The Media’s Female African Chess ‘Prodigy’ Is Actually Nothing Of The Sort

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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The wider media has been quick to herald Phiona Mutesi a chess “prodigy.” She certainly faced odds, too: Born into poverty in Uganda, a young girl, learning and then competing in the world’s most competitive and ubiquitous board game. What are the odds? It’s a heart warming, underdog story. It even inspired a movie.

The only problem is it’s not really true.

The Disney movie “Queen of Katwe,” set for U.S. release Sept. 30, describes Mutesi’s meteoric rise from despair in the slums just outside Uganda’s capital to an international figure of prominence, indeed even a “Woman Candidate Master,” (WCM) on the chess scene. But the mythology surrounding her actual performance has reached such heights that chess grandmasters are coming out to weigh in.

They tell The Daily Caller News Foundation her chess performance is no better than an average club player, and that the award is essentially little more than symbolism.

As one grandmaster noted bluntly, “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.).”

Mutesi’s road to chess started in the Katwe area just outside Kampala, the capital, where she was born and grew up impoverished. In 2005, a 9-year-old Mutesi discovered chess after stumbling upon a sports program where she learned the game and met her mentor Robert Katende, who fine-tuned her skill.

By 2012, the World Chess Federation (FIDE) awarded Mutesi the WCM, the lowest-ranked title, following her performance in the 40th Chess Olympiad in Istanbul. Normally, the WCM title requires that recipients reach—at least once in their career—a rating of 2000, according to the FIDE title handbook.

Her Elo rating at the time was 1686, a massive gap from the required 2000, but it seems as though FIDE officials granted her the title based on her performance at Istanbul.

At the 2012 Olympiad, she won just a single match against a Korean rated 1542. She drew three times and also lost three times. That was enough to receive a WCM.

Since then, the media has inexplicably fawned over Mutesi.

A Jezebel piece from 2013 refers to Mutesi as a “chess whiz-kid.” When Bill Gates offered to play Mutesi, the author of the Jezebel story, Laura Beck, mused that Mutesi would wipe the floor with him.

“[S]he’s already earned the title of Woman Candidate Master (WCM) at just 16 years old, and is well on her way to Grand Master status — but hopefully she’ll indulge the old chap,” Beck wrote. It is not clear if the Gates game ever materialized.

Newsweek, the Associated Press and The Daily Beast all referred to her as a “chess prodigy.” The L.A. Weekly goes so far as to title its piece, “A Ugandan Grandmaster Emerges in Mira Nair’s Disney Charmer Queen of Katwe,” and says she exhibits the signs of a “budding grandmaster.”

Vogue describes her as an “international chess master.” Consequence of Sound states in a review of the movie, “At first Phiona seems like a slow learner, but over time she reveals the makings of another Bobby Fischer.”

Countless other stories in countless other outlets uncritically portray Mutesi as a resounding chess phenom. A long ESPN profile piece by Tim Crothers in 2011 states, “She is still so early in her learning curve that chess experts believe her potential is staggering.”

It isn’t, and they don’t.

“Phiona still dreams of becoming a grandmaster in chess, though she has hit a ceiling in Uganda because there is no coach qualified to train her to a higher level, a barrier that could be erased if she decides to study in the United States,” Crothers excused in The Guardian.

Her actual performance in the chess world shows these to be puff pieces with very little attention paid to empirical fact. Mutesi has no doubt achieved something as a young Ugandan girl living in poverty, to capture the attention of the world, but that something she accomplished is not being good at chess.

She achieved her highest chess rating in 2012, a 1686, as listed by FIDE. As of September 2016, her rating has dropped to 1622. FIDE lists that from the 40th Olympiad in 2012, to April 2016, she played a grand total of 39 matches and never scored above a 1686 rating.

Her rating has been in a near-linear decline since she began playing.

Now, compare Mutesi’s track record with that of Judit Polgar of Hungary, who is considered to be the best female chess player of all time, although she is now retired. Polgar achieved a rating of 2555 by the time she was just 12-years-old, which catapulted her to the rank of 55th in the world.

