A 16-year-old from Uganda just wanted something to eat the day she wandered into a chess tournament that swept her out of the slums and into the international spotlight.
In 2011, Tim Crothers wrote a viral piece for ESPN Magazine about Phiona Mutesi. The story is once again getting attention as Crothers tours the U.S. this week to promote a full-length book about the teen, who he says is “the ultimate underdog.”
“Before I discovered chess… I was living on the streets,” Mutesi told CNN in an interview broadcast on Monday. “You couldn’t have anything to eat at the streets.”
In 2005, a hungry Mutesi arrived at a missionary where 28-year-old Ugandan Robert Katende was teaching locals to play chess in exchange for a cup of porridge, the Guardian reported. Her brother, who was with her, had seen the tournaments before and also needed food.
“I had never heard of chess,” she told the paper. “But I liked how the pieces looked.”
Katende showed the basics to Mutesi, who was nine at the time, and she became determined to keep playing. According to ESPN, she walked six kilometers per day to play chess, competing in matches as Katende coached her on various strategies.
Together, they schemed to overtake a local boy who had beaten her in her early days using a move called the Fool’s Mate that can embarrass beginners. To the amazement of the rest of the players, she won their rematch.
“She plays very aggressively, like a boy,” one local said. “She likes to attack, and when you play against her, it feels like she’s always pushing you backward until you have nowhere to move.”
Weeks later, she could beat Katende, who knew at that moment that it was time to expand her chess game. He said her remarkable skill — much of it natural, he believes — allowed them to go to high-profile events.
Earlier this year, she earned the title of Woman Candidate Master at the 40th Chess Olympiad, according to Fox Charlotte. She’s also the youngest winner of the African Chess Championship.
Additionally, chess has provided the teen with an opportunity to go back to school, where she wants to study to become a doctor, she told CNN.
Crothers explains in his book “The Queen of Katwe” — which has been optioned as a movie by Disney — why she’s “the ultimate underdog.” She’s a female from poverty-stricken Uganda, where men and boys receive most of the opportunities. Her father died from AIDS, and her mother worries she might be HIV-positive.
The struggles parallel the game of chess, which requires abstract thinking, problem-solving and — above all, perhaps — a will to survive. / Huffington Post