Chess champion: From Uganda slum to real life fairy tale

Ugandan chess master

NEW YORK -- This real life fairy tale has a Hollywood ending, but like most fairy tales, it also has an unlikely beginning.

Twenty-year-old Phiona Mutesi discovered a new way of thinking -- through chess.

“You have to plan. You have to strategize, and also you have to have dreams,” she said. 

Those dreams started in one of the largest slums in Uganda, Katwe. As a child, Mutesi sold corn to help her family survive.

“I dropped out of school at six,” she said. “So we didn’t have anything, my mom had no money.”

  Phiona Mutesi   CBS News

When she was 9, she stumbled upon a church chess program. At first, it wasn’t the game that interested her.

“I was just going back because I wanted a meal,” she said. 

But things began to change when Mutesi met Robert Katende. He started the chess program as a way to empower children in Katwe.

What was it about Phiona? 

“Actually, the most intriguing factor was the determination to survive,” said Katende. “She was grasping every concept you will teach her and try to use it well against other players.”

Robert Katende.   CBS News

So he signed her up for tournaments. She began winning, and became the first female chess champion of her country. By 14, she competed in the Olympics of chess, beating adults, and achieving status as an expert player.

“I cannot just believe it that i’m a person right now here, at this level, because I’m a person from nowhere,” she said. 

Mutesi’s journey is now a movie, Disney’s “Queen of Katwe” featuring Oscar-winner Lupita N’yongo, who plays Mutesi’s mother and David Oyelowo, who plays her coach.

What message does she have for other young people who are in similar situations? 

“Hope wins in everything you’re doing,” she said. “No matter that you’re a girl or you’re born in poverty. It’s up to you, like to wake up, to stand and then do something for yourself.”

Spoken like a winner who said she never loses, she just learns.

For those interested in helping people like Phiona, learn more here