From Ugandan slums to chess champion

October 21, 2012 

An excerpt from Tim Crothers’ new book, “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster,” which tells the story of an illiterate teenager from the slums of Uganda who became an international chess champion.

An excerpt from Tim Crothers’ new book, “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster,” which tells the story of an illiterate teenager from the slums of Uganda who became an international chess champion.

She didn’t know if the world was round. Or flat. Phiona Mutesi knew nothing about the world. The outside world. The world beyond the Katwe slum. The slum can seem endless in every direction and there are few landmarks to break up the endless muddle of shacks. Everything in the slum is “just there.” And everything beyond that is unimaginable.

Even though Phiona can see the skyscrapers of downtown Kampala, from almost anywhere in Katwe, she spent the first dozen years of her life assuming that everybody else on earth lived just as she did, scrounging for one meal a day, just hoping to get home safely each day, so she could try to survive the next one.

So when her coach, Robert Katende, informed Phiona after she’d won Uganda’s 2009 national junior chess tournament that her victory had qualified her to go to Sudan for Africa’s inaugural International Children’s Chess Tournament later that summer, initially she didn’t take him seriously. Sudan? What is Sudan? All Phiona knew was that Sudan was not “just there.”

From all of Uganda, the three children who qualified for the tournament were all from Katende’s tiny chess project in the Katwe slum. Ivan Mutesasira and Benjamin Mukumbya would be Phiona’s teammates. Several other players from outside of Katwe who may have qualified, dropped out of consideration, refusing to go with the slum kids.

Phiona stared out the window as the minibus exited the slums and connected to Entebbe Road. She knew about the road. She crossed that dusty and chaotic road every time she walked to the Kibuye market to help her mother sell vegetables, but she had never before been inside a vehicle on that road. She’d once heard that the road led to the airport. Phiona had never been to the airport before. The only time Phiona had ever seen an airplane was in the sky.

The group arrived at the airport in Entebbe and met Godfrey Gali, the Uganda Chess Federation’s general secretary, who would be chaperoning the three children on the trip. Gali watched Phiona as she wandered around the airport awestruck.

“It felt like taking someone from the nineteenth century and plunging them into the present world,” Gali says. “Everything at the airport was so strange to her; security cameras, luggage conveyors, so many white people.”

As the plane took off, all three children felt dizzy and Phiona nearly vomited. Then when the plane ascended above the clouds, Phiona looked out the window and asked, “Mr. Gali, are we about to reach heaven?”

“No,” Gali said. “Heaven is a bit higher.”

During the first game of the tournament in Sudan, Phiona’s hands shook nervously whenever she lifted a chess piece. Her body shivered. Her legs quaked beneath the table. Phiona, who had little training in formal openings, simply pushed her pieces forward with her basic plan of how to defend them. By the middle game, however, Phiona had systematically built a position advantage and she realized that she was squeezing her Kenyan opponent, who then started making errors. “I could actually wonder, ‘Is this move she made like a trick or is it actually a mistake?’ ” Phiona says. “I realized that they were blunders and I continued to pin her down and capture her pieces that were unprotected.”

After a very long game, Phiona cornered her opponent’s king with a rook and several pawns until the Kenyan was finally checkmated.

As the event progressed, none of the Ugandan players actually thought about winning the tournament. It never occurred to them. Phiona played eight games without a loss. Benjamin and Ivan were undefeated as well.

After their final games, they returned to their hotel rooms and soon after Gali entered Ivan and Benjamin’s room to tell them that Uganda had been declared the tournament champions. From her room next door, Phiona could hear Ivan and Benjamin shouting. She joined the others and the three started screaming like little kids, jumping up and down on the beds.

At the closing ceremonies the Ugandans were given gold medals and a trophy. A stunned Russian chess administrator approached Phiona after the tournament and told her, “I have a son who is an International Master and he was not as good at your age as you are.”

Meanwhile, several of the opposing coaches approached Gali and asked, “How do you train these kids?”

“I thought to myself,” Gali recalls with a chuckle, “ ‘if only they knew where these kids are coming from.’ ”

Through it all, Katende had received regular updates from Gali through text messages. Katende marveled at the progress of his players. One day he received a text that read, Robert, I am surprised to tell you that these kids have got gold medals. They are the champions for this tournament.

“When I learned that they had won I went and told some people and they didn’t believe it,” Katende says. “They thought it was a fake. They were suspicious. It was really very unbelievable. In Katwe some people said this is a lie. It cannot happen. They know these kids’ situations and they ask, ‘So how? How?’ ”

When the Ugandan delegation returned to Kampala, Katende met them at the airport. The three children were smiling and carrying a trophy that was too big to fit into any of their tiny backpacks. When Katende initially tried to congratulate Phiona, she was too busy laughing and teasing her teammates, something he had never seen her do before. For once, he realized, Phiona was just being the kid that she is.

That evening as Phiona, Benjamin and Ivan were driven back into Katwe for a victory celebration, a psychological shift began to take hold. They became apprehensive about what they were going to find when they arrived there. Windows in their van were reflexively shut and backpacks pushed out of sight. Ivan, who was holding the trophy in his lap, suddenly stuffed it under the seat in front of him. The faces that had been so joyful at the airport turned solemn, the mask of the slum. The three children discussed who would keep the trophy and it was decided that none of them could because it would surely be stolen, so they asked Katende if he could lock it in the storage shed.

They were driven to the site of the chess program where they were surprised to find children waiting there singing and dancing and chanting: “Uganda! Uganda! Uganda!” The three champions looked embarrassed, totally unaccustomed to being treated as heroes. Phiona’s brother Brian lifted her onto his shoulders and joyously carried her around in the street until she begged him to put her down. Photographs show all of the children smiling and laughing and cheering except for Ivan, Benjamin and Phiona, who each look like it is the last place they want to be. “It was as if they’d done something that they really thought was going to change their lives, but then it really doesn’t,” says Rodney Suddith, the president of Sports Outreach Institute which funds Katende’s chess program. “The sense I got was their disappointment that they were right back where they started. They had had their moment. But that moment was gone.”

The excitement in the crowd that afternoon existed not only because the three children from the slum had won an international chess tournament, but because some people from Katwe had gone away and come back. The children were greeted with some strange questions:

Did you fly on the silver bird?

Did you stay indoors or in the bush?

Why did you come back here?

“It struck me how difficult it must have been for them to go to another world and return,” Suddith says. “Sudan might as well be the moon to people in the slum who have no point of reference. The three kids couldn’t share their experience with the others because they just couldn’t connect. It puzzled me at first and then it made me sad, and then I wondered, ‘Is what they have done really a good thing?’”

As Phiona left the celebration headed for her home that evening, someone excitedly asked her, “What is the first thing you’re going to say to your mother?”

“I need to ask her,” Phiona said, “ ‘Do we have enough food for breakfast?’ ”

Excerpted from The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. Copyright © 2012 by Tim Crothers. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The Queen of Katwe is available at bookstores and at Tim Crothers will be signing books at the UNC campus bookstore on Oct. 24 at 3:30 p.m. and at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m.

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