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The Queen of Katwe: African Chess Champion Phiona Mutesi

Aside from writing, Bill loves to travel, explore new places, and take lots of photos to document it all.

Phiona Mutesi with Grandmaster Alexandra Kosteniuk and coach Robert Katende

Phiona Mutesi with Grandmaster Alexandra Kosteniuk and coach Robert Katende

Chess Prodigy

Looking for a story to lift your spirits and make you smile? In the world of sports and athletics, there are countless tales of amazing performances and heroic feats. Every day around the world there are young athletes who are making great sacrifices to pursue their dreams. But every now and then, along comes a story of a young athlete that seems so improbable that you just can’t help rooting for them to succeed.

Phiona Mutesi is not your everyday athlete. She does not run or jump or score goals. Her playing field is the chess board, and her athletic prowess comes from her mind. At the age of 10, only about two years after learning how to play the game of chess, Phiona became the youngest ever African Chess Champion. In 2012, she traveled to Istanbul, Turkey to participate in the World Chess Olympiad and was recognized as one of the very best young players in the world. As a result of her performance at the Chess Olympiad, Phiona earned the title of Woman Candidate Master, which is the first step on the road to the highest-ranking class, Woman Grandmaster.

Her Story

Phiona Mutesi wasn't exactly dealt a great hand early in life. Her father died of AIDS when she was just three, and her older sister died unexpectedly a few weeks after her father passed. Phiona grew up in the slums of Katwe, an area in the city of Kampala, Uganda, often sleeping on the streets and scrounging for food. This area of Uganda is one of the poorest regions in the world. As a child Phiona could neither read nor write, and by the age of nine she was forced to quit school because her family could no longer afford to send her.

As faith would have it in life, a simple decision by Phiona changed the course of her life forever. Deciding to secretly follow her brother one day in 2005, Phiona came upon the Agape Church where her brother, Brian, had come to take part in a Sports Outreach Program run by Robert Katende. Designed to provide relief and religion through sports to some of the poorest people in the world, Katende was offering a bowl of porridge to anyone willing to learn the game of chess.

Having never seen anything like chess pieces before, Phiona was intrigued, but also very hungry. When Katende spotted her peeking into the room he invited the barefoot and tattered girl to come in. Katende began to explain to Phiona the rules of the game and showed her the different pieces. Watching the other kids play intrigued and fascinated Phiona, and she wanted to learn more about this new game.

Street scene from Kampala, Uganda

Street scene from Kampala, Uganda

And so, a journey was begun. Phiona began walking the six kilometers daily to play her new game, chess. Early on, Phiona struggled with her new found passion. Wanting to win as quickly as possible, Phiona would play very aggressively and was very reckless with her game. Coach Katende finally convinced her to be more patient and calm with her game and she finally won her first match, against a boy as luck would have it.

The thing that makes this so notable is that in Katwe, women are for the most part considered inferior. To beat a boy, while a notable achievement, would be frowned upon. Coming from the slums and being a young girl in Uganda is like having two strikes against you. To be a young black girl from the slums, and playing chess, well this just had never happened before, until Phiona came along.

Street scene in Kampala, Uganda

Street scene in Kampala, Uganda

Within a year Phiona was beating her coach. Moving on to stiffer competition, Phiona, who was probably about ten years old at the time, was soon beating up on older kids from boarding schools and university players. Learning the game mostly through trial and error, Phiona has the unique ability to play the game while envisioning the board many moves ahead. Her ability to focus, and to play on instinct instead of chess theory has taken her game to unimaginable heights in a very short period of time.

In 2007, at about the age of 10 or 11, Phiona won her first Uganda Women’s Junior Championship. In just two short years, she went from never having heard of chess, to winning a national title. She would go on to win this title three years in a row. The only thing that prevented her from winning four in a row was that the Uganda Chess Federation could not afford to hold the tournament in 2010.

The Queen of Katwe - A short docuntary

In 2009, Phiona traveled out of Uganda for the very first time. Along with two boys from Uganda, she traveled to the Sudan to participate in the African Children’s Chess Tournament. This was the very first time that Phiona flew on an airplane, stayed in a hotel, had her very own bed to sleep in, used a toilet, and ate in a restaurant. To say that she must have suffered from severe culture shock is an understatement. It was all part of a world that Phiona had never imagined, and never knew existed.

To make a long story short, the Uganda team swept to victory in the Sudan. Phiona and her teammates did not lose a match and brought home the team championship. But a funny thing happened on the way back to Katwe. Their joy and festive mood was replaced by stark, solemn faces. Their disposition and mood quickly changed to match the gloom that surrounded them back in Katwe. To return with smiles and joy would have been so out of character for the trio. They were back in Katwe, and this is the life one leads here. For Phiona, no matter where chess would take her, home was still the simple ten square foot shack in Katwe.

In 2010, Phiona was selected to the Uganda National Chess Team and traveled to Siberia, Russia, for the World Chess Olympiad. For Phiona it was just her second trip outside of Uganda.

Still just a child, Phiona competed against some of the best chess prodigies from around the world. In all, over one thousand players from over 140 countries competed. For Phiona, it was her first international experience and she was quickly humbled in her first match against the Canadian National Champion. Keep in mind that although just 14 or so, she was competing not against other kids, but against some of the best chess players in the world.

Phiona would go on to win just one match at the Olympiad. But the experience gained from this competition would no doubt pay benefits down the road. For a child with no formal training in chess, who came from one of the poorest communities on the planet, to just be here was but a miracle.

