Ugandan Chess Star Barnstorms U.S.

  • FM MikeKlein
  • on 25.04.14, 04:40.

Haven't heard of Phiona Mutesi? You will soon. The most famous player in the history of Ugandan chess is coming to America, and perhaps to the silver screen. 

A member of Ugandan Women's Olympiad team, Mutesi was featured in an article in "ESPN the Magazine" and then in a full-length book by Tim Crothers. "The Queen of Katwe" chronicled her rise from the slums of Kampala to her first trip on an airplane - to Siberia for the 2010 Olympiad. More superlatives follow: the opening ceremony, held on a skating rink, was the first time she had seen ice.

On Thursday, Mutesi began a cross-country tour across the United States. She'll be speaking at various events in an effort to raise awareness and money for a chess center to be built near her native village.

WCM Phiona Mutesi (far left) and her coach, Robert Katende, on KATU in Portland, Oregon

Mutesi's trip didn't start small. After a few events in Portland, Oregon, on Thursday she attended three events and spoke at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. The Gateses sponsored her airfare and reportedly Bill Gates "challenged" her to a game when he learned of her during a previous trip to the U.S. in April, 2013.

The entire tour will cover nine states and the District of Columbia over 32 days. You can see upcoming events here.

According to Robert McLellan, Director of Communications and Development at the National Scholastic Chess Foundation, the goal is to raise $200,000 to build this building, which will be part of a larger Sports Outreach Ministry complex in the Ugandan capital. The entire educational complex is expected to cost $2 million (it is the same organization whose outreach in Katwe introduced Mutesi to chess).

McLellan became inspired to help after picking up her book. "I took it, I read it, and I went, 'This is really profound,'" he said. McLellan is focused on the larger message of what Mutesi's story says about chess and women in Africa.

"The subtitle of the book is highly unlikely," he said about "The Queen of Katwe's" claim that her dream is to become a grandmaster (she earned her Women's Candidate Master title at the 2010 Olympiad and her FIDE is 1648). Instead, his interest focuses how impactful her story can be for youth in the U.S. "What can it can do for a poor kid in America, who has no inkling of poverty like they have in Africa?"

Katende and Mutesi speaking at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington

On Tuesday, the tour makes a stop in Los Angeles for meetings with Disney. According to McLellan, they have already bought the rights to her story.

From there, she'll make her way East, with stops ranging from local churches to chess tournaments at all-girls schools. McLellan said she will turn 18 during her trip, even though FIDE lists her birth year as 1993.

Robert Katende, her longtime coach and the Director of Sports Outreach Ministry (headquartered in Lynchburg, Virginia), is accompanying her on the tour. He said the facility they are attempting to build will "serve the entire East Africa region." It is designed to host tournaments up to 300 players and become a regional hub for chess education.

Unlike a previous trip to the U.S. in support of the book, he said, "Her English has also improved that she can speak without an interpeter for most of the conversation." He also hopes that she will get some training; she's already been selected for the Olympiad in Norway this August.

Her second trip to the U.S. was last year. She was awarded a $25,000 grant by the Women of the World Summit, which she partially used to host a two-day summit for female chess players. The enterprise hoped to get 50 girls and women, instead more than 400 showed up.

FM James Schuyler and Mutesi aboard the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia in 2013

Katende said he would be nervous if he got to meet Bill Gates in person, though he noted that such a game would be quite a financial discrepancy between the combatants. "People of two different worlds economically, meeting at the chess board!" he said. (The event at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was closed and could not verify if the Gateses attended or played a game with Mutesi.)

To further show how far apart the financial Venn diagrams of such a meeting: according to Forbes, Bill Gates is the world's richest man at $77.2 billion, which is almost exactly four times the GDP of all of Uganda.

Speaking to before her trip, Mutesi said she would be "looking forward to meeting Billy Gates."

After it is all over, she's not content to walk the red carpet for years to come. Mutesi's goal is to become a doctor and remain in Uganda. Her brother is studying to become an engineer.

"These kids are not trying to leave," McLellan said. "They're going to all these events and saying, 'Why can't we have this here?'"

"The chess center will always remind me of where I came from," Mutesi said. Her next comment shows the difference in her world view. When asked what she hoped the chess center would accomplish, Mutesi mentioned first that it will be a place for other kids to eat and sleep. "Even security would be provided to them," she said.

