The Queen of Katwe: One Girl's Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion

The Queen of Katwe: One Girl's Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion

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by Tim Crothers

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Soon to be a major motion picture starring Academy Award winner Lupita Nyongo and David Oyelowo, directed by Mira Nair.

The “astonishing” (The New York Times Book Review) and “inspirational” (Shelf Awareness) true story of Phiona Mutesi—a teenage chess prodigy from the slums of Uganda.

One day


Soon to be a major motion picture starring Academy Award winner Lupita Nyongo and David Oyelowo, directed by Mira Nair.

The “astonishing” (The New York Times Book Review) and “inspirational” (Shelf Awareness) true story of Phiona Mutesi—a teenage chess prodigy from the slums of Uganda.

One day in 2005 while searching for food, nine-year-old Ugandan Phiona Mutesi followed her brother to a dusty veranda where she met Robert Katende.

Katende, a war refugee turned missionary, 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—requires persevering against great obstacles. Of these kids, one girl stood out as an immense talent: Phiona.

By the age of eleven Phiona was her country’s junior champion, and at fifteen, the national champion. Now a Woman Candidate Master—the first female titled player in her country’s history—Phiona dreams of becoming a Grandmaster, the most elite level in chess. But to reach that goal, she must grapple with everyday life in one of the world’s most unstable countries. The Queen of Katwe is a “remarkable” (NPR) and “riveting” (New York Post) book that shows how “Phiona’s story transcends the limitations of the chessboard” (Robert Hess, US Grandmaster).

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A moving and universal story of the power of potential and the wonder of perseverance. This story will inspire you—and will make you wonder how many more Phionas there are among us."—Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, New York Times-bestselling author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

"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

The Queen of Katwe is one of the most inspiring, thought-provoking, humbling books I’ve ever read. It’s a must-read for any chess player, woman, athlete, or frankly anyone who knows any of the previous three, aka everyone!”—Siva Sankrithi, Math Teacher & Chess Coach, Lakeside Upper School, Seattle, WA

The Queen of Katwe is gripping. We witness Phiona’s incredible evolution as a player, as she competes against older and far more experienced competitors. It also offers readers a fascinating look at a war-torn and struggling nation, as well as the unlikely story of how her mentor Robert Katende, a refugee of Uganda’s civil war, has created a flourishing chess program for kids in one of Africa’s most treacherous slums. This story has the power to inspire girls everywhere."—Alexandra Kosteniuk, Grandmaster, 12th Women's World Chess Champion (

"Moving.... A poignant reminder of the power of hope."—Kirkus Reviews

“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.”
Shelf Awareness
"An inspirational profile of an amazing chess player from one of the world's worst slums."
"The Queen of Katwe Tim Crothers gives us an inspiring and heart-wrenching story."
Bill Littlefield
"The Queen of Katwe is an extraordinary account of one young woman’s exceptional achievement. It is also a lament for this world in which only a tiny number of incredibly fortunate and exceptionally determined children have any chance of escaping the dehumanizing poverty that prevails in Katwe and places like it."

If you were scouting for chess prodigies, it is unlikely that you would search through the slums of Kampala, Uganda looking for youthful players of promise. Yet, somehow, against every expectation, impoverished teenager Phiona Mutesi somehow not only mastered the Game of Kings when she wasn't searching for food, but also managed to win her country's national chess championship when she was just fifteen. As a brief article, Tim Crothers' portrait of Phiona earned a place in Dave Eggers' annual anthology; now presented in fuller, humanizing detail, the story of this brave young woman gains new drama and depth.

The Boston Globe
"Part of Crothers's achievement is his presentation of the terrible circumstances millions of people battle every day to sustain themselves and feed their families, nearly all of them lacking the bright, improbable possibility provided by Mutesi."
The Age (Australia)
"Tim Crothers powerfully captures the crushing poverty in which Mutesi and herfamily still live."
The Sports Quotient - Robert Hess
"Phiona’s story transcends the limitations of the chessboard--her life not confined to the miniature pieces that her hand glides from her side of the board to attack her opponent’s king. No, Phiona succeeding at chess, like the fight to become great athletes for so many impoverished people around the world, has been a game for her life."
New York Post
"Tell Me More" NPR
"[A] remarkable story."
"Wonderful.... A story of resilience and creativity in the midst of immense need."
Charleston Post Courier
“So compelling… Crothers writes the story matter-of-factly ... reserving judgment and bias…. It beckons the reader to wonder at the possibilities that lay before Mutesi, and it reminds us of the harsh reality in which she continues to live.”
New York Times Book Review
Laura Schroff
“This extraordinary story will stop you and make you want to count your blessings! It confirms how the strength of the human spirit and determination can prevail. Tim’s portrait of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi offers hope and inspiration to all humankind.”
Gary Kasparov
“Phiona Mutesi is [a] young star…. An incredible story."
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Read an Excerpt

