Ugandan Chess Star Barnstorms U.S.

  • FM MikeKlein
  • on 4/25/14, 4:40 AM.

Haven't heard of Phiona Mutesi? You will soon. The most famous player in the history of Ugandan chess is coming to America, and perhaps to the silver screen. 

A member of Ugandan Women's Olympiad team, Mutesi was featured in an article in "ESPN the Magazine" and then in a full-length book by Tim Crothers. "The Queen of Katwe" chronicled her rise from the slums of Kampala to her first trip on an airplane - to Siberia for the 2010 Olympiad. More superlatives follow: the opening ceremony, held on a skating rink, was the first time she had seen ice.

On Thursday, Mutesi began a cross-country tour across the United States. She'll be speaking at various events in an effort to raise awareness and money for a chess center to be built near her native village.

WCM Phiona Mutesi (far left) and her coach, Robert Katende, on KATU in Portland, Oregon

Mutesi's trip didn't start small. After a few events in Portland, Oregon, on Thursday she attended three events and spoke at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. The Gateses sponsored her airfare and reportedly Bill Gates "challenged" her to a game when he learned of her during a previous trip to the U.S. in April, 2013.

The entire tour will cover nine states and the District of Columbia over 32 days. You can see upcoming events here.

According to Robert McLellan, Director of Communications and Development at the National Scholastic Chess Foundation, the goal is to raise $200,000 to build this building, which will be part of a larger Sports Outreach Ministry complex in the Ugandan capital. The entire educational complex is expected to cost $2 million (it is the same organization whose outreach in Katwe introduced Mutesi to chess).

McLellan became inspired to help after picking up her book. "I took it, I read it, and I went, 'This is really profound,'" he said. McLellan is focused on the larger message of what Mutesi's story says about chess and women in Africa.

"The subtitle of the book is highly unlikely," he said about "The Queen of Katwe's" claim that her dream is to become a grandmaster (she earned her Women's Candidate Master title at the 2010 Olympiad and her FIDE is 1648). Instead, his interest focuses how impactful her story can be for youth in the U.S. "What can it can do for a poor kid in America, who has no inkling of poverty like they have in Africa?"

Katende and Mutesi speaking at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington

On Tuesday, the tour makes a stop in Los Angeles for meetings with Disney. According to McLellan, they have already bought the rights to her story.

From there, she'll make her way East, with stops ranging from local churches to chess tournaments at all-girls schools. McLellan said she will turn 18 during her trip, even though FIDE lists her birth year as 1993.

Robert Katende, her longtime coach and the Director of Sports Outreach Ministry (headquartered in Lynchburg, Virginia), is accompanying her on the tour. He said the facility they are attempting to build will "serve the entire East Africa region." It is designed to host tournaments up to 300 players and become a regional hub for chess education.

Unlike a previous trip to the U.S. in support of the book, he said, "Her English has also improved that she can speak without an interpeter for most of the conversation." He also hopes that she will get some training; she's already been selected for the Olympiad in Norway this August.

Her second trip to the U.S. was last year. She was awarded a $25,000 grant by the Women of the World Summit, which she partially used to host a two-day summit for female chess players. The enterprise hoped to get 50 girls and women, instead more than 400 showed up.

FM James Schuyler and Mutesi aboard the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia in 2013

Katende said he would be nervous if he got to meet Bill Gates in person, though he noted that such a game would be quite a financial discrepancy between the combatants. "People of two different worlds economically, meeting at the chess board!" he said. (The event at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was closed and could not verify if the Gateses attended or played a game with Mutesi.)

To further show how far apart the financial Venn diagrams of such a meeting: according to Forbes, Bill Gates is the world's richest man at $77.2 billion, which is almost exactly four times the GDP of all of Uganda.

Speaking to before her trip, Mutesi said she would be "looking forward to meeting Billy Gates."

After it is all over, she's not content to walk the red carpet for years to come. Mutesi's goal is to become a doctor and remain in Uganda. Her brother is studying to become an engineer.

"These kids are not trying to leave," McLellan said. "They're going to all these events and saying, 'Why can't we have this here?'"

