In September 2016, an exciting film called The Queen of Katwe, started showing around the world. The famous Kenyan film star, Lupita Nyong’o, plays a young mother in the film. But the main character is her daughter, a young girl called Phiona Mutesi. Phiona was born in Katwe, a very poor area of Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Phiona became a chess champion and the film is the true story of how that happened.
Chess is an interesting and challenging game that is almost like a war on a board! Two players play against each other and each player has a set of pieces to move across the board towards the other players’ pieces. Smaller pieces are called pawns, bigger pieces are called bishops and castles, the most important piece on the board is the king and the most powerful piece on the board is the queen. The board has black and white squares and the rules say how each player can move each piece when it is their turn. The aim of the game is to move your pieces close to the other player’s king, so that they can’t move their king anywhere. Then you say ‘checkmate’ and you win the game. Chess is a game of strategy: in other words, you must think ahead and plan your moves to outwit the person you are playing against.
The game of chess started in India about 1500 years ago. Over many years, travellers and traders took the game all over the world. Today about 605 million adults play chess regularly.
Phiona Mutesi is a very unlikely chess champion: her family is very poor: she hardly went to school and at nine years old couldn’t read or write. She helped her family by selling cooked maize from a pot. There was very little food in her family. One day, she secretly followed her brother to see if he was going somewhere to get food. She watched him join a game of chess and she thought the chess pieces were beautiful. She saw how happy all the players were and she wanted to be happy like that too.
One day, the chess coach, Robert Katende saw her. Katende had introduced the game to the poor children of Katwe, because he thought they would understand and be good at this game: to be a good chess player you must be aggressive and strong so that you can survive and win. He invited Phiona to join and within a year, she learnt to play. She said: “Chess is a lot like my life. If you make smart moves you can stay away from danger, but any bad decision could be your last.”
Robert Katende coached Phiona and he taught her how to be patient in the game. When she was 11, she became Uganda’s junior girls champion. In 2009, when she was about 12, she and two boys from the Katwe chess project were the representatives of Uganda at the International African Children’s Chess Tournament in Sudan. There, she stayed in a hotel and said that she felt like a queen. Her team was the youngest, but they won the competition.
Since then, Phiona has triumphed as a chess player. She participated in the Chess Olympiad, the world’s highest chess championship, in Russia in 2010, and in Istanbul, Turkey in 2012, where she became Uganda’s first Woman Candidate Master. Phiona is such a good player because she is fearless and because she can imagine the moves she will make far ahead.
Today. Phiona has nearly completed her high school studies. She hopes to go to university in America. Her biggest dream is to become a chess grandmaster, the highest rank any player can reach.