How many African chess grandmasters are there

Africa: Ugandan illiterate woman becomes chess master

She grew up in one of the poorest areas in the world. She could neither read nor write and went hungry almost every day. Her father and older sister were dead, her mother never at home - and yet Phiona Mutesi is said to be the star of a planned Disney film, as reported by the TV station CNN. Because Phiona Mutesi is a chess genius.

Several US magazines and video reports on YouTube have already reported on the extraordinary life of the girl, who does not even know her exact date of birth. It was born sometime between 1993 and 1995.

However, his strategic playing talent is so extraordinary that in 2011 a biography entitled "Queen of Katwe" was published about Phiona and drew worldwide attention to her fate. Katwe is Phiona's homeland, a slum in Uganda's capital Kampala.

Food versus chess lesson

Her story begins with the search for a bowl of porridge in 2005. At the age of about nine, she roamed the streets of the slum with her brother. Even today there is neither electricity nor running water in Katwe, the streets are made of pounded clay. There is plastic waste everywhere, people use makeshift huts as houses. Rats, dogs and other animals live there with humans in a very confined space. 50 percent of the neighborhood's mothers are teenagers.

“It was a really tough life. I slept on the street, ”Phiona said about her life before chess. At the age of about three she was already a half-orphan, her father had died of AIDS - like so many fathers in Katwe.

An older sister died shortly afterwards, presumably of malaria. Because her mother had to support the family all by herself from then on, she often did not return home for days. She tried to sell avocados in the market, but the income remained meager. There was no money left for Phiona's school attendance.

One evening when Phiona was alone again, begging for something to eat, she met Robert Katende, a missionary and chess teacher. He made her an offer: She should get something to eat, but only for a chess lesson. Phiona agreed. A decision that should change your life.

Play against the strongest opponents

“In the beginning, chess was just a bowl of porridge for me,” the teenager told ESPN magazine's biographer Tim Crothers, who called Phiona the “ultimate underdog”. But she soon became curious. “The first time I saw chess, I just thought, 'What is it that makes the other kids quiet?' Then I saw them play chess and get happy and excited, and I wanted to get a chance too, so happy to become."

From then on, she walked the 6.5 kilometers from her hut to Katendes Church every day, where there were just seven chess boards and some of the missing pieces had to be replaced with items from the trash. Today the project has a chess computer.

Katende recognized Phiona's talent after the first few lessons. He put them to the test and arranged games with the strongest players in his project.

“When I first met Phiona, I believed girls were weak and couldn't achieve anything. But then I noticed that Phiona can play just as well as a boy, ”says Ivan Mutesasira. “She plays very aggressively. She loves to attack, and if you play with her you will be pushed further and further back until you can no longer make a move. "

Even if the chess teacher describes her talent as exceptional, Phiona claims of herself that it took her about a year to get really good.

"When I beat the older boys and girls, I noticed that I was better." Now, of course, she wants to become a grandmaster. And she is already well on the way there: she has already won the junior championships in her country three times, photos show her with numerous gold medals.

Participation in international competitions

She now travels the world like a professional player to represent her country internationally: to Sudan, Turkey, the USA - and even to Siberia. She who had never seen snow before and never flown. “I thought I was in heaven,” she wrote, according to biographer Crothers, in a letter to her mother.

For her teacher Katende, Phiona's success is a confirmation of his project: “Chess teaches you to evaluate situations, make decisions, solve problems, see every challenge as an opportunity - and if possible not to give up. The discipline, the patience ... everything that has to do with life can be found in this game. "

Indeed, Phiona's success did not meet with support from everyone. Because many people in Uganda still believe that chess is an exclusively male game and that women have no place on the board.

In the meantime Phiona has not only learned to read and write, she even speaks English and already has a next goal: to study and become a doctor: “Chess has given me the opportunity to go back to school. And showed me that there is still another life. "