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Chess celebrity visits Trinity Classical Academy

Worldwide champion gives lessons to local students

Posted: December 18, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 18, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi, right, points out a bad move by her opponent Ellery Potter, 6, during a chess demonstration as Mutesi visits with the Trinity Classical Academy Chess Club at Trinity Classical Academy in Valencia on Wednesday.

Trinity Clasical Academy students recently hosted a young chess celebrity — soon to be a worldwide celebrity, thanks to a contract with the Walt Disney Co.

And while she beat them at chess mercilessly, Phiona Mutesi left them with an inspiring and true story of survival and fortitude.

Mutesi, 19, grew up in the slums of Katwe outside Kampala, the capital of Uganda, with her mother and brother.

They struggled daily with hunger, she said.

One day, her brother mentioned that he had found a place where he could eat a bowl of porridge every day. But he kept the secret to himself.

Every day, Mutesi would watch her brother leave her family’s impoverished home.

One day, she followed him.

When she was found out, she was scolded by her brother and sent her back home.

“The following day I went again and followed him better,” she told students at Trinity Classical Academy in Valencia through an interpreter. “This time, I kept my distance.”

Mutesi discovered that her brother was attending a “sports outreach” program initially set up to engage Uganda’s impoverished children in games of soccer.

A man named Robert Katende ran the program.

Katende, who accompanied Mutesi on her visit to America, said he introduced chess when many of sports outreach youngsters proved unable or unwilling to play soccer.

He introduced different board games to the group, but discovered success after he dusted off his own chessboard and set up his own chess pieces.

The kids took to the game immediately, he said.

None of them as aggressively as Mutesi.

Porridge incentive

What impressed Mutesi more than anything — initially — was that any child who played chess at the sports outreach program was given a bowl of porridge.

After one of the young Uganda chess players taught her how to play chess, the rest was history.

She soon beat her teachers.

She beat everyone in the program.

Every day she made the trek from the slums to the outreach program — enticed not by the chess but by the porridge, she said.

Her mentor, Katende, was amazed. He wanted her to compete in venues outside his outreach program.

Only one chess tournament took place in Uganda, and Katende was determined to have Mutesi compete.

Tournament challenge

Katende handed the names of Mutesi and two other students to tournament organizers.

The Uganda Chess Federation officials turned him down and sent Mutesi and the others away.

“The Uganda Chess Federation man assured me that that would never be possible,” Katende said, due to the expense paid by participating chess players.

“I realized I was beaten,” he said. “I left with my head down.”

Then Katende met Rodney Schmidt of the Sports Outreach Institute, who offered to pay Mutesi’s tournament expenses and those incurred by her fellow competitors.

When Mutesi sat down to play at the tournament, it became clear to Uganda’s chess elite that she was gifted.

She beat all her competitors, as did her teammates.

“To the surprise of all, they won,” Katende said.

If there were any other chess games to be played, they would have to be those outside Uganda.

If Mutesi could beat everyone in Uganda, Katende thought, perhaps she could beat players outside the African nation.

Katende began making plans to have Mutesi compete internationally at a Russian-sponsored tournament.


The slum kids, including Mutesi, beat all international competitors at the Russian event and returned to their slum homes with the gold medal and “a trophy that was bigger than they were,” Katende said.

They had to hide the trophy under the seat of the slum-bound bus for fear of it being stolen, Katende said.

“Phiona is a young woman who broke the mold for women as having to stay at home. Now she is teaching her sisters in Uganda — and it all started with the movement of a chess piece,” Schmidt told the Santa Clarita Valley club.

“This is more than a game,” he said. “It’s a platform.”

Mutesi’s gift, and her story, propelled her to stardom in the chess world. She is three-time Women’s Junior Chess champion of Uganda and represented her country in the World Chess Olympiad this year.

While she’s not yet among the world’s top chess players, her appeal is that of “the ultimate underdog,” said her biographer, Tim Crothers, author of “The Queen of Katwe.”

And the story has drawn the Walt Disney Co., which is slated to release a movie about her life.

In her final words to local chess players, Mutesi told them:

“To my sisters and brothers here, I say to you — however tough life becomes, work hard to achieve your dreams.”




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