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A Most Powerful Piece

The Disney film Queen of Katwe depicts Phiona Mutesi’s rise from a Ugandan slum to the Chess Olympiad. But her greatest moves are yet to come

In September 2010, this magazine sent me to one of the worst places onearth: Katwe. It’s a slum in Kampala, Uganda, with such wretched conditionsthat when it rains, many of its tiny shacks are flooded with raw sewage. I was there to meet one of the children of Katwe, Phiona Mutesi, who in 2005, at age 9, could neither read nor write and had long dropped out of school. But that had been before she encountered a Ugandan missionary named Robert Katende who taught her the game of chess—a sport so foreign there was no word for it in Phiona’s language, Luganda. By the time of my visit, Phiona had become an international chess champion.

I interviewed Phiona mostly on the mud stoop of the one-room shack where she lived with her mother and two brothers. We then flew together to Siberia for the 2010 Chess Olympiad, the sport’s most prestigious team event. After Phiona’s first match victory at the Olympiad, she joyously sprinted out of the venue, and I concluded the article with the following: “This dismissed girl from a dismissed world cocks her head back and unleashes a blissful shriek into the slate gray sky, loud enough to startle players still inside the arena.”

She was 14, lived in the slums of Uganda and just learning to read. But Phiona Mutesi’s instincts made her a player to watch in international chess

As I wrote those words, I was haunted by a singular thought: Now what?

After all, despite her Olympiad journey, she was still a kid from the slum. Still desperately poor. Still struggling for meals. Still living in a male-dominated society where most women are seen as nothing more than baby makers or baby sitters. Still with no viable plan for escape.

The 14-year-old Phiona stood at a perilous crossroads. She could submit to Katwe and follow in the footsteps of her mother and older sister, yet another teenage mother in utter poverty. Or she could somehow try to defy the gravity of Katwe and keep climbing toward her dream of reaching grand master, the highest level of chess.

Phiona Mutesi has chosen the latter path. At the 2012 Olympiad in Istanbul, Phiona became the first Ugandan woman ever to earn a chess title, woman candidate master, the first rung on the ladder to grand master. She has become something she could never have imagined:a pioneer.

Phiona’s impact is evident wherever she goes. In New York, she played chess against her idol, losing to former world champion Garry Kasparov, inspiring him to visit Uganda to promote education through chess. Later that trip, she spoke with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates; the next year he invited her to speak at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Phiona also visited my son’s third-grade classroom in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to encourage the students to play chess; four years later, there are 250 kids in what our school calls Phiona’s Chess Club. At Uganda’s 2012 national junior tournament, Robert Katende challenged Phiona by entering her in the boys division, and when she surprisingly won that event, hundreds of proud Ugandan women showed up at the closing ceremonies to revel in Phiona’s barrier-breaking accomplishment.

Phiona’s story has blossomed into a book, The Queen of Katwe, which has been translated into nearly a dozen languages and adaptedinto a feature film from Disney (the parent company of ESPN) that debuts on Sept. 23.

When my family visited Uganda in July, we were greeted at theairport by Madina Nalwanga, the teenager who plays Phiona in themovie. She is also from the Kampala slums. “Phiona’s story is inspiring young girls like me all over this country,” Nalwanga told me. “We now believe that we too can do big things, that anything is possible.”

A few days later, I ate lunch with the real Phiona. She is now 20 years old, and it is astonishing to see how much she has maturedin the six years since we first met outside her shack in Katwe. She is apoised and confident young woman, fluent in English and enteringher final year at a Katwe boarding school. She told me chess has beenadded to the school’s daily curriculum and that she is teaching herclassmates. She spoke about spending holidays at her mother’s newhouse in a scenic valley outside of Kampala, her family’s future securedby earnings from the book and movie contracts. And she told me she is considering attending Harvard next fall.

“I would never have believed everything that is happening in my life,” Phiona said. “It is like living in a dream.”

Now, as I write her words, I am excited by a singular thought: Now what?

Liner Notes

This story was featured in the September 5, 2016 issue of ESPN The Magazine.