Mutesi’s current ranking out of all world registered players is 176,281. Out of all active registered players in the world, her ranking is 91,051. Even among all female active players, her ranking is similarly unremarkable: 5,422.

Were one to reduce the metric down to just the nationally registered females of Uganda, her rating is still third.

TheDCNF spoke with five chess grandmasters on the subject of Mutesi’s game performance, title and reputation. All of them agreed that her performance is nowhere remotely close the level of “prodigy,” though they emphasized her story itself is still incredibly inspirational.

One grandmaster, who elected to remain anonymous, noted that the media’s use of blown-up titles like “master” or “champion” reflect little understanding of the game and the level of talent required to achieve those titles.

“I think most of the sensational titles like ‘master’ or ‘champion’ come from individuals who are not fully acquainted with the facts, and who do not have an understanding of what rating means and do not appreciate the fact that titles (both tournament victories and FIDE titles) are hard-earned and are not subject to flexibility,” the grandmaster told TheDCNF.

“I would strongly disagree with the widely-accepted categorization of Phiona as a chess prodigy; what she’s done obviously requires talent and is incredibly admirable, but my honest opinion is that the label of ‘prodigy’ is plain wrong.”

The grandmaster surmised that FIDE decided to give her the title based on her 2012 performance in Istanbul and also because of her background story.

“[I]n Phiona’s case, my guess is that FIDE awarded the title based not only on her individual performance, but on her general story.”

“Obviously, even the most magnanimous FIDE officer could hardly deem Phiona worthy of an honorary title, but this comes to show that it is not totally unprecedented for FIDE to award such titles,” he said.

This grandmaster added that even though she’s by no means an exceptional player, the movie itself was “truly heartwarming.”

A second grandmaster told TheDCNF that while Mutesi achieved the title of WCM by obtaining 50 percent in the 2012 Olympiad, the rule is somewhat odd.

“As you can see, obtaining 50% in the Olympiad is enough for a WCM title,” the second grandmaster said. “Does this rule make sense? I don’t really know. Probably not. The WCM title is relatively new and so weak that it is largely overlooked. On the other hand, look how it has bolstered her, and other WCMs, ability to find sponsorship, recognition, and the country has something to be proud of.”

Moving on to the question of Mutesi’s rating, this second grandmaster noted that she couldn’t be considered an international prodigy by any “stretch of the imagination.”

“Maybe it’s the fact that she came out of extreme poverty that is the true story, and it is truly commendable that she can reach such a level when the thoughts of her family were how to have a roof over their heads,” he added. “With all that being said, she is in no way shape or form an international chess prodigy. For a twenty year old girl, her rating would already have to be 2500 to be considered exceptional, 2400 to be quite good, and anything less wouldn’t turn anyone’s head.”

A third grandmaster noted that even his own 12-year-old student in Washington, D.C., has a rating of 1900.

“Why do they call her a ‘prodigy’? I do not know!” he said.

Regarding the title of WCM, he added that FIDE has made it easy to earn on purpose.

“These titles are bestowed by FIDE and they have re-regulated their rules to make them easier to earn. This is an incentive for those countries who are young and under-developed with regard to chess history or culture.”

Grandmaster Nigel Short, known for some of his more controversial comments in the past regarding female accomplishment in chess, said he had “absolutely no desire whatsoever to belittle Phiona’s accomplishments.”

“I am very much looking forward to seeing this film,” he said. “I think it is a very uplifting story. She grew up in very difficult circumstances. However, the fact of the matter is that there are 91,050 players in front of her on the world ranking list … Perhaps some perspective is required.”

Although her performance on the international level is not noteworthy, she has done fairly well in Uganda. As of 2012, she was a three-time women’s chess champion in Uganda. In 2013, she won the trophy for the Uganda National Junior Chess Championship.

FIDE did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Caller News Foundation on its decision to award the title of WCM to Mutesi.

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Jonah Bennett