Checkmate

04.05.13

Chess: The Ticket Out of Poverty for Phiona Mutesi

Phiona Mutesi was born in a Ugandan slum. She’d still be ‘on the streets’ if chess hadn’t saved her life, she told the Women in the World Summit. Eli Lake on what her story proves.

The last few years have been a whirlwind for Phiona Mutesi. Born into the slums of Katwe, one of the most impoverished regions of Uganda, Mutesi, who is now 17, has emerged as one of the best chess players in her native country. On Friday, she told the Women in the World Summit that without chess, “I would be living on the streets right now.”

That’s not an understatement. Mutesi’s father died of AIDS when she was 3. At age 5, Mutesi told the panel’s moderator, CBS This Morning’s Norah O’Donnell, she had to drop out of school to sell corn on the streets. Some days local bullies would steal the corn, and she and her family would have nothing to eat that evening.

Mutesi began to play chess at the age of 9. When she went to a local chess club, she said the boys made fun of her, saying she was dirty. But eventually, Mutesi proved her mettle. She began beating those boys. The first match she won, her opponent began to cry.

The young star was joined on the panel by Robert Katende, her coach, a former professional soccer player and director of SOM, Kampala. Marisa van der Merwe, who co-founded an organization called Moves for Life in order to spread the game of chess to young people in developing nations, also talked about the mental and social benefits of playing chess—especially for girls.

Today, Mutesi competes for Uganda internationally. She has traveled to Siberia, Istanbul, and South Sudan. On Thursday she met her hero, Garry Kasparov, who is widely considered the greatest chess champion of the 20th century. While she lost the match to Kasparov, she was delighted to meet him. When asked about meeting the chess master, Mutesi said there were many other female and male chess players in Uganda who would also love to meet him. Kasparov joined the panel, too, and said of Mutesi: “It’s quite impressive that a person who never had a professional chess lesson is such a solid player.

Mutesi grinned and promised to tell her chess friends back in Uganda all about it.

Video screenshot

At the 2013 Women in the World Summit, Phiona took on chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.