2012 World Chess Olympiad, Turkey

2012 World Chess Olympiad, Turkey

In August of 2012, Phiona and the Uganda National Chess Team competed in the 2012 World Chess Olympiad held in Istanbul, Turkey. With her results much better than her first Olympiad, Phiona was honored as one of the best young players in the world. This was certainly a sign that her stock was rising in the very competitive world of chess. With her performance, Phiona and a teammate, Ivy Clare Amoko, became the first ever Ugandan female players to attain the title of Woman Candidate Master (WCM).

2012 World Chess Olympiad

2012 World Chess Olympiad

The Queen of Katwe

Phiona’s story is far from over. A book on her remarkable journey was published in 2012 by Tim Crothers, and Disney optioned the rights to the book and released a movie, the Queen of Katwe, in late 2016. The film received positive reviews and was nominated for a number of awards. And through all of this Phiona just kept on playing chess, and trying to elevate her game so that she could fulfill her dream of becoming a Grandmaster.

Phiona Mutesi in the United States

Phiona Mutesi in the United States

Where is Phiona Today?

Phiona has accomplished much in her life since the movies release. In 2017 she enrolled in Northwest University outside of Seattle, and in May of 2021 graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Management degree. While in college Phiona continued to play chess for the schools chess team, but over time her desire to make chess her lifelong passion diminished under the rigors of college life and her speaking engagement schedule, which helped to cover her livings expenses while in school. Phiona’s last competitive chess match was at the 2018 Chess Olympiad held in Batumi, Georgia, where she competed for her native Uganda. Today she works as a Business Strategy Analyst for Microsoft in the Seattle area.

Although her dream of becoming a Grandmaster has faded for now, Phiona is grateful for the doors that her chess fame opened and she is looking forward to whatever the future holds for her. She continues to give inspiring lectures about her incredible story and hopes her message of hard work and perseverance helps other underprivileged young women. I’m sure there are many more chapters to be written and doors opened for this amazing young woman.


© 2012 Bill De Giulio


Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on June 09, 2013:

Hi collegedad. She certainly is. I found this to be an amazing story of overcoming hardship. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on June 09, 2013:

Hi Suzie. Thank you. Is her story not amazing? To come from one of the poorest areas in the world to where she is today is simply remarkable. I hope to do an update on her at some point in the future.

Thanks so much for the kind words, vote, share, etc..... Have a wonderful day.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on June 09, 2013:

Thanks rajan. Phiona is a remarkable young woman. This story really touched me and proves that anything is possible with hard work and determination. Thanks so much for the visit, vote, share. Have a great day.

collegedad from The Upper Peninsula on June 09, 2013:

Very inspirational!

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on June 09, 2013:

Hi Bill,

This was a riveting read and fascinating story. What an achievement for this young girl Phiona, I am truly in awe of her rise in the Chess world from such humble beginnings, incredibly inspirational.

Well done Bill, a beautifully penned piece as always. You have a true gift and talent for relaying stories and information great job, votes, shared across . .

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on June 09, 2013:

bill, this is an awesome story about Phiona, the Child prodigy. This is purely a gift from the Gods.

Very compelling read and I really am so glad for her.

voted up, interesting and shared.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on December 24, 2012:

Hi gvelez. Thanks for stopping by. Phiona is still living with her family in Uganda. She has returned to school where she is learning to read and write. I am sure she will receive royalties from the movie but will check on that. I will be following her progress and will post an update in the future.

gvelez on December 23, 2012:

This is a great story, but I would also like to know where is she living now? Does she get any of the money from the book or the movie?

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on December 18, 2012:

Hi Mizjo. You are so right. Just imagine if Phiona had received an education from a young age and had the opportunities that we have here. I'm sure there would have been no limit to what this remarkable young lady would have been capable of. And to think what she has already achieved despite the many obstacles in her path. I will be following this young ladies progress for years to come. Many thanks for stopping by and Happy Holidays.

mizjo from New York City, NY on December 18, 2012:

What an amazing young girl, rising out of abject poverty to world renown as a chess champion. Indeed she is a beacon for the many people struggling out of what life has dealt them. A true champion, not just for girls, but for boys as well. What she would not have achieved with her brains if there had been the money and the resources to go with it!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on December 16, 2012:

Hi Mary. Thanks for stopping by. Phiona certainly is a remarkable young lady. I will be rooting for her to achieve her dreams and will be following her story. Perhaps I will do an update on her progress sometime in the future. Many thanks for the vote, etc....

Mary Craig from New York on December 16, 2012:

Perhaps improbable but certainly remarkable. What's more remarkable to me is for her to be playing Chess! I respect and like chess but its not your average competition, its more of a specialized thing. This young girl is truly remarkable and your hub is great. You've detailed her rise and struggle with grace and understanding.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on December 15, 2012:

Hi Carol. When I first read about Phiona I thought to myself, what an amazing story. What this child has had to overcome to get to where she is today is almost beyond belief. I will continue to follow her progress and I really hope she achieves her dream of becoming a Chess Grandmaster someday. Thanks so much for stopping by and the vote and share. Have a great weekend.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on December 15, 2012:

Thanks Bill. I hope we will all be hearing about her in the years to come. A remarkable young lady. Have a great weekend.

carol stanley from Arizona on December 15, 2012:

I started reading this thinking oh I would just get the highlights. I was so fascinated I read every word. What a heartwarming story about courage and belief. Follow the dream..Thanks for this wonderful story..Voting UP and sharing around.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 15, 2012:

What a remarkable story, Bill! Thank you for writing about this young woman. I have never heard of her but I will be looking for her now in the years to come.