Like pretty much everyone else who likes both chess and Disney movies, I've been captivated by Phiona Mutesi, the Ugandan chess player who is now known as the "Queen of Katwe." Tim Crothers' article for ESPN became a book in 2012, and is now a feel-good film with Disney backing.
After I read Crothers' book, I did what any responsible internet user would do: I Googled the crap out of Phiona Mutesi, because she's fascinating and I wanted to know more. I also read several reviews of both the movie and the book, and I was happy to see that other people find Phiona's story as captivating as I do.
I also noticed, however, that every party has a pooper. Among some internet commenters, it's de rigueur to bag on Phiona and to put her down by saying that she's "not really that good at chess." Fortunately, there aren't too many haters out there, but there is at least one on every comment thread I've seen so far. You don't have to go far to find a snarky remark about Phiona's chess rating or the fact that she is a "candidate master" and not a grandmaster. (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C.)
The first fashionable piece of Phiona-bashing I found dates from 2011, after Crothers published his very first article about Phiona Mutesi. The New York Times chess blog featured a post entitled, "ESPN Discovers a Chess Prodigy. Or Not." The author, Dylan Loeb McClain, questions Crothers' understanding of chess and compares Phiona with a young woman whom he considers to be a "true" prodigy. He acknowledges that Phiona's situation is different because of her more challenging background and her lack of access to training, but he also wants to make sure we know that Phiona isn't really that good.
More recently, in the wake of good press about the Queen of Katwe film, the conservative Daily Caller ran an opinion piece entitled, "The Media's Female African Chess 'Prodigy' Is Actually Nothing Of The Sort." In this piece, the author, Jonah Bennett, notes that he has interviewed several different grandmasters (all of whom wished to remain anonymous). One of these interviewees is quoted as saying, “Let me not mince words: by a purely objective standard, Phiona is not a strong chess player; she is equivalent to a weak-to-average club player (class C or B in the U.S.).” Another notes that a twelve-year-old student of his has a FIDE ranking of 1900—higher than Phiona's career peak in the 1600s.
Here is what I have to say to those self-appointed gatekeepers: SO WHAT? There is a reason that people think chess players are a bunch of snobs, and it's because people like you feel compelled to say that while Phiona's story is "heartwarming," she herself isn't anyone to be impressed with.
If you actually bother to read the book or watch the movie, you will see that no one ever claims Phiona is the best chess player in the world. Instead, she is presented as a determined player who learns something from every game, win or lose. That is a fantastic message. A twelve-year-old with a high FIDE rating is cool and all... but I want to know about the hardscrabble kid from the slums who refused to give up until she could buy her mother a house, and who wants to go to college to become a doctor.
I get that chess is a brutally competitive game and that hard-earned titles are a source of pride. Rightly so. But some things are more important than titles—things like a love of the game, like a focus on chess that goes beyond tired old narratives about the Cold War being played out on 64 squares. If we want our hobbies to thrive, we need to stop gatekeeping and start welcoming. And that includes not being petty enough to criticize the subject of the most inspirational chess story we've seen in a long time.
And to you, Phiona Mutesi, I say this: Hail to the Queen!