From Uganda to Azerbaijan to the Red Carpet …

by admin on September 7, 2016

… In one week! That’s the amazing odyssey of Phiona Mutesi, who is playing on the Uganda women’s team at the Baku Chess Olympiad.

If the name sounds slightly familiar to you, it will probably become a lot more familiar later this month. Mutesi is the real-life heroine of the Disney movie Queen of Katwe, which will reach theaters in the U.S. later this month. I am really looking forward to seeing chess portrayed in a positive way: not as an obsession that drives people crazy but as a game that empowers kids and teaches them to think. And the best thing is that it’s not a made-up story. If the kids at my chess club ask me, I will be able to tell them there really is a Phiona Mutesi, and she plays in real chess competitions.

I imagine that the movie will probably exaggerate how good she is. Her rating is actually 1622, so you can tell that she will not be competing for the women’s world championship any time soon. But that shouldn’t be the point, and I hope it won’t be the point of the movie. It should be about the journey, not the destination.

Speaking of journeys and destinations, apparently it was not easy for many of the African teams even to get to the Olympiad. The Uganda women’s team was unable to play in the first three rounds because they didn’t have four players onsite yet, so Mutesi had to wait until round four to actually start playing. However, their team seems to be making up for lost time, having beaten Honduras and Tunisia by 3½-½ scores in rounds 4 and 5. Mutesi won both of her games, and I think you’ll enjoy the finish of her second game. She sacrifices a rook to get a mating attack! I would be beyond thrilled if any of my students played an attack like this.

Mutesi – Miladi, 2016 Chess Olympiad, Baku

mutesiPosition after 35. … Bxc2. White to move.

FEN: 7r/5pk1/q3p1p1/2n1P1N1/1p1p1P2/2bP2Q1/r1b1B1PP/1R3RNK w – – 0 36

If you read chess positions left to right (which I don’t recommend), you’d think this game was over. Black has completely overrun the queenside.

But the kingside is where the action is, and Mutesi’s next move proves that Black’s pieces have forgotten their #1 duty of keeping their monarch safe.

36. f5! …

What a dynamite move! Black is unable to stop the opening of the f-file, after which the combined power of White’s queen, rook and knight will be too much. It’s hard to even find reasonable suggestions for Black. Of course, the g-pawn is effectively pinned: if 36. … gf? 37. Nxe6+ forces mate. If 36. … Rf8 37. f6+ Kg8 38. Qh4 mates on h7. The same is true if Black puts off … Rf8 and plays first 36. … ef 37. Rxf5 Rf8 38. Qh4! Or if 36. … ef 37. Rxf5 Bb3 then 38. Rxb3 snaps off the defender. Or, another cute mate, if 36. … ef 37. Rxf5 f6 38. ef+ Kf8 39. Qb8+! comes like a lightning bolt out of nowhere.

Basically Black’s position is so hopeless that all she can do is hoover up White’s pieces.

36. … Bxb1 37. fe Nxe6

Trying to exchange off one attacker.

38. Rxf7+ Kg8 39. Rf6! Rxe2

I guess the best try would be 39. … Nxg5 40. Qxg5 Qxf6 41. ef, but it still doesn’t work. For example, if 41. … Ra7 to stop mates on the second rank, then 42. Qxg6+ Kf8 43. Bh5! Rxh5 44. Qxh5 and White’s attack is like an avalanche that keeps on coming. If 44. … Bxd3 45. Qc5+ or if 44. … Rd7 45. Qh8+ Kf7 46. Qg7+ Ke6 47. Qg4+! Kd6 48. Qg6 and there’s just no stopping f6-f7.

40. Nxe6 Black resigns

Unfortunately, that’s the last we’re going to see of Mutesi at this Olympiad. Now she has to go to Canada for the premiere of Queen of Katwe at the Toronto International Film Festival, on September 10! This must make her the first chess player in history who has had to miss half of the Olympiad in order to attend a premiere of a movie about her life.

[Thanks to Colin McGourty’s always excellent chess reportage for this tidbit of information.]

There’s just one question I want to ask Disney: If you could pay to fly Mutesi out to Toronto, couldn’t you have paid for the rest of her Uganda team to get to the Olympiad? I guess the bigger issue is this: So you’ve made a movie about chess in Uganda, and hopefully it will be a box office success. Are there any plans to use some of the money to promote chess in Uganda or Africa more generally, so that this becomes more than just a one-time feel-good story?

The Queen of Katwe website offers individuals a chance to contribute to an organization called Sports Outreach Ministry, which sponsored the chess school (SOM Chess Academy) where Mutesi learned to play. I think it would be great if some small percentage of each movie ticket sold would go to support SOM or other chess programs.

Anyway, I’m glad she got to play in Baku, even if it was just two games, and incredibly cool that she is going to mix with the high and mighty of Hollywood at the Toronto Film Festival. What a week!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Hal Bogner September 8, 2016 at 10:31 am

The Toronto film festival can hardly be the only such festival. Brooklyn Castle was premiered at South By Southwest in Austin. How does Disney honor Phiona’s accomplishments and make her story compelling while hampering her participation in the premier international event of the year or of her life to date, as well as hampering her national team? Brain dead.


admin September 8, 2016 at 10:52 am

I couldn’t agree more. Actually, one thing I’d never really realized before was that for many of the chess players in developing countries, this is their #1 opportunity to compete on the world stage. I haven’t read the book the movie is based on, but I’ve read excerpts, and for example Mutesi’s first Olympiad in 2010 is treated as a Very Big Deal in her life. So certainly the movie producers should have realized that the 2016 Olympiad is an equally big deal.

That being said, movies and TV can reach orders of magnitude more people than you and I. Maybe we can put up with the giants trampling through our carefully tended garden, as long as they let us ride on their shoulders.


Mary Kuhner September 10, 2016 at 12:30 pm

I learned this lesson while teaching (genetics, not chess) at an international workshop with participants from five continents. One of the African students said to me, rather diffidently, that it was disappointing that the American instructors didn’t take the course seriously. It turned out that he was reacting to the way we dressed–we were in Stanford and it was hot, so we tended to wear shorts, whereas the student saying this was wearing a lightweight but formal suit. In talking to him about this, I realized for the first time that this was a very rare and significant opportunity for him and his fellow students, and I should treat it as such. So I dressed up for the rest of the workshop, and also tried to step up my interactions.

(My other memory from that workshop is that the African students decided to tour San Francisco on the off day, and when they got back a Gambian woman said reproachfully to me, “They said California was a hot place! I have never been so cold in my entire life!”)


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