Queen of Katwe wins chess title for university

Saturday January 20 2018

Phiona Mutesi at a past chess tournament in Uganda. PHOTO | ISMAIL KEZAALA

Phiona Mutesi at a past chess tournament in Uganda. PHOTO | ISMAIL KEZAALA 

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Phiona Mutesi’s incredible journey from an impoverished Kampala slum in Uganda, to becoming a world-class chess player was captured in the book and movie Queen of Katwe. Now she has added another accolade by leading her university to a chess championship title.

The Northwest University Intercollegiate chess team, led by Mutesi, won the trophy for the Top Small College Team category in its first season of competition at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships. 

Northwest clinched the trophy with beating defending champions Oberlin College, who had retained the title for four years. 

Other college chess clubs included Columbia University, Arizona State University, Tecnológico Nacional de México, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Oberlin College, and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. 

Mutesi played on Board 2 and won three matches and drew one. Ben Mukumbya, her Uganda countrymate and fellow freshman, earned three wins on Board 1.  Teammates Andrew Uptain and Walter Borbridge also contributed wins to the team’s success. 

The Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championships include university teams from Canada and South America. 

The 2017 edition was hosted by Ohio State University from December 27 to 30. 

Mutesi and Mukumbya were offered scholarships at Northwest University in 2017.

Mutesi’s story was portrayed in the book Queen of Katwe by American sports journalist Tim Crothers the subsequent movie by the same name, which starred David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o.

Mutesi becomes a national and world chess champion under unlikely circumstances, eventually saving herself and her family from the slum.

Mutesi was introduced to chess at the age of 10, and within two years becomes Uganda’s junior champion, despite being illiterate. Her chess coach taught her to read and write in order to pursue schooling.

Three years later, she became the national champion. In 2012, at the age of 16 at her second Olympiad, she became a Woman Candidate Master, the first step towards becoming a Grand Master. 

Financial security

With the earnings from the book and movie contracts, Mutesi and her family’s financial future is guaranteed. They now own a beautiful home in Bujuuko in Mityana district, west of Kampala.

“I think the film was a 90 per cent portrayal of me, although I did not want some scenes of dancing because I don’t liking dancing,” Mutesi said. “I am grateful for what the game of chess has done for me. I was once nothing, but now I am somebody,” Mutesi says.

“Many young people now want to join the Katwe Chess Club because of my success. Many also want to play me and defeat me,” she adds.

Mutesi is plans to major in sociology at university and work with slum children in Uganda.

“I initially wanted to study law. When I compared law with sociology I settled for sociology because I want to come back home and serve my community,” she says.

“It is very hard to get out of poverty in Katwe. You look up to your parents who are poor and can’t afford to inspire and encourage you. My mother could not raise our schools fees.”