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A Child Of The Slums Becomes A 'Queen' Of Chess

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Phiona Mutesi is a teenager living in Katwe, the biggest and possibly toughest slum in Uganda's capital city. She's also a rising star in competitive chess.

Her story is told in the book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster.

But when she first started the game, Mutesi wasn't hungry for glory; she was just hungry. A local chapter of a Christian charity hosted a chess program, and it lured Mutesi, her brother and other children with the promise of a meal.

"Our family didn't have money, and we were yearning to get some food. We didn't have food at home," she tells NPR's Michel Martin. "My brother knew about chess, and he could go to the chess program to get a cup of porridge."

The kids in Katende's chess group were all struggling. "Almost 97 percent of the children don't go to school at all," says Mutesi's coach and mentor, Robert Katende. "When you're in a survival situation, the parents or guardians have to choose whether to waste their money on education or to find a way to feed the family."

Mutesi herself had never seen or heard of chess. There isn't even a word for it in her native language. But Katende says she was a natural talent. "She has a special — I call it — a gene." He also acknowledges that her difficult life in Katwe helped develop Mutesi's competitive streak. "I notice that she's very aggressive, because, you know, it's like, when you're determined."

Despite these obstacles, after this year's Chess Olympiad in Istanbul, Turkey, Mutesi qualified for an official World Chess Federation title: Woman Candidate Master.

Katende says Mutesi's success is an inspiration for everyone around her. "She's really transformed her entire family, because they have come to realize that they can make it in life, they have gained hope," he says. "So many children are now coming on the program, and they're optimistic that maybe one day they can also get out of the slum."

Mutesi says her dream is to conquer the world of chess and then make the world better for her community. "I want to be a grandmaster," she says, "and I want to be a doctor so I can help my family — and I want to help slum kids."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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