Magazine article The New Yorker

Prodigy

Magazine article The New Yorker

Prodigy

Article excerpt

Phiona Mutesi, a teen-ager from Uganda, visited New York for the first time in December. She lives in Kampala, her country's capital, and until three years ago she'd never gone farther than the city's suburbs. But she is very good at chess--the word "prodigy" gets tossed around--which has since afforded her trips to Istanbul, Siberia, and most recently Greenwich Village. Her destination was the second floor of an old town house, home to the Marshall Chess Club, the only such institution in the city which has staved off the checkmate of declining enthusiasm and rising rents. (The club owns the building, and charges market rates for the apartments upstairs.) Kampala is one of the largest cities in East Africa, but it had not steeled Mutesi for Manhattan. "Too much noise," she said. Her chess coach, Robert Katende, who was also making his first trip to the city, had been struck by the landing at LaGuardia, which made him nervous in the same way it makes many people nervous: "We thought we were going into the lake."

Mutesi was visiting New York to promote "The Queen of Katwe," a new book about her life. In brief, her father died when she was three. At six, she dropped out of school. Eventually, she joined Katende's chess program, funded by a Christian missionary organization, because he gave out free food. She lost her first fifty matches. "Play more like a girl," Katende told her, by which he meant less recklessly, more sensibly. She did, and became, in the lingo of chess honorifics, the first Woman Candidate Master in Uganda.

Mutesi told her story at the club while wearing a white sweater, jeans, and shoes with flowers on the toes. Many of the chess players in attendance were holding copies of the November issue of the magazine Chess Life. She was on the cover, and they wanted her autograph. Others were more skeptical. "I mean, it's an inspirational thing, but she's not a real player," a man with long gray hair said, noting that, while he hadn't seen her play, Mutesi's results in top international competitions had been ordinary. "There's a couple of young girls here that could beat her for sure." He had more to say about himself. "I'm a living legend. I played with Bobby Fischer and Marcel Duchamp."

Had he ever beaten Bobby Fischer?

"Not often."

He gave his name. "Asa. A . . . S . . . A. I don't need a last name. You can Google me. …

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