Chess movie 'Queen of Katwe' is announced

by Albert Silver
4/9/2016 – Chess is on the rise, even in the world of motion pictures. Based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a starving Ugandan girl living in the streets who learned chess at age nine while looking for food handouts and became the Ugandan Open junior champion (defeating the boys) at age 16, Disney will be releasing a film on her later this year starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o.

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From living in the streets in the slums of Katwe to learning chess in a Sports Outreach Institute missionary program to becoming one of her nation’s top chess players competing in international competitions, Phiona Mutesi has come a long way from the 9-year old girl who came for a cup of porridge. The subject of dozens of media stories and a book, “The Queen of Katwe,” which is soon to be made into a Disney movie, Phiona is an inspiration to millions, and especially to girls in a nation where girls are particularly marginalized.

Phiona Mutesi, age 15

Phiona is currently involved in a well-known secondary boarding school in Kampala, she is in the equivalent of the 10th grade here in the US.  Seven of her classmates are friends from the same slum in Katwe as Phiona, two of which are her brothers Brian and Richard.

Phiona’s goal in school is to become a pediatrician.  Phiona, Brian and Richard plan to go back to Katwe after they finish school to build a home to provide shelter, clinic care and education for the slum children.

Most afternoons during the school term, Phiona is enjoying her science classes the most and playing chess after school.  She will either practice at school with friends or go to the SOM Chess Academy in Katwe and help Coach Robert.  Phiona has a real passion for teaching the children chess and a special burden for the young girls.

Phiona teaching students (photo from

In 2013 Phiona was invited to the Women of the World Summit in New York City.  The purpose of the summit is to highlight women who have made positive changes in various areas of life.  Phiona was invited to share how she had overcome so many obstacles and achieve her international level as a chess player.  Every year the summit will honor a select few of the women as Women of Impact, Phiona was one of the three for 2013.  She was awarded a $25,000 grant to be used to help promote chess and education among impoverished girls in Uganda. 

To date, Phiona has been faithful to use the funds to speak at conferences, organizations and churches.  Phiona also held the first ever in Uganda girls only chess clinic.  Phiona had hoped to have at least 50 girls attend, over 400  girls showed up to two day clinic.  Coach Robert and Phiona enlisted help from other female chess players and leaders from the community to help run the clinic.  The girls were not only taught chess but also encouraged by Phiona and invited professional women to pursue education and to delay marriage and children until after they finish school and begin a career.  Phiona has attended and helped support chess tournaments and clinics in other slums and the war ravaged regions in Uganda. (source: Phiona's site "")

Phiona Mutesi says that her favorite piece is the queen

The sheer wonder of her tale is so great, that were it not known to be fact and true it would be dismissed as fairy tale of the least believable order. Yet true it is, and the young nine-year-old girl who walked into a missionary institute for a handout of food learned chess there by Robert Katende, a war refugee turned missionary. Katende had an improbable dream: to empower kids in the Katwe slum through chess—a game so foreign there is no word for it in their native language. Laying a chess­board in the dirt, Robert began to teach. At first children came for a free bowl of porridge, but many grew to love the game that—like their daily lives—required persevering against great obstacles. Of these children, one girl stood out: Phiona. By the age of eleven Phiona was her country’s junior champion, and at fifteen, the national champion. 

The book by Tim Crothers on Phiona's story

This led to an article by Tim Crothers, who went to Uganda to meet her and of it wrote an article for ESPN Magazine that won accolades and awards. From this he wrote the book "Queen of Katwe", Katwe being the name of the slum she had grown up in, which was also met with rave reviews everywhere. A few examples, as mere illustration are:

“It’s a story almost too uplifting to believe… Crothers tells Phiona Mutesi’s story in a crisp, reportorial style, but it’s nearly impossible to read the book without a strong emotional response… Inspiring.” (Booklist)

"This story of a young woman's triumph over the unimaginably cruel fortune she was born into would pierce a heart of stone."--Hillary Jordan, New York Times-bestselling author of Mudbound and When She Woke

Suffice it to say that while selected, these echo the sentiment of the others, none of which are in discord. It also goes without saying that such a tale has led to countless TV appearances, public appearances, and documentaries. Below are but a couple found on YouTube.

The Queen of Katwe - A short Documentary about Phiona Mutesi


Ugandan chess star, Phiona Mutesi

In 2013, it was announced that award-winning director Mira Nair, whose credits include Missippi Masala with Denzel Washington, was working with Disney to develop a movie based on Phiona’s life. However one can never tell whether such a project will truly come to fruition, or how long it might take. Consider that Toby Maguire, who was the driving force behind "Pawn Sacrifice" took ten years to turn it from dream to reality.

Variety magazine announced the release of Disney's film timed for the awards season

Now, however, the reality stage is well beyond promises, and specialized media outlets such as Variety have announced that Disney has given the film “Queen of Katwe” an awards-season release date with a limited launch on Sept. 23, followed by a Sept. 30 expansion. Starring in the role of Phiona is none other than Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 12 years a Slave, which also won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2013.

Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.


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