When I found out that Disney was about to release a movie about a girl who plays chess, I was very excited. Who doesn't love a good heartwarming movie? And one about chess, to boot? Since the movie isn't out yet, I decided to read the book: Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers. I have only said this about The Godfather before now, but... I think I will like the movie better.
I will be real with you: The book itself is not written very well. The beginning is super jumpy, and it takes forever for us to be introduced to our young chess enthusiast. I think the book should have started with Phiona, rather than with full descriptions of the lives of several people connected with her. I also would have loved to see much more in-depth discussion of Phiona's chess playing and her place in the chess world. I am glad I had some gift card credit, because $11.99 is a lot of money for 200 pages, a large chunk of which aren't even about Phiona.
But if you can navigate through those choppy waters, you will find a very interesting story. Phiona Mutesi has grown up in Uganda in such crushing poverty that she is not able to eat every day, much less afford to go to school. However, she becomes so captivated by the game of chess that it changes her life and eventually her circumstances. Phiona has no understanding of formal chess theory and no training beyond her Ugandan coach and teammates, and yet she is able to put up strong performances at international events in Sudan and later in Russia. Sure, she loses to other players who have more experience and better training, but she is smart enough to figure out mistakes on her own without the formal education from which those other players have benefitted.
Today, Phiona is thriving. She is going to school and has dreams of working as a doctor and of becoming a chess grandmaster. Phiona's talent has also brought tremendous hope to her family and to her community. I have no idea how Phiona's chess game has developed since the book was written, but I would love an update. Has access to new resources allowed her to improve her play? Did that game with Bill Gates ever really happen? More importantly, how did she do with Kasparov the other day?
One thing I can say for the book is that it's honest: Phiona is a talented chess player, but because of her circumstances, it's not clear whether she will have the opportunity or access that she will need to fully blossom. (Uganda cannot consistently afford to support a women's chess team at international events.) Hopefully, the publicity from The Queen of Katwe, both the book and the film, will give her the boost she needs. But no matter what, her story is inspirational: Phiona Mutesi proves that young girls can be brilliant and determined, that they can dream, no matter where they come from.
What do you do when you can't play as many board games as you'd like? You read about them! (At least, that's what I've been doing.) Here is a roundup of a few books about gaming that I've enjoyed during my adventure in Rome.
1) The Immortal Game: A History of Chess by David Shenk
In this book, Shenk has created a mashup of family history, chess history, and his personal experiences as a new chess player trying to fall in love with the game. His final product is an exuberant and informative work that gave me tons of ideas for what to read next. (Did you know that medieval romances often include scenes where the lovers play each other at chess? Or that Napoleon played on a fancy chessboard while in exile, never knowing it contained a secret plan for his escape? OMG!) Although Shenk sometimes overstates the social influence and interpretation of chess—at least in the eyes of a skeptical historian like me—his book is an excellent pleasure read that helped rekindle my own interest in chess. I may break my dusty old board out when I get home.
2) The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon
I personally hate playing Monopoly. Fortunately, the history of the game is far more interesting than the game itself. Apparently the true inventor of the game didn't receive full credit for her brainchild until long after her death, and before Parker Brothers got ahold of the title, the game was popular among liberals and anti-Monopolists who never expected the game to become a game company's goldmine. This book taught me a lot about games as social messages, as well as about intellectual property and patent law in the United States. Definitely worth a read for both gamers and people who are interested in American social history.
3) Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David Ewalt
I hate to say it, but this book disappointed me. I am very interested in the history of D&D and in roleplaying games generally, but Of Dice and Men is bloated with the author's descriptions of his own campaigns, obsessions, and insecurities about being an avid D&D player. I often found myself skipping over his personal stories in search of the next history section, and I would then find the historical sections to be a little bit thin. I would have especially liked to see a more insightful analysis of D&D and the Satanic Panic, which I remember because my grandparents used to warn me never to play the game lest I make contact with actual demons. I'll definitely be on the lookout for a deeper meditation on what I consider to be one of the most important games ever made.
If you have any good suggestions for books about gaming, please feel free to leave me a comment!