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A chess queen at college

Mutesi makes a move at the National Chess Day fundraiser. (Floyd English)


A chess queen at college

Chess celebrity Phiona Mutesi credits God for her success at the game. Now she’s trusting him to get through school

Outside it poured, but inside at National Chess Day the atmosphere was anything but dreary. On this fall Saturday a college hall hummed with concentration, the clink of chess pieces, and the lilt of Ugandan music. Best of all, anyone for a donation could play a game against the “Queen of Katwe,” the real-life subject of a recent Disney film, Phiona Mutesi herself.

Mutesi, now 21, and fellow Ugandan chess champion Benjamin Mukumbya, 19, are both students at Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash. When they visited in 2016 to promote the film Queen of Katwe, the president of the small Christian university offered full tuition scholarships to both.

College education culminates a dream hatched far away in Katwe, a Ugandan slum, but also presents a new challenge: The scholarships do not cover room and board fees of $15,500 each. That’s where the National Chess Day fundraiser came in: All proceeds went toward filling that need, and donors could also buy handbags made by children in the Sports Outreach Ministry, where Mutesi first learned chess in exchange for a bowl of porridge.

Floyd English

Mutesi speaks with participants at the fundraiser (Floyd English)

Following the chess games Elliott Neff, founder of Chess4Life and organizer of the fundraiser, explained: “While one might think with a film made about your life, your financial needs would be met, that isn’t the case. Disney lost money on the movie, and the students didn’t receive anything.” Mutesi and Mukumbya were several thousand dollars short, but still overwhelmed and grateful for the support they’d already received. “It’s amazing that so many people would come out here today to support someone they don’t know,” Mutesi said.

Queen of Katwe credited chess with bringing her out of the slum, but Mutesi gives glory to God and says the faith shown by her mother in the film was real: “In the really hard time, when we went three days with no food, my mother told us, ‘This is the time that God is closest to you.’” After Mutesi’s brother told her about the chess program at Sports Outreach Ministry, she went along with him. At first she didn’t like chess, but she had to play in order to eat, so she learned. “I like chess now,” she said with a sly smile.


Elliott Neff, founder of Chess4Life (Handout)

Soon after she learned to play, Mutesi began to win. One particular win was empowering: “When I beat Joseph [another boy in the club] in chess, that changed my life. The idea that girls could be better at anything than a boy was new.” Still, only when Tim Crothers wrote the book about her that led to the movie did she think her life could be different from the “sugar daddy” fate of many slum girls.

Mutesi talks like any first-year college student—balancing academics and activities, figuring out her major, finding the right church—so sometimes it’s hard to remember that only a few years ago her prospects went no further than selling maize in the slum. Now she is considering a pre-law degree and hopes to work with children one day. Meanwhile, Mukumbya plans to become a neurosurgeon: At age 10 he read Dr. Ben Carson’s biography and dreamed of following in his footsteps. Both students love the film about their lives and say it is accurate: Filmmakers used actual locations, including the church where they learned to play chess.

Floyd English

Chess champion Benjamin Mukumbya (Floyd English)

Mutesi was polite with adults but loved being with children. After the days’ events, she posed for photos with her young fans, many enrolled in chess clubs: Meeting a chess star is inspiration to improve their game. At Northwest, Mukumbya and Mutesi started a chess club, and university President Joseph Castleberry showed up for the first meeting. But while chess will always have an integral place in her life, Mutesi said her focus now is on her studies. Her goal of becoming a chess grandmaster will have to wait.

While her studies come with concern about finances, Mutesi exhibited the same calm reflection that helps her succeed at chess. She knows about overcoming obstacles: “The grace of God has enabled me to move forward in chess,” she said, and she’s confident He will do likewise for her education. At the end of National Chess Day, the fundraiser had raised enough to cover the chess champions’ first year of college.