From Life in the Slum to Life as Top Chess Player

Rachel Heaton
The Paw Print


When many people think of chess, they think of a strategy game, but for some people, like Ugandan teenager Phiona Mutesi, chess acts as a door to many more opportunities. For Mutesi, these opportunities come in the form of having a book written about her life, becoming virally famous via a YouTube documentary, and, now, becoming the protagonist in a Disney movie.

Mutesi found the game of chess when she was a child living in Katwe, one of the poorest slums in Uganda. As a child, she had to scrounge for food for her family. One day, she decided to go to a chess program run by the Sports Outreach Institute and taught by Robert Katende, after Katende offered to give a cup of porridge to each child that attended.

Mutesi found that she had a talent for chess, and after practicing each day and studying the game, she became one of the top players in Uganda. In 2010, she represented Uganda at the 39th Chess Olympiad. In 2012, she received the Woman Candidate Master title from the World Chess Federation (FIDE). Mutesi, along with Ivy Amoko, who also received the same title, is the first titled female chess player in Ugandan history.

People close to Mutesi believe that she is 16 years old, but since her birthday is unsure, she could be 15. When she was three years old, her father died of AIDS. She was forced to drop out of school because her family could not afford it. Now she is the National Junior Chess Champion in Uganda.

Uganda is one of the poorer countries in Africa, with 24.5 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. Only 57.7 percent of females in Uganda know how to read and write, versus 76.8 percent of men. Ugandan residents have a school-life expectancy of 11 years. Their life expectancy is 53.45 years.

Mutesi’s journey has been documented by her biographer, Tim Crothers. Crothers published his book about Mutesi this fall. It is titled “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster” and talks about Mutesi’s life and how chess has impacted her.

Disney has optioned the rights to the book and began work on the movie in 2012. Mutesi is also the focus of a YouTube Documentary, under the title of “The Queen of Katwe”. She was featured in an article titled “Game of her life” that ran in the Jan. 10, 2011 issue of “ESPN: The Magazine.”

Now Mutesi travels the world playing chess. She has been to places such as Sudan and Siberia, where she has seen things that she never had before growing up in the slums of Uganda. A lot has happened for Mutesi over the past few years. She told CNN reporters, “I feel happy. I’m excited. I didn’t have hope that one time, one day, I would be like someone who can encourage people, and they start playing chess.” is powered by WordPress µ | Spam prevention powered by Akismet