Saturday, 29 October 2016

Queen of Katwe

I recently attended a special screening of the movie "Queen of Katwe" together with a group of young chess enthusiasts from the INK (Inanda, Ntuzuma, Kwa-Mashu) areas. This screening was sponsored by Durban Metro Chess Academy, an organisation that promotes chess in the townships. DMCA was set up many years ago by Bongani Mgaga, a leading chess player in the Ethekwini region. Thanks must also go to Desmond Rooplal, chairman of the Durban Chess Club, who raised most of the funds for the movie tickets for the children.

The Disney movie is based upon the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a young female chess player from the Katwe slums of Uganda. The movie trailer on YouTube and this movie review from the Cape Times will give you a good idea of what to expect from the movie.

You can't get much worse off than being in the slums of Katwe, so it is a remarkable story. Phiona starts off playing chess to get a free mug of porridge, then finds that she is actually very good at the game. After several months her coach, Robert Katende, scrapes together the entry fees and she wins her first schools tournament, at a very posh school in Kampala. The contrast between the school and the slum is stark. I was a little puzzled that Phiona had a pen and notation sheet at her board, as she was illiterate at that time. Some time later, having been taught to read by Katende's wife, she starts reading Kasparov's "Test of Time" by the light of a paraffin lamp.

Quite how Phiona goes on to represent Uganda at a youth tournament in Sudan, and subsequently at the FIDE World Chess Olympiad in Russia, is never really explained. As many chess parents can tell you, competing overseas is extremely expensive, so where did the money come from? Was there a private donor involved, or did the Ugandan government provide funding? Also not mentioned in the film is that Phiona met her chess hero, Garry Kasparov, at a 2013 seminar in New York.

cover of "Queen of Katwe", published in 2013
As a chess player, I like to check that any chess boards are set up correctly (they were) and that any positions shown are realistic. This movie passed with flying colours, with a smothered mate, a pawn promotion combination and several moves of a Queens Gambit recognisable. Even the parts of the game between Phiona and her Canadian opponent at the Chess Olympiad matched the positions in my chess database. Well done to Robert Katende, who was the chess consultant on this movie.

The movie was well received by the children, who laughed at some of the situations Phiona found herself in. Perhaps they had been in or had seen similar situations in the townships of Ethekwini? Hopefully this movie will inspire them in their future.