The Queen of Katwe

How a new star of the chess world rose from the slums of Kampala.

The Queen of Katwe By Tim Crothers Simon & Schuster 240 pages

”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.

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.

Reporting poverty is a tricky, albeit urgent, act, and challenges escalate when you’re an outsider in both culture and language. Katherine Boo is author of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” another book about young people in slums (she focuses on India’s Annawadi). In her afterword, Boo discusses the need to compensate for her shortcomings by working “slowly and patiently” – she spent about three years reporting – with the classic tools of journalism: “time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked.”

This was not the recipe for “Queen of Katwe.

Crothers, as a sportswriter, knows that the action is better than the post-game interview. So it’s surprising that so much of the book hinges on after-the-fact explanation, rather than real-time observation. While he recreates scenes, they’re leadened by quotes that feel “told,” unlike living language, and by the curse of “first-this, then-that” chronology. It conveys the tenor of a dispatch, rather than a fully realized book.

More dangerously the portrayal of poverty in "Queen of Katwe" lacks nuance. Crothers generalizes about “desperate slum children,” and sometimes extends what he sees in Katwe to encompass the whole 54-country continent. He writes of “a uniquely African peace of mind” that is “more serene than the average American.” Why? It “has to do with access. Many people in Katwe do not know there is anything better for which to strive, which leads to an odd kind of tranquility, which some might call ‘lethargy.’” The use of such sweeping language to describe the “average African” is questionable, to say the least.

The text also contradicts itself. Because of its proximity to the equator, “Katwe has no seasons, which adds to the repetitive, almost listless, nature of daily life. Every day is just like the next.” On the very same page: “In Katwe, life is so transient that it is often hard to identify which children belong to which adults. It is a population of single mothers and their kids tossed randomly from one shack to the next. Everybody is on the move….”

Which is it? Is life constantly the same, or constantly changing? This book’s answer seems to be “everything bad.” This is not to say that Phiona and her family don't face serious challenges. But Crothers makes the mistake of thinking that the more terribly Katwe is portrayed, the more heroic Phiona becomes. Playing into the extremes of cliché diminishes the more fascinating and harrowing dimensions of this truly astonishing story.

Anna Clark is a freelance writer in Detroit.

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