Phiona Mutesi is not a household name. She does not know exactly how old she is and grew up in arguably one of the most difficult places one might imagine — Katwe, outside of Kampala, Uganda — a notoriously crime-ridden slum with no sanitation and nearly as many flies and rats as people and where 50 percent of teen girls are mothers. There, she walked hours every day to obtain drinkable water and was one of a family of five living in a 10-by-10-foot room.
It was a game, incredibly, that Mutesi discovered entirely by accident one day that helped the young girl rise up out of the circumstances of her birth and into the greater world. The game? Chess. The girl? The real-life “Queen of Katwe,” who is coming to Vashon on April 14 for a chess simul-play event.
Mutesi, now a world-class chess competitor who is thought to be in her early 20s, currently attends Northwest University in Kirkland. Taking courses in psychology, social work, law and now business, Mutesi’s road to college life in the Pacific Northwest was paved by what she would call “smart moves” and the good luck to meet individuals who turned out to be the right people at the right times.
The first of those people was Robert Katende.
Katende was Mutesi’s first chess teacher and coach. As reported by Tim Crothers for ESPN The Magazine in 2011 and Elliott Neff, founder and CEO of Bellevue’s Chess4Life, Katende also grew up in one of Kampala’s slums. He was orphaned at the age of 8 when his mother died, then cared for by various aunts. Soccer was his passion and his ticket through school until a collision with a goalkeeper when he was 15 left him with a severe head injury. Nine months later and against the odds, he ultimately returned to the game he loved. Eventually he took a job with an organization called the Sports Outreach Institute, a Christian mission focused on bringing sports and religion to the world’s poor. He was assigned to Katwe.
There he met Mutesi, when one day she secretly followed her brother to the makeshift church where he was participating in the sports outreach program. She was hoping for food, but what she found was ultimately worth far more.
She was probably about 9 years old at the time, and she thought that the black and white “objects” she saw her brother and the other children playing with were “beautiful.”
Katende had added chess to the Katwe program when he noticed after a few months of soccer games that there were a number of children just watching from the sidelines. He wanted to engage them as well.
“When I first saw chess, I thought what could make all these kids so silent?” Mutesi told Crothers. “Then I watched them play and get happy and excited, and I wanted a chance to be that happy too.”
Within a year, Mutesi was the only girl of the group who would play against the boys and was able to beat Katende. A year after that, she won the Uganda women’s junior championship — a title she held onto for three years straight, until the country’s chess federation ran out of funds to continue holding the event.
She would go on to play at various national and world chess competitions, including a couple of chess Olympiads, all while still a teenager. And at some, she was accompanied by fellow chess teammates and friends from the Katwe outreach program.
Her rise to chess fame was being noted by more than just her coach, however, and Mutesi’s life was about to take an unexpected turn.
Mutesi’s royal moniker was given to her by Crothers, a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, who ultimately penned a book about the unlikely phenom that was published in 2012. Disney followed suit with its movie based on Crothers’ book, and “Queen of Katwe” was released to theaters in 2016, starring Lupita Nyong’O and David Oyelowo.
“When I read the book, I was just blown away,” Neff, a national chess master himself and author of the soon-to-be-released book, “A Pawn’s Journey,” said.
In 2014 Neff hosted a fundraising event for Katende and Mutesi, and began a friendship with Katende.
“He and I do the same thing,” Neff explained, of the connection he had with the Ugandan soccer-player-turned chess coach, “except that Robert does it in the slums of Uganda.”
Katende asked if Neff would help coach Mutesi for the World Chess Olympiad that same year. He agreed, and through Skype, coached Mutesi to a win. He has continued to coach Mutesi through the years since.
2016 was a busy year, as the reserved champion was trying to finish school as well as help promote the movie and plot her future moves.
College was her goal, but the movie did not do well at the box office — so Mutesi made essentially nothing from it and could not afford to go.
So Neff reached out to Joseph Castleberry, President of Northwest University — a Christian university in Kirkland.
“We have a very well developed international student program here,” Castleberry said. “We are one of few schools who will offer financial aid to international students, and we were happy to help Phiona.”
The school helped not just Mutesi, as it turned out, but her friend and fellow chess player, Benjamin Mukumbya, from the Katwe outreach program as well.
Coincidentally, Mukumbya’s roommate at the school is a Tlinglit student from Sitka, Alaska, who can play chess blindfolded.
“In the past 10 years at least,” Castleberry said, “I haven’t seen any two students playing chess. Now, we have a team. Everyone’s playing.”
He added that it was always the school’s intent to help the Ugandan students achieve higher rankings in their chess play as well as provide them the education they sought, and so the formation of the team was important, if not entirely coincidental. The newly formed, 54-member NWU chess team recently competed at the Pan-Am tournament at Ohio State and took first place in the small college division.
For her part, Mutesi explains her love of the game this way:
“I like the planning and strategizing,” she said, “and the training. How you make moves … it’s just like life. You have to plan and train every day. If it weren’t for chess, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
She wants to be able to create and run an organization to help children just like the Sports Outreach Institute did for her and her friends. Mukumbya wants to become a doctor, also to help the children and people back home in Katwe.
Mutesi has never been to Vashon and is looking forward to the simul event.
“I like the simuls. Playing so many games at once trains your mind,” she said. “But sometimes it’s hard to remember what you’re doing when you’re moving around so much. It can be hard, as you have to try to match everyone’s level.”
The simul event on Vashon is hosted by Philip McCready and the PTSA chess group. McCready recently discovered he had more of a connection to the story than a love of chess: The man who started the Sports Outreach Institute that sent Katende to Katwe to run the soccer program was McCready’s soccer coach in college in California in the 1970s.
The event will begin with Mutesi speaking for a bit, and then the play will begin. There will be 20 boards for this event, and those who are interested in playing Mutesi should register via email to McCready at firstname.lastname@example.org and indicate if they are an adult (post-high school) or youth (high school or younger).
There is no charge to attend; however, donations will be accepted and will go to help Mutesi cover the room and board costs of school that are not covered by her scholarship.
“I’m just so excited about coming together to play,” she said. “I really love playing with the kids.”
The chess simul event takes place from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at the Vashon Library. Also, “The Queen of Katwe” is streaming this month on Netflix.