One of my favorite scenes in the documentary Brooklyn Castle, which I reviewed here recently, was the one where (spoiler alert!) Rochelle Ballantyne won the national girls’ high school championship on tiebreak, earning herself a scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas. I commented in my blog post that it disturbed me that something as important as a college scholarship could be decided by something as trivial (and more importantly, error-prone) as tiebreaks at a chess tournament.
Well, I needn’t have worried. Because Rochelle has just received a much more prestigious opportunity: a full scholarship at Stanford! And she got this one, I imagine, the old-fashioned way — by applying for it rather than winning it at a chess tournament. I learned this exciting news from Elizabeth Spiegel’s blog. Elizabeth and her colleagues at I.S. 318 should feel proud.
Meanwhile, chess got some love at ESPN’s website today, with the posting of a video about Phiona Mutesi, a 16-year-old girl from one of the poorest slums in Uganda, who has played in the Chess Olympiad and who has earned (according to the video) a candidate master title. Most USCF members are probably quite familiar with this story already, because Mutesi was featured on the cover of the November 2012 issue of Chess Life. She also was the subject of a book by Tim Crothers called The Queen of Katwe, published earlier this fall.
I haven’t read “The Queen of Katwe,” which received a rather negative review in Chess Life. Howard Goldowsky, the reviewer, complains that the book is too clichéd, and “the book ignores character development and accurate reporting of chess culture.”
The ESPN video is also pretty soft journalism; for example, it does not explain the real story of how Mutesi was first exposed to chess. According to Jamaal Abdul-Alim’s excellent article in Chess Life, the chess lessons were started by a missionary organization called the Sports Outreach Institute, based in Virginia. The initial focus of SOI was soccer, but a local Ugandan volunteer, Robert Katende, came up with chess lessons as a way of reaching kids who weren’t interested in soccer.
I think it’s worth mentioning these things because successes like I.S. 318 in Brooklyn and the Sports Outreach Institute in Uganda don’t happen all by themselves. The ESPN video makes it seem as if Phiona Mutesi just magically discovered her talent. While talent does blossom in unexpected places, it really helps if somebody has prepared the soil. If we want it to continue to blossom, we should support and encourage and give credit to the mentors like Elizabeth Spiegel and Robert Katende.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to be too picky! I think it’s absolutely wonderful when chess gets positive attention in a major media outlet like ESPN. (If I’m not mistaken, the last time chess got mentioned on ESPN’s website, it was because of a cheating scandal. This is a whole lot better.) I hope lots of young people and especially girls will look at the stories of people like Rochelle Ballantyne and Phiona Mutesi and say, “I can do that, too!”