Sports journalist Crothers' (The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever, 2006, etc.) moving account of an impoverished Ugandan girl's unlikely rise to prominence in the world of competitive chess.
Phiona Mutesi discovered chess by accident. Eager to find out where her brother Brian went when he "[snuck] away from his chores," 9-year-old Phiona followed him to a "dusty veranda" in Katwe, the slum where they lived. There, she encountered a group of children learning about chess through an outreach program designed to bring food, sports and religion to poor children. The program leader, Robert Katende, encouraged the shy Phiona to join and paired her with a 4-year-old girl to pick up the basics of the game. Soon, she was playing, and defeating, the most advanced boys in the group. Deciding that his players, whom he christened the Pioneers, needed a goal beyond simply mastering the game, Katende began entering them in local tournaments against other children from more privileged backgrounds. Though shunned for being dirty "street kids,” they still made a respectable showing. But it wasn't until 2007, when Phiona unexpectedly became Uganda's female under-20 chess champion, that Katende realized the extent of her gift. Under his tutelage, she went on to win the 2008 and 2009 junior championships and help a group of other talented Pioneers win an international tournament in 2010. Later that year, she was invited to play in another team event, the Chess Olympiad in Siberia. Although she lost, she gained the respect of older players, who declared that she was a grandmaster in the making. As Crothers points out, however, whether Phiona can live up to her potential will depend on whether she can outmaneuver an even more formidable opponent: the environment of Katwe, which "conspires against her on so many levels.”
A poignant reminder of the power of hope.