Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Chess revolution from the slums

Ugandan girl tees up chess revolution from the slums
Written by Xan Rice
Wednesday, 09 March 2011 20:21

In a church in a Ugandan slum, a girl’s hand thrusts forward and a black bishop falls.

The girl shows no emotion, though she knows the end is near. Striking quickly, the black queen is toppled, and then the king. Only then does she smile.

“You attacked too much,” she tells the boy sitting opposite her, a homemade board between them.

Phiona Mutesi is 15. She has just finished primary school and is still learning to read. Her family is so poor they have been evicted from tiny, rented shacks more times than she can remember.

She is about as far as you could get from the typical chess player in Uganda - doctors, bankers, and their children who attend elite schools.

Yet Mutesi already has a strong claim to be the best female player in the country. Last September she competed in the World Chess Olympiad in Siberia as Uganda’s No 2, the only girl in a team of university students and working women.

On her return she triumphed in the richest and most prestigious local tournament, defeating the country’s top-ranked player along the way.

So unlikely and swift has been her rise - she has had little formal training - that some of Uganda’s chess officials are now whispering that Mutesi may not be being unrealistic when she says in a soft voice: “I want to be grandmaster.”

That is still a long way off. But it may not be as improbable as the achievements that she and the other children of Katwe slum in Kampala have already achieved.

“They’ve caused a chess revolution here,” says Godfrey Gali, general secretary of the Uganda Chess Federation.

Born in 1995 in Katwe, Mutesi was three when her father died. Mutesi’s mother worked hard, rising at 3am to go to the market to buy avocados, eggplants and pumpkins to resell. After one year of primary school, Mutesi was forced to drop out, along with her brothers, and sell boiled maize in the vast slum.

They were just a few of many children in Katwe compelled to work rather than learn - children that Robert Katende, a 28-year-old Ugandan employed by the US charity Sports Outreach Institute, was trying to help.

Realising his football project was not for everyone, Katende decided to teach chess to a few children. Mutesi’s brother was among them. One day she followed him to Agape church, where the games took place.

She was nine at the time.”I had never heard of chess. But I liked how the pieces looked,” she says.

Mutesi was a quick learner. Every night she practiced against her brothers. Within a year, she could beat “Coach Robert”. He was impressed - “I could see how she planned many moves ahead” - but not surprised.

Full article here.
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