It’s not every evening local youth receive chess lessons from both the school district superintendent and an international chess sensation.
Not only did Federal Way Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Tammy Campbell visit Federal Way’s Family Life Community Church to host a recent chess-with -the-superintendent session, but Phiona Mutesi, whose life – thus far – was depicted in the Disney movie “Queen of Katwe,” was on hand to offer pointers to the youth group.
About half the youth at the church had seen the movie “Queen of Katwe” the week before and were familiar with Mutesi’s story – how she grew up in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, where she learned to play chess at age 9, and was so successful she went on to become an international chess sensation under the guidance of a missionary.
Mutesi, 21, said it’s her story more than her chess prowess that she hopes people remember.
“I think my story really is impactful,” said Mutesi, a freshman at Northwest University.
Her foray into the chess world started because she was hungry.
Her father had just died. The 9-year-old Mutesi, along with her siblings and mother, were homeless and without food.
“I didn’t have anything,” she said. “We didn’t have any hope.”
Then she learned one day, by chance, about a group in Katwe offering chess lessons — and a meal — to local youth. Mutesi said she was more than willing to learn the game if it meant she got to eat.
“I was starving,” she said.
Before she earned the nickname the Queen of Katwe, Mutesi said, she lost many matches to the boys against whom she was playing.
One day, she decided the meals were not enough. She was tired of losing and wanted to learn to win, and one of the missionaries offered to teach her.
Mutesi said the day she defeated a local boy — who was so unhappy about losing to a girl that he never returned — she had a glimmer of hope. In chess, she saw a possible way out of Katwe for her and her family, an opportunity she would not otherwise have.
“Women are so marginalized because women in Uganda can’t do anything,” Mutesi said. “This gave me a tool to have hope.”
As it turns out, Mutesi had a knack for chess. She eventually went on to win the Ugandan Women’s Junior Championship three times and has played in tournaments all over the world. She has represented her country at multiple chess olympiads and become one of the first titled Ugandan female chess players in the African country’s history.
On top of that, Mutesi completed her education and earned a scholarship to attend Northwest University in Kirkland. With her earnings, she bought her mother and family a house outside of Katwe.
“I feel like I’m living my dream,” she said. “I’m just so thankful.”
Mutesi is humble about her accomplishments. Sometimes she cannot believe this is actually her life, or that she is studying psychology at a college far away from where she grew up. She said she didn’t know what to expect when she arrived at Northwest University, and was pleased when she realized the classes were small and that the interactions between professors and students are more personal.
She doesn’t talk about her story much, and mostly, her classmates don’t associate her with the Queen of Katwe. When her past does come up, she doesn’t talk about chess or her domination at the board. Mostly she talks about her story, which she hopes will inspire others.
Her story is not about beating boys or becoming successful, Mutesi points out. It’s about not giving up in the face of adversity and finding hope and building dreams where, previously, there were none.
“It’s not about being a girl,” she said. “It’s about competing with your mind.”
Mutesi said chess teaches people, particularly children, valuable lessons. She said by losing a match, people are actually learning how to get better. That is how she got to where she is today, Mutesi said.
“I really worked hard to become good at it,” she said.
When the youth at Wednesday’s church group learned they would be receiving a chess lesson from Campbell — and take home their own cloth chess boards — they greeted the opportunity with enthusiasm.
When they learned the young woman standing off to the side was the Queen of Katwe, and she would be offering tips during Campbell’s lesson, their excitement grew tenfold.
Campbell had already arranged with Pastor Dan Larson to attend the Wednesday night session when she learned the Queen of Katwe would be there at the invitation of Larson’s son, Jonathan, and church member Hannah Brewster, also from Federal Way. The pair met and became friends with Mutesi at college.
Brewster said having Mutesi accompany them and talk about her background and share pointers at chess was a great opportunity.
“Just talking about the hope that she has is really inspiring,” she said of Mutesi.
Campbell said chess with the superintendent is actually a continuation of the program she started as a classroom teacher and principal, and she sees it as a valuable tool for students.
“It teaches scholars about decision making, logic and problem solving,” said Campbell, adding that chess is also valuable because it teaches children about good etiquette and respecting an opponent.
Mutesi agreed with Campbell.
She said chess also teaches people about setting goals and working to accomplish them by establishing a strategy, something she did for herself long ago and was the most valuable of all her lessons. She said she is happy to share that lesson with children and young adults when given the opportunity.
“No one is going to teach you in life how to plan,” she said. “Chess does that.”