Last update: 07-Dec-2013 3:12 am
Saturday, December 07, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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From slum child to chess champ
From the slums of Kampala to the Women in the World Summit in New York, Phiona Mutesi has come a long way. The teenage chess champ, who once sold corn in the streets of the Ugandan capital to survive, appeared among a host of celebrities and noted politicians at the world-famous Lincoln Centre in a function that showcased the amazing achievements of women and girls including human rights leaders, freedom fighters, teenage tech start-up founders and even an all-girl pop band from Burma.
But even in that company, Phiona’s story of survival and triumph through chess proved special, bringing applause and even tears from among the star-studded gathering. Among those identifying with the Summit’s gesture were Hillary Clinton and Angela Jolie.
Phiona and her coach Robert Katende appeared in a panel with ex-world champion Garry Kasparov whose inclusion on the programme was almost accidental. When asked who her personal hero was, Phiona unhesitatingly pointed to the Russian chess giant, and Daily Beast/Newsweek chief Tina Brown did not hesitate to bring the two together. A day before the Lincoln Centre ceremony, Phiona got to realise a dream by an over-the-board encounter with Kasparov.
As Chessbase News reports it, “Phiona was nervous; it was a casual game with no clock. But she was confident enough to give the ex-World Champion the white pieces!” Kasparov recited the game score afterwards and while it appeared one-sided Phiona did not make any blunders, despite the circumstances. “She clearly has natural talent,” Kasparov remarked. “It’s just a shame that she couldn’t receive proper coaching at a young age.”
Their panel at the Woman in the World Summit ranged from Phiona’s personal story to the big picture theme of the importance of education in the developing world.
Phiona was born in the slums of Katwe in the Ugandan capital. Her father died of AIDS when she was three and, to keep body and soul together, she had to sell corn instead of going to school. Her first appearances at the local chess gathering, started by coach Katende, were inspired not by an interest in the game but by the fact there was free food available to the players.
The game, however, awakened the teen’s natural talents. Soon she became almost invincible and last year, at the age of 16, Phiona won the Ugandan Open National Junior Championship and represented her country at the Women’s Olympiad in Istanbul.
Addressing the Summit, Kasparov described Phiona as “a testament to what great things can happen when talent is given the opportunity to thrive.” He pointed out that the Ugandan chess champion had grown up in “deprivation and fear that few members of our New York audience could imagine.” Her discovery of Katende’s local chess club became “a miracle for Phiona, showing her that she could achieve intellectually.”
“More than that,” Kasparov added, “her chess talent has allowed her to travel the world. And she now plans to be a doctor! This is the first and most powerful gift chess can provide, a self-confidence that transforms a child’s view of his or her potential. Very few kids can truly expect to turn success at football or other physical sports into an education or career. But this is true for chess, the knowledge that you can compete, succeed, and enjoy yourself on an intellectual level applies to everything you undertake in life.”
The Russian chess legend also commended the effort of Marisa van der Merwe, one of the founders and leaders of the Moves for Life programme in South Africa and winner of the prestigious Woman of the Year award in the field of education. The chess-in-schools programme, he noted, is flourishing both in wealthy suburban academies and poor township schoolhouses. “It is a model that should be replicated everywhere, and the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa was founded in Johannesburg with that goal in mind.”
Apart from inspiring youngsters, Kasparov pointed out, “learning chess provides proven benefits in concentration, logic, memory, creativity and mental discipline. Studies from around the world have shown academic improvement in every area where chess is introduced into the curriculum, and not just in math and science. Even school attendance increases, since the kids enjoy it so much, they don’t want to miss chess class!”
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