By Michael YEGHIAYAN
Although typically associated with the world of affluence and academia, chess is a game with the humblest of origins. Its complexities draw the most prolific of minds to a single focal point, serving as an equalizer in an unjust world.
For Phiona Mutesi, however, chess proved to be more than a mere game. The teenaged prodigy discovered the sport in her home country of Uganda in the midst of the most challenging of circumstances. She was impoverished, hungry, unable to afford school and struggling to break the vicious cycle of poverty that affected many in the Ugandan slum of Katwe.
The game eventually would transform her life by providing a way out of the slum, and the inspirational young woman spoke to students at Clark Magnet High School on Monday as part of a tour of the United States.
City Clerk Ardy Kassakhian addressed the assembly of Clark students, discussing the value to be gained from understanding the struggle and conquest of someone like Mutesi and the chess culture that exists within the city of Glendale.
“Our special distinguished guests today have traveled all the way to the United States from Uganda,” he said to the students. “They have an amazing story to tell about using sport and using their minds to use their skills and education to really lift themselves from their conditions and onto the world stage.”
Mayor Zareh Sinanyan also presented Mutesi and her coach, Robert Katende, with an official proclamation from the city and naming April 28 “Chess Day.”
“I think [Mutesi’s story] makes [students] challenge themselves more and see the hardship that exists out there. It should make them strive for greater things in their own lives,” said Mayor Sinanyan.
The city officials were joined by Clark alumna Tatev Abrahamyan, one of the youngest female grandmasters and a Glendale resident.
It was through an intervention program by the Sports Outreach Institute that Mutesi was first introduced to chess. When her talent was identified, she continued to be mentored and developed for international competition. Her skill was immediately obvious, and she began competing at high level chess tournaments even before learning how to read.
In recent years, Mutesi has drawn the attention of the national stage. In 2012, she was the subject of “The Queen of Katwe,” a book by Tim Crothers that chronicled the details of her background and eventual ascension in the world of chess. Additionally, a film is being developed by Disney to help further spread her inspirational story.
Mutesi’s upbringing reflects the reality of hardship that faces most Ugandans in a country that has suffered from ongoing civil war, high rates of AIDS and HIV infection, and nationwide poverty. These factors have collectively left Uganda with the youngest median age of any country in the world, listed at 15.0 years by the CIA Factbook in a 2010 estimate.
Mutesi’s father died of AIDS when she was 3 years old, forcing her mother into the familiar Ugandan circumstance of raising her children alone.
Even in the face of such adversity, a small gesture of instruction and a meal on behalf of the Sports Outreach Institute would prove enough to irreversibly change Mutesi’s life.
“Chess is a tool,” said organization president Rodney Suddith. “We are really happy that Phiona is a chess champion, but the goal is to produce opportunities for these kids.”
The program shares a goal with a majority of other aid-based organizations within Uganda, most of which are looking to break the vicious poverty cycle that keeps families trapped in the slums.
For Katende, the spread of knowledge and importance of education can always produce optimism in the darkest circumstance.
“I believe in the power of hope and never giving up on life because things can always be better,” said Katende. “Whatever I know I always pass on. It is something I grew up with; I always have tried to see what I can bring out in others.”
Since finding success, Mutesi has used her growing fame and inspirational story to bring attention to the situation in her home country. She hopes to seek educational reform in Uganda through the game of chess, using it as a tool to produce opportunities for other children facing poverty and hunger.
Speaking to the students, Mutesi advised those looking to improve their chess game to always seek out opponents stronger than themselves – decidedly good advice in chess and a personal philosophy that should be embraced by anyone who seeks more out of their own circumstances.