The Queen of Katwe
How a new star of the chess world rose from the slums of Kampala.
”Phiona Mutesi is a young chess prodigy from Uganda whose fierce mind has sparked notice not only because it’s relatively rare to see an African woman playing elite chess, but also because she’s from Katwe – an impoverished corner of Uganda’s teeming capital city of Kampala. Phiona is Uganda’s national chess champion, a title she earned as a teenager. She competed at the World Chess Olympiad – the world’s most prestigious team chess event – in Siberia in 2010 and just weeks ago in Istanbul, Turkey, where she won a title that points her toward becoming a grandmaster.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Phiona’s story is worth attention, and sportswriter Tim Crothers caught on. His article about Phiona for ESPN: The Magazine was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and has been optioned by Disney films. He’s now expanded his feature into a book: The Queen of Katwe.
One of four children, Phiona lost her father to AIDs when she was still a little girl. Living in a shack with her mother and siblings and unable to attend school because of the family’s poverty, Phiona was about 9 years old – and hungry and illiterate – when she first met Robert Katende, a war refugee and soccer player-turned-missionary who hatched the seemingly unlikely plan of teaching chess to impoverished children in Katwe. Katende succeeded in getting a group of kids so enthused about chess that they began playing on their own with bottle caps. And along the way he discovered a giant talent in Phiona.
In book form, Crothers is able to broaden and deepen Phiona’s remarkable story. He digs into the people and places surrounding her. He narrates the curious history of Katwe’s settlement, the difficulties navigated by several generations of Phiona’s family, and the tradition of chess as a game for elites. He spends substantial time with Katende.
Katende’s methods of teaching chess to restless children are fascinating. At its best, “The Queen of Katwe” channels the metaphors implicit in chess to reveal how limits, possibilities, and high stakes shape life in this corner of the world. Crothers quotes Katende, speaking as a teacher: “Someday you will be able to read your opponent’s mind many moves in advance.... You will see what is going to happen on the chessboard before it happens. You are all going to be prophets.”
It’s a gorgeous moment that speaks to the power of this story. But “The Queen of Katwe” was rushed from article to book – only 20 months separate their publications – and the haste is obvious. Not enough substance comes through to justify the broadened scope.