"The chess center will always remind me of where I came from," Mutesi said. Her next comment shows the difference in her world view. When asked what she hoped the chess center would accomplish, Mutesi mentioned first that it will be a place for other kids to eat and sleep. "Even security would be provided to them," she said.

Crothers's book details the unceasing problems in Uganda - civil wars, AIDS, and constant flooding in shanty towns. "The largest of the eight slums in Kampala, Katwe is one of the worst places on earth," he wrote. People sleep in hammocks to avoid drowning. There, the term "running water" means the wading required to walk down the street after it rains.

To top it off, girls have it worse. "Most of the women are denied education," Mutesi said, adding that they sometimes aren't fed as well and face the added concern of sexual abuse. 

"She has a special attachment to her family," Katende said. "She can continue to be a great inspiration to many, especially the women in Africa, but she has to connect to better chess training opportunities." Katended admitted that she is now better than him and he mostly serves as her mentor and "guidance for her character." He hoped that the sprinkling of training in between her public appearances on this trip would help her achieve another FIDE title.

Want to give? You can visit this page to help fund her tour or visit this page to help fund the chess center itself.

9372 reads 36 comments
7 votes


  • 3 years ago


    I loved the SI article about her and I'm glad that chess dot com is hyping her US tour. 

  • 3 years ago

    FM MikeKlein

    On a completely different note, is it really the case then when publishes a positive story of hope and resilience that so many seek to take a scalpel to picayune grammatical usages?

    Chess is not all Magnus and Garry and Kirsan.

    I've been to Kampala and ridden a motorbike through its slums. They're not a place where hope is found. I also played a game there dubbed "African chess" (a bead game) - because they have no local word for our version of chess.

    For this girl to find the game (while searching for food) and achieve a level greater than the average American tournament player, and then to give back in this way, I think is worthy of more positive support/messages by our community. I hope you'll look past the prose in search of the bigger message.

  • 3 years ago


    Bill Gates worth is close but not quite four times the GDP of Uganda

    Sorry, but that is a meaningless comparison. Not because Bill Gates is particularly rich, or because Uganda is particularly poor, but because the units in which the two quantities are measured are completely different.

  • 3 years ago

    FM MikeKlein

    @see_more_glass - the ratings requirement is the most common way to attain a title such as this, but they are also earned for performances in single tournaments, without ratings requirements.

    For instance, there are many IMs who achieved the title by winning a certain zonal (without getting 3 norms or the 2400 rating), and the winner of the World Senior Championship each year automatically gets the GM title, even if he has never cleared 2500.

    @scrumpymanjack - one usage of "superlative" is "exaggerated" and this extreme story of her first seeing ice thousands of miles away is an exaggerated example of how limited her world view is.

    I never knew so many members were such absolutists when it comes to grammar Undecided.

  • 3 years ago


    " according to Forbes, Bill Gates is the world's richest man at $77.2 billion"

    This proves that you do not have to be well-informed to publish a world-renowned magazine.

  • 3 years ago


    Could someone please explain to me how the WCM title works?  I'm confused as her rating is not close to 2000 FIDE- there must be other ways to qualify?

  • 3 years ago


    very uninteresting that so many commenters try to act like journalistic editors

  • 3 years ago


    Interesting article - thanks for posting. But "superlatives"? I had a tough time finding any in that second paragraph. Also, was it the first time she had seen ice or the first time she had seen an ice rink? Ice is used everywhere, not just in the US.  

  • 3 years ago


    Thank you for the wonderful article :)  Wish WCM Mutesi all the best!   

  • 3 years ago

    FM MikeKlein

    "almost" in this context would mean that Bill Gates worth is close but not quite four times the GDP of Uganda.

    "almost exactly" allows for Bill Gates' worth to be slightly more (or less) than four times the GDP of Uganda, and thus "almost" would therefore not apply.

    Figures for GDP vary depending on source, so this usage was chosen for that reason.

    I stand by my usage.

  • 3 years ago


    "almost exactly" is 'perfectly' fine. He means to reduce the severity of exactly, because saying something is exactly a certain way is almost always incorrect. 

  • 3 years ago


    "almost exactly" is oxymoron. I bet Phiona Mutesi would write better than that.

  • 3 years ago


    Great article.....and good luck to her in the future!

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