shot her up from a life in the Katwe slum of Uganda to a world renowned Chess prodigy?
It’s a story worth telling and it is no wonder she has inspired both a book (The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers) and a Disney film adaptation of the book that goes by the same name.
In 2005, Phiona Mutesi was enticed into a chess program held in a church in the Katwe slum districts of Kampala by a free cup of porridge. She was driven there by the need for a meal but she soon began organizing her days around the visits to the church.
She says of that period and her introduction to chess; “It was so interesting, but I didn’t go there for chess, I went just to get a meal.”
She developed the skill for the game pretty quickly, making history in the schools’ competition by becoming the first girl to compete in the boys’ category.
Two years into the game, Phiona Mutesi became Uganda’s national women’s junior champion, retaining the title the following year. Her first really big competition was Africa’s International Children’s Chess Tournament which was held in South Sudan in 2009 and they came back with a trophy.
She has come a long way since then competing internationally at chess Olympiads in Siberia, Turkey and Norway. She’s been given the Woman Candidate Master ranking by the World Chess Federation, gotten a chance to play against her chess hero; Russian former world champion and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov and has even inspired students in the US to begin tournaments in her name.
Phiona Mutesi once said of her love of the game; “I like chess because it involves planning, if you don’t plan, you will end up with a bad life.” A bad life does not seem to be an option for Phiona Mutesi anymore, with a goal to rise to the level of Grandmaster and a hope to become a pediatrician, and open a home for children facing challenges similar to those from her own childhood, she keeps on making plans for an excellent life.