Nine years ago, Phiona Mutesi was hungry and homeless, living with her mother and siblings in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. Her father had died of AIDS when she was 3.
“I didn’t have any hope,” the 18-year-old Mutesi said Tuesday in Tacoma, describing her early years. “I didn’t have any dreams.”
Then one day, she followed one of her brothers into the city. When he caught her following, he tried to chase her away.
She persevered and followed him to the Kampala home of the Sports Outreach Institute, part of a Christian organization headquartered in Virginia.
There, she watched as children sat silently, moving pieces around a game board. Under the guidance of coach Robert Katende, she started learning the game of chess.
“I went to the chess program because I wanted food,” she told a group of students at Bryant Montessori School in Tacoma. “After chess, they served us a cup of porridge.”
It took about two weeks to learn the game that would change her life and take her around the world -- including her current tour of the United States. In just a few years, she was Uganda’s junior chess champion, then national champion.
Today, Mutesi is a world-ranked player, a candidate master.
And the girl from the slums has set her sights even higher. She wants to become a chess grandmaster.
On Tuesday, she shared her story with Bryant second- and third-graders -- who learn chess at school through a program called First Move.
“When you went to your first tournament, were you scared?” one girl wanted to know.
“Yes,” Mutesi answered. “I was very, very scared. I was shaking.”
She recalled her first airplane trip, at age 13, to compete in a tournament in Siberia. She had never seen an airport or been on an airplane. As the plane ascended, she wondered: “Am I going to heaven?” When she landed, she had her first brush with snow.
Mutesi told Bryant students that “chess is good for young kids. It involves planning. It’s good for our brain. If you want to be a good chess player, you need to have patience.”
Bryant teacher Jana Fullerton agreed. Not only do her students learn about spatial relationships and math concepts, she said, they learn about life.
“They learn about winning and losing and resilience,” Fullerton said. “They learn to think ahead and to think about consequences. That translates to real life.”
Bryant students got a chance to take on the master-in-the-making as Mutesi played simultaneous games with three of them.
Jasper Uhler said he picked up a few moves playing with Mutesi.
“It was hard,” said Gwynne Squyres. “All the moves I would make, she would make a different one.”
“It was hard, but it was also fun,” added Evie Abels. “Because you are playing one of the best.”
Mutesi won all three games, which she began and ended with a traditional handshake with each opponent.
She praised the Bryant kids’ techniques.
“They are playing well,” she said, noting that the students weren’t afraid to attack. But she offered one helpful critique, suggesting that they need to work more on their game opening.
Mutesi said she never dreamed chess would take her so far.
As a child, she was forced to drop out of school when her family was unable to pay the required school fees. Thanks to a scholarship from Sports Outreach, she returned to school.
She’s already planning her next moves. Once she’s tackled the world of chess, she wants to attend medical school and become a pediatrician.
“In the slums,I saw kids suffering from diseases,” she said. When she becomes a doctor, she said, “I want to go back to my city.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635