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

Jonah Bennett, Daily Caller, September 22, 2016

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.).”

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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.

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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.

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