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Chess ‘Queen of Katwe’ visits RP

  • Students from the Chess Club for Kids organization play chess against Phiona Mutesi, who inspired the Disney movie, "Queen of Katwe" and Benjamin Mukumbya, both from Uganda. The event started with the showing of the movie "Queen of Katwe" and then 25 students played simul-play chess games against Phiona or Benjamin and after there was a photo and autograph session. The event was held on Saturday at the Senior Center. Jane Peleti

By: Katherine Minkiewicz and Grant Wetmore
August 18, 2017

The real life ‘Queen of Katwe,’ Phiona Mutesi, a chess champion and women candidate master of the World Chess Federation from Uganda and fellow chess player Benjamin Mukumbya, visited a crowd of around 30 local chess players of the Sonoma and Napa Chess for Kids nonprofit club on Saturday at the Rohnert Park Senior Center.

The afternoon-long event was held to raise money for both Mutesi and Mukumbya’s room and board fees for Northwest University in Washington, where they will be attending college on a full scholarship, according to Marc Hayman, lead instructor for Chess for Kids. The two chess champs’ instructor Robert Katende was also in attendance. 

While the scholarship covers their tuition, it however does not cover the cost of dorms, which is known to be expensive for Washington University’s and can reach an upwards of $8,000.

“They got a scholarship but that doesn’t pay for your room and board, the dorms are kind of expensive. So they’re making stops along the West Coast (to other similar fundraising benefits) until they get to Washington,” Hayman said. “And we’ve raised $2,800 dollars for them.”

Hayman said the Chess for Kids organization gave the two chess stars $2,000 and that the day’s event was able to raise another $800.

The event kicked off with Hayman welcoming students, all ranging from years as young as second grade and as old as eighth grade. Hayman was glad to announce the amount of funds the 15-year-old organization was able to raise and introduced the two-hour long screening of the movie, “Queen of Katwe.”

Walt Disney released the movie last year, starring Luptia Nyong’o, Madina Nalwanga and David Oyelowo and was based on the story of Mutesi who discovered chess while growing up in Katwe, a slum in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

At the age of nine, Mutesi dropped out of school after learning that her family could not afford to keep her in school. Afterwards, she started selling corn in the streets of Katwe in order to provide for her family.

It was then that she discovered Robert Katende’s developing chess program for young children in the slums based out of the Sports Outreach Institute.

Hayman said the goal of the event was not for the kids to win, but to just get the chance to play with the internationally known chess players and to create fond memories they can take with them for the rest of their lives.

“They’re excited about meeting the actual people and playing chess with them,” Hayman said, and when asked what the club hoped to accomplish during the event, he said, “(I hope) they have a good time and have a lot of fun and that they have a lifelong memory and of saying ‘oh I played these people.’ They’ll never forget this.” 

One Rohnert Park resident and parent Whitney Richter, said her two sons Austin and Travis, who have been playing chess for six years, were excited to have the chance to play and attend the day’s special event.

“They are very excited to see the kids the movie is based on and while they don’t practice a lot they do here at the Summer program with Chess for Kids… they started playing in the first grade,” Richter said of her two sons.

Before the two renowned players arrived at the Senior Center, kids were seen practicing on the over 25 chess boards available and set up over the expansive room prior to a pizza lunch being served after the screening of the movie.

Once Mutesi and Mukumbya arrived, according to an article in the Press Democrat, Mutesi addressed the crowd of young players and voiced a message of spreading hope through chess.

“Chess has given me a platform where I can speak and restore hope for people without hope,” she said at the event, as reported by the Democrat.

Rohnert Park Councilwoman Gina Belforte also made an appearance at the event around 12:45 and spoke to the kids and parents about the many benefits of chess.

“Chess really knows no boundaries”, Belforte said. “I’m looking at the table full of boys and girls from different families and backgrounds. What chess really does is really open up a child’s world into a very adult game.”

Before introducing the guests of honor, Hayman took some time to mention that some of their students wished to become chess instructors when they were older.

“We plant the seed, and it grows up to be a teacher”, Hayman said.

After introducing Robert, Phiona, and Benjamin, Hayman proceed to explain the rules of the event. Children were seated at 29 boards. Those seated at board numbers one to 14 would play against Phiona. The rest would face off against Benjamin. After making their moves, Phiona and Benjamin would move on to the next board. Children were not allowed to make their next move until their opponent returned to their board. 

Hayman then encouraged the parents to stay as it was a rare opportunity to watch their child play. During normal tournaments, parents are not allowed in the same room as their children when they are playing.

With the rules stated, the game was underway. The room grew silent as Phiona and Benjamin approached the tables. One by one, they shook hands and made their opening move.