The largest of eight slums in Kampala, Katwe (kot-WAY) is one of the worst places on earth. The slum is often so severely flooded that many residents sleep in hammocks suspended just beneath their roofs to avoid drowning. Raw sewage runs through trenches beside the alleyways of the slum and floods carry it inside people’s shacks. The human waste from neighboring downtown Kampala is also dumped directly into Katwe. There is no sanitation service. Flies are everywhere. The stench is appalling.

When it isn’t flooded, Katwe’s land is packed dirt, fouled by the sewage. Nothing grows there. Stray dogs and rats and long-horned cattle all compete with humans to survive in a confined space that becomes more overcrowded every day. Homes exist wherever someone can find space to construct a makeshift shack, at least until a developer decides that land might have some value and the area is set afire. People are evicted from their dwellings by way of a controlled burn.

In Katwe they say that “running water” is the water you have to run through the slum to get, either from a dirty community well or a fetid puddle. Electricity is far too expensive for most Katwe residents where it is accessible at all. Landlords show up periodically with a sack full of padlocks and anyone who can’t pay the rent is locked out of their home.

Katwe has no street signs. No addresses. It is a maze of rutted alleys and dilapidated shacks. It is a place where time is measured by where your shadow hits the ground. There are no clocks. No calendars. Because it lies just a few degrees from the equator, Katwe has no seasons, which adds to the repetitive, almost listless, nature of daily life. Every day is just like the next. Survival in Katwe depends on courage and determination as well as guile and luck. During Amin’s regime when Uganda suffered through a foreign trade embargo, Katwe became known as a mecca for spare parts. Anything that could be sold on the black market could be found in Katwe, where the people developed a vital resourcefulness amid the squalor.

If you live in Katwe, the rest of the Ugandan population would prefer that you stay there. In the more stable neighborhoods that surround Katwe, homes and petrol stations and supermarkets are patrolled by uniformed security guards with AK-47s. The skyscrapers of downtown Kampala are in view from any dwelling in Katwe, just steps away. Children of the slum venture to the city center daily to beg or pickpocket and then commute back to Katwe to sleep at night.

In Katwe, life is so transient that it is often hard to identify which children belong to which adults. It is a population of single mothers and their kids tossed randomly from one shack to another. Everybody is on the move, but nobody ever leaves. It is said that if you are born in Katwe, you die in Katwe. Death from disease or violence or famine or neglect touches everyone in the slum, yet individual tragedies are not dwelled upon because they occur so frequently. Most of the children of Katwe are fatherless and the men in their lives often beat or abuse them. The women of Katwe are valued by men for little more than sex and childcare. Many women in the slum are sex workers who eventually become pregnant, but can’t afford to stop working in the trade. They must leave their children locked in the shack at night and it is not uncommon for them to return home in the early morning to find their kids have drowned in a flood or died in a fire after knocking over the kerosene lamp they were using as a night-light.

Bishop Mugerwa estimates that nearly half of all teenage women in Katwe are mothers. Due largely to the lack of access to birth control in Katwe and its neighboring slums, Uganda is now the youngest country in the world with an average age of 14 years. The prodigious birthrate produces legions of young children without an infrastructure strong enough to raise them or educate them. Many become homeless and hopeless, with no sense that if they disappeared they would even be missed. Katwe’s youth endure an overwhelming stigma, a sense of defeat, and a resignation that they’ll never do any better than anybody else in the slum. Achievement is secondary to survival. “What we have is children raising children,” Mugerwa says. “It is known as a poverty chain. The single mother cannot sustain the home. Her children go to the street and have more kids and they don’t have the capacity to care for those kids. It is a cycle of misery that is almost impossible to break.”

By the time Harriet Nakku came to Katwe in 1980, the muddle of decrepit shacks overstuffed with people stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction.

All of the frogs were gone.

Meet the Author

Tim Crothers is a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He is the author of The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion and The Man Watching, the biography of University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, and coauthor of Hard Work, the autobiography of UNC basketball coach Roy Williams. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife and two children.

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