Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi visits Clark Magnet H.S.

Mutesi shares chess advice and talks about overcoming her childhood struggles.


Vatry Yahjian

Chess coach Robert Katende, chess champion Phiona Mutesi and Sports Outreach Network President Rodney Suddith address questions from the audience.

There are times when a simple “game for rich people” can revive even the most downtrodden of society. Such is the story of Phiona Mutesi, the Ugandan teenager who broke the vicious cycle of life in the slums through the ancient game of chess.

On April 28, Uganda’s junior chess champion Phiona Mutesi and her coach, Robert Katende, visited Clark Magnet to share their inspiring story to hundreds of students, teachers and city officials. On a 33-day tour of the U.S., Mutesi and Katende visited Glendale specifically for its culture of chess enthusiasts.

Among the attendees was U.S. grandmaster Tatev Abrahamyan, a Clark Magnet alumnus and current resident of Glendale.

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Glendale mayor Zareh Sinanyan welcomed the guests by presenting a proclamation to Mutesi, declaring April 28 as “Chess Day” in Glendale. “There is a great appreciation of chess in our city, and your story will be an inspiration to us all,” Sinanyan said.

Having lost her father to AIDS at the age of 3, Mutesi was condemned to a life of abject poverty and perpetual hunger in a country where female literacy rates linger at 56.5%. Searching for food one day in the Katwe slum of Uganda, she stumbled upon porridge and a chess program set up by Sports Outreach Institute, a Christian ministry that offers sports programs in war-torn or poverty-stricken areas.

“I could not read or write, but I learned how to play chess very well,” Mutesi told the audience.

There she met Robert Katende, a missionary who desired to build relationships with children through sports that build character and confidence — sports such as chess. “It is quite amazing to have produced a champion,” Katende said.

At age 11, Phiona Mutesi became Uganda’s junior chess champion and has since represented Uganda at Chess Olympiads hosted in Siberia and Istanbul. Her story, which has already been written down in the book Queen of Katwe is currently being made into a film by Disney.

Junior Alec Kellzi, curious about Mutesi’s new and transformed life, asked why she had not yet moved to the United States. “My mother does not want to leave her community,” she said sincerely.

Despite her strong connection to her home, Mutesi said she has enjoyed the United States, her favorite places being Disneyland and Seattle’s Space Needle.

As for chess, she shared some advice to aspiring chess players in the audience: “If you want to improve, play with people stronger than you. Never lose hope. Losing is a part of learning.”

Mutesi is currently finishing her high school education and continues to lead education reform in her home country of Uganda.

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