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Phiona Mutesi, ‘Queen of Katwe,’ Rises From Uganda Slums to Become Inspirational Chess Prodigy

The first time Phiona Mutesi, 20, saw people playing chess, she thought it was people gambling.

 

“I’d never seen it in my life and usually in Uganda, it was always, like, families that are rich that had, like, such games. It was very hard to find it in the poor families,” she told ABC News.

 

When she was 9, her brother led her to the SOM Chess Academy, the place where her life would eventually change. “Having been hungry for almost three days, my brother came and told us about the chess program they always had because he wanted us to go and get something to eat,” she said.

Chess champion Phiona Mutesi in Kampala, Uganda.

Chess champion Phiona Mutesi in Kampala, Uganda.

After her father died, Phiona and her family were homeless and living below the poverty line in Katwe. “It’s one of the poorest in Uganda. Katwe is where, like, human waste are dumped. So the life is so hard there, like, getting water is difficult and getting food is difficult,” she said.

 

Chess became the avenue that changed Phiona’s life and opened up opportunities for her. It was back in 2005 that then-9-year-old Phiona first set foot at the SOM Chess Academy. That’s where she met her coach and mentor, Robert Katende. He would become an instrumental player in her development over the years as she went from being interested in food to loving the game, “I got interest and I wanted to be focused and he showed me, like, how to play a good game. Then I learned how to defend myself,” she said.

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