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Ugandan girl tees up chess revolution from the slums

In a church in a Ugandan slum, a girl’s hand thrusts forward and a black bishop falls.

The girl shows no emotion, though she knows the end is near. Striking quickly, the black queen is toppled, and then the king. Only then does she smile.

“You attacked too much,” she tells the boy sitting opposite her, a homemade board between them.

Phiona Mutesi is 15. She has just finished primary school and is still learning to read. Her family is so poor they have been evicted from tiny, rented shacks more times than she can remember.

She is about as far as you could get from the typical chess player in Uganda - doctors, bankers, and their children who attend elite schools.

Yet Mutesi already has a strong claim to be the best female player in the country. Last September she competed in the World Chess Olympiad in Siberia as Uganda’s No 2, the only girl in a team of university students and working women.

On her return she triumphed in the richest and most prestigious local tournament, defeating the country’s top-ranked player along the way.

So unlikely and swift has been her rise - she has had little formal training - that some of Uganda’s chess officials are now whispering that Mutesi may not be being unrealistic when she says in a soft voice: “I want to be grandmaster.”

That is still a long way off. But it may not be as improbable as the achievements that she and the other children of Katwe slum in Kampala have already achieved.

“They’ve caused a chess revolution here,” says Godfrey Gali, general secretary of the Uganda Chess Federation.

Born in 1995 in Katwe, Mutesi was three when her father died. Mutesi’s mother worked hard, rising at 3am to go to the market to buy avocados, eggplants and pumpkins to resell. After one year of primary school, Mutesi was forced to drop out, along with her brothers, and sell boiled maize in the vast slum.

They were just a few of many children in Katwe compelled to work rather than learn - children that Robert Katende, a 28-year-old Ugandan employed by the US charity Sports Outreach Institute, was trying to help.

Realising his football project was not for everyone, Katende decided to teach chess to a few children. Mutesi’s brother was among them. One day she followed him to Agape church, where the games took place.

She was nine at the time.”I had never heard of chess. But I liked how the pieces looked,” she says.

Mutesi was a quick learner. Every night she practiced against her brothers. Within a year, she could beat “Coach Robert”. He was impressed - “I could see how she planned many moves ahead” - but not surprised.

Other children in his class had proved that growing up poor was no hindrance to being a good player, and may even have been an advantage. “These kids in the slums are used to thinking ‘How will I get through the day’,” Katende says. “They are survivors, and chess is a game of survival.”

After initial resistance from the chess federation, which had insisted that the national junior championships were for schoolchildren, but not “children from the streets”, Katende was allowed to enter a team from Katwe in 2005.

In 2007, aged 11, Mutesi entered for the first time. Some of her opponents were twice her age. She won the competition. She defended her title the following year. Though tournaments have not been held since, Mutesi and some of her Katwe team-mates were moving on to bigger things.

In 2009, she and two boys from Katwe travelled to Juba, in South Sudan, for a regional children’s tournament involving 16 countries. It was the first time she had been to an airport, had her own room, or ordered from a menu.

She won all her games, and the girls title. The boys were undefeated too; together they won the team prize. That alone was not groundbreaking - though a minnow in world terms, Uganda is rated third among the chess-playing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But the fact that Mutesi and her two teammates were all from very poor backgrounds, with little or no access to theory, was unprecedented.

“In Uganda, chess has always been seen as a game for the rich, like golf,” says Gali. “Now the kids from the slums are among the best players in country.”

At the Olympiad in Siberia, Mutesi was trailed by American and Dutch television crews who had been alerted to her remarkable story.

She struggled, losing her first four games - opponents included the Canadian No 1 and an Egyptian grandmaster - before managing a win. Her consolation was meeting her chess hero, Gary Kasparov. “I performed badly, but next time will be better,” says Mutesi.

Signs are good. She was undefeated at the year-end tournament in Kampala, beating most of her Olympiad teammates, and taking the first prize of Shs 500,000. Some of it, she used to buy hair extensions and some to pay off her school fees.

The rest she offered to Katende. He refused it, but helped her to buy four mattresses and a quadruple bunk bed. Now Mutesi and her family don’t have to share two flimsy mattresses on the floor.

“Phiona has become something from nothing,” her mother, Harriet, says.

Katende smiles and says: “In chess, it does not matter where you come from. Only where you put the pieces.”

Guardian News & Media 2011

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