Crothers's book details the unceasing problems in Uganda - civil wars, AIDS, and constant flooding in shanty towns. "The largest of the eight slums in Kampala, Katwe is one of the worst places on earth," he wrote. People sleep in hammocks to avoid drowning. There, the term "running water" means the wading required to walk down the street after it rains.

To top it off, girls have it worse. "Most of the women are denied education," Mutesi said, adding that they sometimes aren't fed as well and face the added concern of sexual abuse. 

"She has a special attachment to her family," Katende said. "She can continue to be a great inspiration to many, especially the women in Africa, but she has to connect to better chess training opportunities." Katended admitted that she is now better than him and he mostly serves as her mentor and "guidance for her character." He hoped that the sprinkling of training in between her public appearances on this trip would help her achieve another FIDE title.

Want to give? You can visit this page to help fund her tour or visit this page to help fund the chess center itself.

9375 Aufrufe 36 Kommentare
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  • vor 15 Monate


    @zeroman quote: "almost exactly" is oxymoron. I bet Phiona Mutesi would write better than that.

    It's not an oxymoron. It's just like saying "nearly perfect", which is fine. Military intelligence is an oxymoron. 

  • vor 2 Jahre


    What a great story.  I was scanning the list of articles and saw this.  Very insipirational and I wish the best for Phiona and what she has and hopes to accomplish.

  • vor 3 Jahre



  • vor 3 Jahre


    nice article Mr. A nice story, reminds me of a friend that use to do that with the bad kids in his neighborhood, they became friends, these guys learn to play good, so now he is respected by them and also even beaten over the board sometimes no matter that he is a good player himself playing the calatan league, thanks for this

  • vor 3 Jahre


    I have been following her story when i bumped upon it on espn... glad to know her flame is still burning bright... wishing her much more success than she could ever  imagine.

  • vor 3 Jahre


    An absolute pleasure to read this article. Thank you Mr.Klein.

  • vor 3 Jahre


    ''Each game i play like if my life depends on it'', ive heard her say in a radio interview a few years ago.

  • vor 3 Jahre


    Awesome story! Love every bit of it...

  • vor 3 Jahre


    Thank you for the wonderful article, Mike.

  • vor 3 Jahre


    She should go to play at the Millionaire Chess Tournament, she could win a lot of money to bring back to Uganda for her Chess Center.

  • vor 3 Jahre


    "Haven't heard of Phiona Mutesi?"

    Now I have, so thanks for writing spreading the good news. It warms the heart. 

  • vor 3 Jahre


    This is inspiring; thanks for the article!  People who take such charge of making a difference move me and encourage me to do the same.  I hope I could do something like this one day.

  • vor 3 Jahre


    The concept "almost exactly" does not reduce the severity of exactly. The adjective 'almost' negates the essence of exactly. Something is either exact or inexact. There's no 'almost' in between. If this idea were logically sound, it would also be proper to say "almost inexactly", as in "Bill Gates' worth is almost inexactly slightly less (or more) than four, or forty, or four hundred gazillion times the GDP of....... oh, enough of this nonsense.

    All seriousness aside, the horrors that have befallen Sub-Saharan Africa in recent decades have been shocking and heart-breaking: from the reign of Idi Amin, to the genocide in Rwanda, to the present-day slaughters in South Sudan and Nigeria and elsewhere. Anyone who can survive in this environment, and thrive, and even learn to play chess (!) is to be commended and celebrated. Go Phiona!

           BTW, let's see some of her games!

  • vor 3 Jahre


    I remember that the last time Phiona visited the U.S. she met with and received a chess lesson from Jennifer Shahade, who had been looking forward to meeting Phiona.  Jen as I recall recommended that Phiona switch from d4 openings ( which she was partial to) and start playing e4 which suited her attacking style.

  • vor 3 Jahre

    NM Petrosianic

    FIDE 1648 is substantial chess development when living under such extremely oppressive circumstances.  glad she is doing something positive with her opportunities!

  • vor 3 Jahre


    I guess its human nature to try and destroy anything positive...

  • vor 3 Jahre


    as a Ugandan i feel very proud cause i know what she been thru i have myself. Go on girl

  • vor 3 Jahre


    Good job Robert and good luck Phiona. You are already icons in the game of chess. I cherish to meet Phiona personally and have an autographed picture with her and also to hear one day that she has become a woman grandmaster!

  • vor 3 Jahre


  • vor 3 Jahre


    I read the book already, incredible, go, read it.

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